Moved to Tears

Eva Robinson Taylor, courtesy Gayle  Jessup White
Eva Robinson Taylor, courtesy Gayle Jessup White

When I read Gayle Jessup White’s essay in a recent post on “The Root,” I had such strong identification with it that I was moved to tears:

Like most African Americans, oral history is my primary source for deep family roots. There are no birth certificates, marriage licenses or census records. Our great-great grandmothers, great-great grandfathers, aunts, uncles and cousins were items on manifests, bills of sale and plantation ledgers. Sometimes, our forefathers or their families owned our foremothers. This was apparently the case in my family. But I wasn’t to learn that for decades.

Like White, my forefather owned my foremother.  This oral history handed down in my family was confirmed working with my linked descendants.  It wasn’t so much the evidence as the experience of working with my linked descendants to uncover our shared history that was so meaningful to me as White so eloquently conveys. Click here to read White’s full essay.

Part I: Facing Slavery and Finding Amanda

This post is the first of three pieces on 1) how I discovered slavery in my heritage, specifically focusing on a woman named Amanda owned by my ancestor Thomas Jackson and his second wife Courtney Robertson; 2) what more that official county records tell us about Amanda’s life of enslavement and release; and 3) how I found and met one of her great great granddaughters in 1982, my first “linked descendant.”

*      *     *

Over thirty years ago, for my first sabbatical I set out to study pioneer women’s lives in Randolph County, Missouri. Having required my students to do extensive family history projects in a class on “The Social History of American Women,” I thought I should spend some time pursuing my own.  I was born in Missouri but we moved to California when I was eight and never went back, but still wondered about that place.  Because I was interested in genealogy, when my Grandma Neel died, I inherited her shoebox filled with locks of baby hair, letters, and obituaries so I knew the names of several generations of her people who lived in Randolph County. I wanted to know who these people were and what their lives were like.  I was particularly intrigued by the detail in the obituary of Courtney Robinson Jackson, my grandmother’s great grandmother who died from complications from a fall at  “74 years, 9 months and 20 days.”

In the course of examining the U.S. Censuses of Randolph County from the 1830s to 1870s, I was shocked to find out that ancestors of mine in this region of Missouri (which I soon learned was known as “Little Dixie” — hello!) had owned slaves – not on the order of Thomas Jefferson’s hundreds – but some of my ancestors in that time and place did own slaves, more on the order of five, ten, or fifteen people.  These particular ancestors were typical of white farming families in the upper South and Southern Midwest. Slaveholding for them was part of daily life, a legally sanctioned way to satisfy their labor needs in the effort to survive and “get ahead,” to make a yearly profit, and to accumulate even more property in a capitalist economy.  Slaveholding came with age and a modicum of “success” in large portions of this white dominated nation during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Continue reading “Part I: Facing Slavery and Finding Amanda”

Up in Smoke: Slavery Researchers Pained Over Burning of Historical Records

January 9, 2014

(Post first written on January 4, 2014)

I am fighting back tears and my stomach is in knots. Most people probably wouldn’t have a physical reaction like this upon learning that 100 boxes of old official documents dating from 1840 and languishing in a county courthouse basement in Franklin County, North Carolina were destroyed beginning December 6, 2013, but I do.  They were incinerated at an Animal Pound no less.  Reportedly, it took the whole weekend and a lot of fuel to burn through all the leather bindings.  It also took more than $7,000 taxpayer dollars. I have this pained reaction because historical records are a passion of mine.  They helped me find many of my enslaved ancestors.  As a sort of obsessed family historian, I have driven far distances to research in ancestral towns and spent days in the backrooms and basements of courthouses.  I’ve combed through fragile 200-year old documents and I initiated a project in western Kentucky to try unfold and better preserve records still folded into small bundles like these burned in Franklin County.

Continue reading “Up in Smoke: Slavery Researchers Pained Over Burning of Historical Records”

Up in Smoke: Slavery Researchers Decry Burning of Historical Records

New Post

(Post first written on January 4, 2014)

I am fighting back tears and my stomach is in knots. Most people probably wouldn’t have a physical reaction like this upon learning that 100 boxes of historical documents in Franklin County, North Carolina dating from 1840 were destroyed, but I do.  They were incinerated at an Animal Pound no less.  Reportedly, it took the whole weekend and a lot of fuel to burn these records.  It also took more than $7,000 taxpayer dollars. I have this pained reaction because historical records are a passion of mine.  They helped me find many of my enslaved ancestors.  As a sort of obsessed family historian, for years I have driven far distances to research in ancestral towns and spent days in the backrooms and basements of courthouses.  I’ve combed through fragile 200-year old documents.  I even initiated a volunteer project in western Kentucky to try and unfold and better preserve records still folded into small bundles, like these burned in Franklin County.  Folds in old documents often wears away the fibers in the paper.

Continue reading “Up in Smoke: Slavery Researchers Decry Burning of Historical Records”