When I was a small child, there was an old woman I remember seeing when we visited my grandfather’s house on the Southside of Chicago. She was extremely quiet, very tall (although slumped with age), with light brown skin and braided hair. My mother told me she was more than 100 years old.
It was not until I was a grown woman that I realized who “that woman” was… Rhody Leslie, my father’s grandmother. She migrated to Chicago in 1939 to live with her sons, Tommie Joe and Robert (my grandfather), after her husband of 67 years died in Alabama. When she passed away in 1954, at age 104, I was three years old. Too young to ever have a conversation with her, I do not even remember attending her funeral. And, until I became an adult, I had no idea that Rhody had been enslaved – along with her husband and mother. Those in my family who knew her well say I remind them of her. A regal six feet tall, she smoked a pipe, swallowed an aspirin and downed a shot of whiskey each and every day.
In retrospect, I credit Rhody for inspiring me to become a genealogist.
My father left Alabama when he was a child (sometime around 1922). He seldom talked about his childhood and never went back to his birthplace on Ripley Street in Montgomery, Alabama. After years of prodding, he eventually gave me the key that unlocked the mysteries of our family origins. He told me that Rhody, her mother (Easter), and her husband (Tom), left slavery together from Lowndes County, Alabama.
For my entire adult life, I have been on a relentless quest to uncover every bit of information I can find about Rhody, Tom and Easter. I want to vicariously enter their lives… discover their personalities… witness the hardships they endured …. delve into the very essence of their beings. They were, after all, my great grandparents; blood of my blood. I have a compelling need to honor them by telling their story.
Rhoda could neither read nor write. She would thus have been unable to confirm or contest any of the notations in the sparse historical records that mention her name. On that note, it never ceases to amaze me how scrupulous record takers were in keeping (or not) documentation that confirms the existence of African Americans like Rhody. I can’t help but believe they purposefully obscured the past so people like me would never be able to piece together the details of our holocaust.
These days, having gotten involved with Coming to the Table, I am frustrated because I cannot find a slaveholder descendant who is directly connected to my family. I have been all around the proverbial bush and my best result has been an unrelated white man in Tennessee whose ancestor was married to the niece of the man I believe enslaved Tom’s mother. Then, there is the white Leslie descendant who submitted to a DNA test because I thought his ancestor was Tom’s father (no prize). I suppose I should take solace in the discovery of several relatives who were raised as white and had no idea of their black blood — with whom I am now conjoined. But where is the “father lode”?!!
Pondering the thought that my personal connection to slavery ended less than 60 years ago, I remain viscerally and painfully chained to its blight. Being the one in my family who remembers, I am on a mission to make sure that no one else forgets.
Sharon Leslie Morgan is the founder of OurBlackAncestry.com, a website dedicated to African American family research. She is co-author of Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade (Beacon Press, 2012). This blog expresses the views of the author and should not be attributed to Coming to the Table or any other associated activity.