Part 1 – Finding the House, Looking for the People
At the Telling the History of Slavery conference, the woman I sat next to looked to be about my age, and like most of the attendees, not someone I knew. We introduced ourselves before the speakers began, and at the first break, shared more information. Something about the same way we each dealt with the question “where are you from?” alerted me to listen more carefully. As my neighbor listed the countries she had lived in as a child, “Burma” rang all the bells. “Alice! Alice Cannon! Are you Alice Purnell who lived next door to me in Rangoon?” She is. Our families were next door neighbors when Alice’s and my fathers worked for the American Embassy in Rangoon, Burma, in the early ‘50’s. We were very small then, but we could remember our cats who were siblings, our shared disaster with the bees in the hedge, and our study partnership in Miss Gevney’s one-room American school. Alice is an only child, but she remembered my little brother, too.
As our car turns down the lane, I flash back to Mom in the driver’s seat, the blue Nissan van idling beneath us as we wait for the yellow behemoth of a school bus to mount the hill in the sunrise hour. It’s too far to walk to catch the bus, so Mom drops us off and picks us up each day.
Then, we drive past the entrance to the first plantation house, I think of my cousin Lauren and Dad trimming the boxwoods there. I see the carriage pulling up front, a woman in long skirts stepping out, dismay at her isolation etched into the corners of her mouth. She is white. Behind her, six people step out of the back of a wagon, pulling down trunks and flour, much more than dismay in their eyes. They are black.
How exciting, remarkable and inspiring! At last, truth is told, hidden history is brought to the fore, and people, whose lives and work were invisible, are seen. The past is not sugarcoated, the depths of the sin of slavery are out in the open. Perhaps this is a stimulus for serious, wide-spread conversation about the living legacy of slavery that burdens this country. I wanted to jump on a plane, fly to New Orleans, and visit Whitney Plantation immediately. I wanted to walk on the ground of this bold institution right now.
Joyceann Gray, Monique Crippen-Hopkins and Sarah Brown are “linked through slavery”. Joyceann and Monique’s ancestors were enslaved by Sarah’s ancestors, the Washington family. When Sarah published her most recent post, about her connection with Monique’s family, Joyceann spoke out about her feelings about the piece. The three of them decided that the Facebook dialogue that followed was important, and would be valuable as a post of its own.
My family sold their plantation, Claymont (or Claymont Court) in Jefferson County, West Virginia in the wake of the Civil War, and headed west around 1905 to start over. An archive of wills, inventories and letters remained with them. I tell the story of these papers and how they initiated my search for linked descendants in Part One of this post. From these papers I made a spreadsheet to help me visualize the slave population on my family’s plantations, and used it to explore the many answers to the one enormous question that arose; who were the individuals my ancestors regarded as property, visible only as shadows on inherited sheets of paper?
This is the final post in my series of three on the connection of my father’s family to slavery —a 110-year legacy— and my search for African American descendants whose ancestors toiled on my family’s plantations in South Carolina. This post takes us to the Civil War and my 5th great grandfather, James C. Furman. Like his father before him, he was a slave owner, Baptist minister and educator. Along the way, I have had the help of genealogist Sharon Morgan and Trina Roach, a recently revealed linked descendant. Sharon helped guide me through the murky records of the censuses and other on-line research. Trina provided me with irrefutable evidence —by way of a 1916 article in a local Sumter County, South Carolina, newspaper—that some of her ancestors were owned by mine. Trina found me online through Sharon’s website, Our Black Ancestry, which links to the BitterSweet: Linked Through Slavery blog. She also provided me with information about her family from the 1870s, as well as other materials, which she has graciously allowed me to use in this post. I thank both Sharon and my linked descendant, Trina, for their help with this journey.
This is the first of three posts about my initial efforts to identify linked descendants connected to my slave-owning ancestors on my father’s side of the family in South Carolina. These ancestors are Wood Furman (1712 – 1783), Richard Furman (1755 – 1825) and James C. Furman (1809 – 1891). On my mother’s side, I have a rich history of on-going relationships with the descendants of enslaved people at a plantation in South Carolina (see Shared History) that my cousins and I still own today—the remnants of what Sherman left behind. Several African American families stayed on the place after the Civil War and maintained relationships with my family that continue to this day.
I must begin this blog by acknowledging the tremendous advantage I have as a white person from a privileged family in undertaking this research—an advantage I recognize is not generally shared by black people or, for that matter, the majority of white people. Because of this family legacy, I have access to historical records and documents from the early 18th century right up to the present concerning my father’s family. For African Americans, the census records do not even record names until 1870, and most whites descended from slave owners do not necessarily have ancestors who were in this country during colonial and Revolutionary War periods.
Using these documents, these three posts will describe my journey to find ancestral links to specific descendants of enslaved people and as well as document my paternal connection to slavery.
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I’m looking for the descendants of Sirrah, Glasgow and Jinny, three people owned by my 7th great grandfather, Wood Furman, whose descendants, sadly, I will probably never find. An additional person, Moll, is listed as collateral with Glasgow, on a mortgage to purchase additional land by Furman in St. Thomas Parish, South Carolina (Mortgage Book AAA p. 413, no date from secondary resource provided). These two enslaved people were surely worth a considerable amount of money to be accepted as collateral for this debt. Just knowing the names of these four people, I can at least begin to acknowledge them and their plight. I can perhaps imagine their lives as enslaved humans and attempt to remember and honor them.
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.”
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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.
When I joined Coming To The Table over two years ago, I began a journey—a journey into the lives and times of my slave-holding ancestors and, most important for me, into the lives of the people they had enslaved. Taken together, we call ourselves linked descendants.