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.
Sharon Leslie Morgan moved to Noxubee County, Mississippi to research her ancestors’ history. Morgan’s great-great-grandmother, Betty Warfe Gavin, was enslaved there, and gave birth to 17 children. The father of all of them was Robert Louis Gavin, a white man and the nephew of her enslaver.
“My ancestors came from here and fled,” says Morgan. “For me to come back and reclaim memories, experiences, relationships, I think that is going to help with healing the historical harm of slavery.”
I’ve always been fascinated by migration stories. Hearing the details about why a person left the place of their birth to settle somewhere new always satisfied my love of storytelling and origin stories. Perhaps I was pulled into these tales because I was unknowingly trying to fill a void in my own life. Growing up I did not have many stories of my own that had passed down for generations in my family. But once I was able to unlock that door, and discovered the migration stories of my own lineage, I was introduced to a world I had never imagined. The triumphs and brutality, all living together, laid before me. My journey exploring my ancestry has taken me to the archives of libraries and old courthouses throughout the country and as far as the food markets, private beaches and slave prisons in West Africa.
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.
A blessing of tracing genealogy back to colonial America is that so much of its documentary history has been so richly excerpted in published histories or reproduced in full in a variety of formats that it’s not always necessary to seek out the original sources. And of course, the internet has opened the doors to these documentary resources even wider.
In the blog BitterSweet: Linked Through Slavery, we primarily focus on linked relationships between black and white people connected through US slavery—those descended from enslaved people or slaveholders who are linked by virtue of time, place or genetics. Finding a linked descendant from before the Civil War is powerful and empowering. We place a high value on these links because personal connections can create a compelling and intense desire for healing and reconciliation. But I would suggest that there is another link that joins many black and white people today that is an important yet unexplored piece of our national culture. This link occupies a more recent past, one which can provide another avenue of examination of slavery’s legacy and aftermath.
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.
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.
I am posting for Pam Smith. She says, “Ahhh the woes of not being a techy in a technological world! A few little glitches prevented me from posting this directly to the BitterSweet blog. As an active member of CTTT I consider this space another home.”
Last week was an historic week for Coming to the Table (comingtothetable.org), an organization I’m involved with composed of descendants of slaveholders and enslaved. I spend a lot of time with historical records. Fifty, 100 years from now people will look back to see what our organization did. Most members will be long gone by then, but some people somewhere will look back to see where we stood. They’ll search archival records and Internet data that will be stored who knows how by then. They’ll look at pictures. And hopefully, among all the material they will find Coming to the Table’s petition http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/congress-pass-hr40-to-2/?source=search urging Congress to pass H.R. 40 – Rep. John Conyers’ bill to study the issue of reparations for U.S. slavery. That document serves as a tangible symbol of our thoughts, feelings, and actions.