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.
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.
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.
When I was a small child, there was an old woman I remember seeing when we visited my grandfather’s house on the Southside of Chicago. She was extremely quiet, very tall (although slumped with age), with light brown skin and braided hair. My mother told me she was more than 100 years old.
It was not until I was a grown woman that I realized who “that woman” was… Rhody Leslie, my father’s grandmother. She migrated to Chicago in 1939 to live with her sons, Tommie Joe and Robert (my grandfather), after her husband of 67 years died in Alabama. When she passed away in 1954, at age 104, I was three years old. Too young to ever have a conversation with her, I do not even remember attending her funeral. And, until I became an adult, I had no idea that Rhody had been enslaved – along with her husband and mother. Those in my family who knew her well say I remind them of her. A regal six feet tall, she smoked a pipe, swallowed an aspirin and downed a shot of whiskey each and every day.
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.