My great grandfather, Jeremiah Turner (1840-1917), was born in slavery. Our family history explained ‘Jery’ was the slave son of Squire Turner (1793-1871), of Richmond, Kentucky. Jeremiah Turner was assuredly Squire Turner’s property when, in 1864, he made a bid for freedom, by joining the 12th Heavy Artillery Regiment of the United States Colored Troops. Even following his discharge at war’s end, his depositor’s record in the Freedman’s bank (right), listed his master.
Inspiration for this, my first blog post, came in two ways. It first arrived by way of Roger David Hardesty, who had been researching a noted pro-slavery advocate, his great-granduncle, the above Squire Turner. My other inspiration came from my Genealogy Instructor, Robin Bonaventura, Director of Dunham Recreation. Robin and I talked on many occasions about this post: she knew how badly I was struggling with writing for the “BitterSweet” group.
In one of my genealogy classes, Robin suggested that I listen to a new song, “A Little Bit of Me.” Robin searched and found a video of Melissa Ethridge performing it. After listening to the lyrics, I was so inspired that I began writing. While putting my thoughts to words, it felt as though this was my first day in school. All of my thoughts, worry and nerves said, “Hello Ardis!” … all at the same time. While in class on Mondays, instead of doing family research on the computers, Robin allowed me to draft this post. Being a part of my class, while I wrote, was a big help. All of the class members offered suggestions and comments to greater inspire my effort.
Here is my story:
For years – as far back as I can remember – my Daddy, George Jerry Turner (1920-2001), often told my brothers and I stories about Jeremiah Turner, the Civil War, and Squire Turner. I imagined meeting the slave owners of my Turner family. I often wondered about the reception I would receive when introducing myself. I could hear myself say, “Hi, I am your family.”
I wanted to one day meet this family. My parents taught us, “Never judge a person by his color. Judge them by how they treat you.” With this teaching, I felt equal to any race or person; especially when there was so much mixing of my bloodlines. My lineage includes Seminole Indian, European, Irish, and – on my Mom’s side – Shawnee Indian. I was excited to be a part of something much bigger than my personal history. I remember talking with my Mom, on one of those rare occasions when she shared a little family history. She mentioned Blackfeet Indians but, in searching, I believe she was referring to the noted Shawnee Chief, Black Hoof, who hunted in Kentucky.
As a young child in Richmond, Kentucky, I did not know the seriousness of making this kind of introduction. But, as I matured, I began to realize how dangerous and how badly a meeting with descendants of my slave-owning ancestors could go. As a married adult living in Ohio, I eventually understood Cincinnati was just as prejudiced as Richmond: the exception seemed to be that, in Cincy, the shackles were invisible until you over stepped the boundaries. There are things you just can’t see coming.
In 1991, my oldest son and his brother went to the store. It was not late, but it was dark. After an hour, I became worried because they still had not returned home. About thirty minutes later my sons came in the house, all excited about being watched and approached by Cincinnati police. They had been in the parking lot of a little convenience store, but they were too close to an area called Bridgetown (about ten minutes from our home) and a pair of black men in a nice car. An officer had said my oldest looked like a suspect in a robbery that had happened a couple of weeks earlier. My son showed him a Tuskegee Parking sticker on his car, and his Tuskegee student identification. Two weeks before, my son had been in Alabama, attending Tuskegee University. The officer chose to let my boys continue on to our home.
With this experience adding to fears brought on by many other acts of prejudice, the thought of meeting any white family of the slave owner Squire Turner became a mere flicker of my dream. Still, it did not stop me from searching.
After years of postings and queries on numerous genealogy sites – in 2011 – a lady named Martha Schlosser, in Lees Summit, Missouri, found a post of mine about Squire Turner. Third cousins Martha and Dave Hardesty had already found each other through their own, online family searches. Within hours of Martha’s informing him, I received a call from Dave.
This was the call that changed everything for me.
The time had arrived, when I would tell a member of the slave owner’s family, that I am also in that family. To my surprise, my nerves began to grow. Just the thought frightened me. All of my young adult fears stared me in the face. The call went well, though. Many phone conversations and many questions later, I knew I had to face these fears in person, to actually meet a family member of those who had been slave owners and blood kin to my Jeremiah Turner. I was now the elder, the one telling family history stories to my sons, nieces, nephews and grandchildren.
By 2012, Dave, Martha and I had grown close. We claimed each other as cousins; but claiming is one thing; being cousins is a whole other universe. Dave and Martha were very nice, but now all those childhood imaginings threatened to become real: Dave and his wife were planning month-long summer travel plans. They would spend a couple of days in Cincinnati. We would meet for the first time.
Here I was, at a door I had often thought of as I was growing into adulthood. Dave and his wife invited me to lunch at their hotel. I was very excited. My sons were excited for me; I had already welcomed Dave to our family, but I was very nervous about our first meeting … actually afraid.
After arriving at the Netherland Plaza, Dave’s wife came down to get me with a great big hug. Her beautiful personality, smile, and soul took some of my nervousness away as we went up to their suite. When I first saw Dave, he had this big smile on his face along with a big hug. I was surprised as to how familiar it all felt: I was not meeting a stranger, I was meeting a family member for the first time. It soon felt like I had known Dave all of my life as we talked, getting to know one another on a new level. All of the nerves vanished.
At the Coming to the Table facebook page, on December 17, 2014 at 10:39 am, Dave responded to a young man named Kenneth Dillon Dixon, about slave owners and their black offspring in his family. Dave’s reply was:
“I cannot tell what stems from my white privilege and what arises from simple self-centeredness. But I can tell you that, after a first few tentative moments spent fearing rejection upon meeting cousin Ardis, I was exuberant. I said I was glad to have her as part of my family.
Meek Ardis paused, and retorted: “I thought you were becoming part of MY family.”
I got it. Over the years, I’ve probably over-thought things. But I can trace that – even in my Liberalism – I may still contain certain unacknowledged assumptions about ownership. Can supremacy still remain a premise in how I view opportunities to accept my fellows on equal terms? Just for today, I’m trying to own my part in things.”
I then replied to Dave’s comment, saying, “This story always leaves me smiling.” This will be one of the new stories I tell my family and grandchildren. Cousin Martha soon posted, “I claim Ardis and Roger David Hardesty as my cousins as well. Thank you all for providing this meeting place.”
I hope my story will give courage to everyone … to seek and join families forged in slavery. We Are All ‘A Little Bit Of Me, In A Little Bit Of You.’ Now, I will not say every inquiry will be the same as Dave and I experienced, but do not let that hinder you; you just might be surprised.
Here are the lyrics to Melissa Ethridge’s song, ‘A Little Bit of Me.’