Tag Archives: slavery
While at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, I’ve had the chance to visit the slave burial grounds at nearby Sweet Briar College. Over the years that I’ve been coming to the VCCA to write, I became aware of the grounds and was happy to learn that they were being preserved. Sweet Briar College was once a plantation and dozens of enslaved people are buried there. Thanks to the work of a team of preservationists headed by Dr. Lynn Rainville, these grounds are safe from disappearing and another descendant is closer to finding their ancestor.
Rainville, a research anthropologist and historian at Sweet Briar College, received a grant earlier this year from the National Endowment for the Humanities to develop the African American Family Database. The project is a model for researching African-American families from antebellum to post-bellum times and when completed will help descendants find their enslaved ancestors.
Not only is this newspaper article about my talented great-aunt Tempe Stuart a point of pride for this woman who would go on to make her living teaching and performing music, but it’s also full of information that I didn’t know about my paternal family’s ancestral home, Ocean Springs, Mississippi. I want to thank my friend, Shannon, for bringing the article to my attention.*
The article states that Tempe Stuart’s dad, Alfred was among the wealthiest colored men in the town, supplying its residents with milk. (Not bad for a man born a slave at the end of the Civil War). At also says that this small Gulf Coast town had about 120 “colored” families and over two-thirds of them owned their homes. That number has to break some kind of record for black homeowners in the south during that time, just a little over 30 years after the end of slavery. Oceanspringsarchives.net contends that the number of black residents was even higher than the article suggests with 331 compared with 925 white residents, citing the federal census as the source. So, in 190o, roughly one-quarter of Ocean Springs residents were blacks and 2/3 of those blacks owned their homes. According to US Census data from 2000, Ocean Springs now has a population of about 17,000 people and about 1200 of its residents are black. About 72 percent of all residents own their homes.
I wonder what made Ocean Springs so conducive to property ownership for former slaves and their families?
(*I’ve gotten so used to Shannon forwarding me amazing newspaper articles about my family, that I neglected to thank her in my original post, so the asterisk refers to updated information.)
Ever since my cousin, Monique and I returned from our trip down to Ocean Springs, Mississippi to do some ancestry research, I’ve been thinking about all the property my ancestors accumulated and then lost.
It was a source of inspiration to me that my great, great-grandmother, Tempy Burton who had been a slave and could not read or write purchased an acre of land in Ocean Springs, Mississippi in 1887. It never even occurred to us that she had owned her own property. We always assumed that she lived with her former masters, Col. W.R. Stuart and his wife, Elizabeth McCauley Stuart after she was emancipated until she died in 1925 at the age of 104. Indeed, Tempy was listed living with Elizabeth on the 1900 census. But turns out she bought property of her own. The way we found what was known as “Tempy Burton’s Lot” in the Jackson County Archives was as surprising as the fact that she was a homeowner.
Archive Assistant, Linda Cooper was helping me look through the massive deed books for Josephine Ford’s property. (The books are so big, Linda needed another person to hold the book whenever she made a copy of a page). Monique was trying to keep her mind off her hunger (it was about 3 or 4 in the afternoon and we hadn’t even eaten breakfast yet) so she was randomly browsing through indexes, looking for any familiar names. That’s when she yelled to me from across the office. She’d found Tempy Burton in an index for land owners in 1889.
With a trip to the Jackson County Chancery Court office around the corner from the Archives, we found that Tempy paid $60 for her acre of property. (Deed Book 9, p. 395) She would later convey some of this land to my great-grandmother, Josephine and another daughter, Violet Matthews Battle for a dollar each.(Deed Book 45, p. 304 & 305) Not only was Tempy a landowner, but she made sure her daughters were too. As we continued digging through the land rolls in the Jackson County Archives, we found that all of these properties were lost to tax debt decades later. It bummed me out that a later generation of my family had lost something so precious, land acquired by their slave ancestor.
Driving around town earlier in the day, we’d come across a lot owned by Monique’s great-grandmother, Tempy Elizabeth Stuart. The lot was for sale. At the time, we didn’t know about Tempy’s lot and how her younger generations had lost it. Can’t help but wonder if it’s still for sale…
Google is the gift that keeps on giving.
After finding out that a Dr. Stirling owned some of my great, great-grandmother Tempy’s relatives, I punched his name and a few other facts into the search engine and was thrilled when a collection of papers popped up.
According to the inventory of this special collection at the Louisiana State University, the Lewis Stirling family papers have a plethora of information on the family’s slaves including everything from a register of slaves to itemized lists of clothing and shoes handed out to those in bondage.
This weekend, I spent a day at Princeton University’s Firestone library where a copy of the papers is also stored and after many hours, I had barely scratched the surface of the five microfilm reels archiving this family’s antebellum years. Even though I haven’t gotten to the info I’m looking for, the Stirling papers make for fascinating reading. All of the wills I’ve read so far stipulate that slave families are not to be separated (which makes me wonder why my great, great-grandmother got separated from her mother, siblings and aunt). And in a three page contract with an overseer, one Stirling slave owner goes to pains to explain exactly how slaves should be disciplined (never with more than a dozen stripes and never with the butt end of the whip) and that the owner should be called if the overseer thinks they’ve done something to merit harsher treatment.
Can’t wait to see what other insights the Stirling Family Papers hold.
