“You owe me what was always mine” is the title of Briayna Cuffie’s latest blog post on reparations4slavery.com. She is speaking to enslavers whose family records, letters, journals, photos, plantation accounts, etc. contain valuable information about the men, women, and children they enslaved.
Maria Montgomery found me on Ancestry.com in 2016. Our family trees overlap because my ancestors enslaved hers. We are “linked descendants”—cousins regardless of whether we share DNA. She asked if I had any probate records that might list people my family enslaved on Gwynn’s Island in Mathews County, Virginia, a five-square-mile triangle of land in the lower Chesapeake Bay.
I sent Maria my third great-grandmother Mary T. Edwards’ Civil War diary that lists 20 enslaved people seized as contraband by the Union Navy in 1863. Maria’s great-great-grandparents, William M. Smith (“Billy”) and Dolly Jones (“Young Dolly”,) are on that list.
So many of us want to know our ancestors’ stories and find out more about where we’ve come from. DNA research has advanced our ability to find and learn about our family members to an extraordinary extent, but family stories are still a basic piece of the work. Because of my involvement in several projects associated with the enslaved and slave owning families of Monticello, I have known about the Getting Word oral history project for many years. I’ve also been able to see the all the ways that project has lasted on and extended beyond just being an oral history project.
I am fortunate to know the three historians who initiated and conducted most of the work of Getting Word, and I realized what a significant resource they are to other oral historians, especially those who might be in the early stages of interviewing family members. The three women, Ms. Gray, Ms. Stanton, and Dr. Swann-Wright, graciously agreed to give me their oral histories of working on Getting Word, and included advice and guidance for others doing the same work.
The blog post will be in three parts, over three weeks.
Part 1 – The Story of the Getting Word Oral History Project
Part 2 – The Impact and Aftermath of the Getting Word Oral History Project
Part 3 – The Researchers and Their Advice for Oral Historians
Story by Quest Whalen, Class of 2019, Tuskegee University, submitted kindness of Dr. Lisa Bratton, Professor, Tuskegee University
Dr. Bratton shared Ms. Whalen’s essay soon after their overnight at Historic Brattonsville on Friday, September 12,
and participation in “By the Sweat of Our Brows,” including a gathering of the black and white descendants of the historic site.
I asked if it could be published in BitterSweet: Linked Through Slavery, and Ms. Whalen gave her permission. I have done virtually no editing other than adding these notes.
The first person narrator is Quest Whalen.
From South Carolina, my sister sends me this link about descendants of enslaved people and enslavers who come together at Wavering Place Plantation in Hopkins, SC. I am gratified that these reunions of linked descendants seem to be happening more and more, as it promises additional conversations about the possibility of transformation and reconciliation. I will be trying to reach these descendants about joining Coming to the Table.
While drafting the post Half-white Slaves of Aristocratic Masters at my blog, I acknowledged that Edward Ball, in his text, The Sweet Hell Inside: The Rise of an Elite Black Family in the Segregated South, employs the term ‘concubines’ to describe intimate, long-term relationships between master and female slaves. It was a theme I followed up, at the post These Negroes Reveal A Curious Superiority, where cultural critic H. L. Menken observed in 1920 that the practice carried on, in 20th century society: “The more slightly yellow girls of the region, with improving economic opportunities, have gained self-respect, and so they are no longer as willing to enter into concubinage as their grand-dams were.”
Part 3 – Connecting with the Descendants of the Bleak House African American Community
Part 1 narrated what happened when Alice and Jon Cannon bought Bleak House, the remnant of Bleak House Plantation, and then found a book with the names of its enslaved residents. Alice was galvanized into learning about those people and finding their descendants. Part 2 tells what she learned about them as talented, self-determining individuals, some still in Virginia, others farther afield.
Today is Giving Tuesday, the day when we turn our focus away from purchasing and toward giving to work that we care about. We hope you will consider a donation to help continue the work of Coming to the Table and Bittersweet so that we can continue to tell these stories and do the work of healing. Make your donation here – http://comingtothetable.org/grow-table/ And thank you.
It’s a quiet place, on a quiet road, in a quiet county. A few dozen miles west of Richmond, Virginia. Louisa County, Virginia. Gordonsville. Bracketts Farm.
Part 2 – Finding the Descendants of the Bleak House Community
Part 1 narrated what happened when Alice and Jon Cannon bought Bleak House, the remnant of Bleak House Plantation, and then found a book with the names of its enslaved residents.
Alice was galvanized into learning about those people and finding their descendants. Part 2 tells what she learned about them.
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.