“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.
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.”
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.
In 2010, an archive of rare documents passed down in my family for over 250 years arrived at my home in Austin. Reading them I came face to face with my family’s role in both creating democracy and denying freedom.
I’m the 5x great-granddaughter of George Washington’s brother John Augustine Washington. Although the President freed his slaves in his will, his brothers and heirs continued using slave labor to maintain their lives of privilege until the Emancipation Proclamation became law.
My own life has followed a different cultural current of American history. I’ve been a professional blues musician for over 40 years. I launched my career playing with blues legends, learning authentic styles from those who grew up in the Jim Crow era.
I’ve been looking for linked descendants, and specifically those who share a life in music. Soon after I began my search I found Coming To The Table. Susan Hutchison, one the founders, helped me to come to terms with my family’s legacy. I’m forever in her debt – thank you, Susan!
I’m outlining my search – so far! – In three parts, as a Bittersweet blog post – “Redrawing a Community”.
Part One, “Paper” deals with the impact of learning about my family’s past as slave-owners.
Part Two “People”, tells the story of connecting to the living descendants of Solomon Thompson and Reuben Hatter.
Part Three “Music”, talks about the impact of African-American music on my life, and my search for linked descendant musicians.
I’m telling the whole story in my upcoming book “The Washingtons and The Blues”.
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.
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.
(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.