“I desire to find my people.” That’s how my great, great-grandmother Tempy Burton begins her June 4, 1891 ad in the Southwestern Christian Advocate. Known simply as the Southwestern, this paper was started in 1877 and covered the African Methodist Episcopal community. Like Tempy, I come from the AME tradition. I was baptized in the AME church where my father is now an ordained minister. Also like Tempy, I desire to find my people. That desire led me to my cousin Monique who I met via email a year ago on June 3, just shy of the anniversary of Tempy’s ad. Great minds think alike because initially, Monique thought we should put an ad in an Ocean Springs, Mississippi paper where our people are from with the headline “Looking for the Burtons.” But we figured a blog was cheaper with a farther reach, so Finding Josephine was born. Thanks to the Southwestern and a good Samaritan named Shannon, we all found our people.
The Southwestern ad appeared in a column called “Lost Friends” which helped former slaves find their lost family, separated by slavery. Tempy’s humble, heartfelt petition names her mother, Eliza Burton, her sisters, Nancy, Polly and Liberia Burton, a brother, Albert Burton, and two aunts, Peggie Manrow and Bettie Matthews.
I’ve clung to the hope that I would be able to take my research back another generation and find Tempy’s parents, but I knew the chances were slim. Like Tempy, her parents would inevitably be slaves whose names and places of birth were a mystery to me. If I did find either of them, I figured it would come way down the research road when my kids were older and I could steal a few days to take a genealogy jaunt to North Carolina where Tempy’s owners come from. Even then, they would only turn up after many sweaty afternoons in the bowels of a municipal office, bent over ancient, dusty deed books or wills. (I can hear all you genealogy junkies out there getting excited just at the thought!) But instead, with one email from a woman I’ve never met who loves historic newspapers, impassioned pleas, and combing the AfriGeneas African-American genealogy website, I’ve reclaimed an entire generation of my enslaved ancestors: A third great-grandmother, two third great aunts, three great, great-aunts, and a great, great-uncle. Now, I even know the names of the people who owned this earlier generation of my Burton family. The ad said, “My mother, sister Nancy, Bro. Albert, aunt Bettie, and aunt Peggy lived on the same plantation and belonged to Dr. Sterling’s people. Liberia and Polly belonged to Dr. Robert Hilyard. Liberia was salivated when a child. I left them in Attakapas, La.” (So there is still a dusty records office somewhere in Louisiana in my future where I will be looking for Drs. Sterling and Hilyard and deciphering the meaning of “salivated.”)
I barely dared to believe I’d find Tempy’s parents. But I never imagined I’d read Tempy’s personal thoughts in print. A slave until she was in her 40s, Tempy never learned how to read or write. (A 1900 census states she could do neither). But someone (probably her son, Alfred or daughter Josephine who lived near their mom in Ocean Springs, Mississippi) carefully wrote her petition and sent it to the Southwestern. And Shannon, 120 years later, struck by Tempy’s quest, took a chance, checked out the AfriGeneas message boards to see if anyone today was looking for her the way she looked for her people back then.
And here we are.
The treasure for me is not only that I now know the names of my great, great-grandmother Tempy’s mother, siblings, and aunts but that the kindness of strangers that keeps raining down on me on this journey has helped me make a new friend. She needs her own post, so I’ll tell you about Shannon and how she found Tempy’s ad through the New England Historic Genealogical Society next time. Until then, here’s Tempy’s ad and the follow-up:
Southwestern Christian Advocate – June 4, 1891:
I desire to find my people. Mother’s name was Eliza Burton, sisters, Nancy, Pally, and Liberia Burton. I had a brother Albert Burton who died, and two aunts, Peggie Manrow and Bettie Matthews. My mother, sister Nancy, Bro. Albert, aunt Bettie, and aunt Peggy lived on the same plantation and belonged to Dr. Sterling’s people. Liberia and Polly belonged to Dr. Robert Hilyard. Liberia was salivated when a child. I left them in Attakapas, La. Any information concerning them will be thankfully received. Address Mrs. Tempy Burton, Ocean Springs, Miss., care W.R. Stewart, Esq.
Southwestern Christian Advocate – August 13, 1891:
Dr. A.E.P. Albert:
Dear Brother: The Southwestern has been the means of the recovery of my sister, Mrs. Polly Woodfork and eight children. I owe my joy to God and the SOUTHWESTERN, and wish the editor success in getting 1,000 cash subscribers in the next thirty days. I will do all in my power to get all the subscribers I can. God bless Dr. Albert and crown him with success. Mrs. Tempy Burton
*My new friend’s name is Shannon, not Sharon as I initially wrote. All the euphoria over the find clouded my brain. Sorry Shannon!
In the past year, I’ve often wondered just how big a slave owner was my second great-grandfather, Col. W.R. Stuart and just how much property did he amass. To my mind, the fewer slaves he owned, the easier it might be for me to accept him as just a product of his times when slave-ownership was not extraordinary. But receipts I’ve gathered for thousands of dollars he donated to the Confederates and the above advertisement found this weekend on genealogybank.com by a friend make it crystal clear. He was a serious slave owner with a lot of property. Less a product of his time and more someone who helped shape the times.
This January 1853 ad from the Times Picayune says he owned at least “fifty acclimated Negroes.” I’m afraid to even know what “acclimated” means. I assume it just means the slaves are used to picking cotton in the Baton Rouge heat and humidity. And those one thousand “arpents” the ad mentions equal 850 acres. Arpent is an old French unit of land used in French parts of Canada and the US equal to .85 acres. Between the land he cultivated and the slaves he owned to work his land, Col. W. R. Stuart became a wealthy man.
As Marvin Gaye said, make me wanna holler.