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?
On 1 March, performer and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte celebrated his 88th birthday. On 8 November last year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented Belafonte with its Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award … and honored with an Oscar the man’s long pursuit of social justice. Swept into the civil rights movement with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Belafonte eventually shifted most of his energies from entertainment to advocacy: “I’m an activist who also became an actor,” said Belafonte, of his life’s trajectory.
Aside from the obvious—who wouldn’t want to write about the life of America’s sassiest First Mother, who lived compassion as a daily act of faith?—there is something Lillian once said to her presidential son. “I wish I had been born a black woman,” Lillian told him. She qualified this by saying felt she’d have been a more effective human being in the fight for civil rights. The statement is startling and even challenging, and certainly ironic coming from a white Southern woman of slave-owning ancestry, or indeed from any white person. How many people of African American ancestry would agree that being black had helped them in any special way in the fight for equality?
This statement stuck in my mind for another reason. My mother, also a white woman descended from enslavers, had said much the same thing to me often during my childhood. In fact, she said it to me again shortly before her death in 2012. “I wish,” she told me, echoing Miss Lillian, “that I could have been born a black woman.”
Thank you for the admonition, Prinny.
(See her post, You Discovered a Slave Owner in Your Family Tree?here.)
Granted, it was at Race Talks, an ongoing community forum in Portland, Oregon, where I found myself seated beside Des Moines Jazz Hall of Fame inductee, guitarist Frank Tribble. It was an environment in which we could be expected to be aboveboard about contemporary racial issues. But I spend a lot of time in family history research … and ‘Tribble’ is an unusual name. I could hardly contain myself. I asked where his people hailed from, and when he replied Cincinnati, I rushed past this element of shared identity (the Queen City is also my birthplace) to ask whether Frank had kin in Madison County, Kentucky.