Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Collaborative Genealogy

For the past year, I have been collaborating with several DNA cousins with roots in North Carolina. We are 10 descendants of slaveholders and the people they enslaved who have come together via email and social media to try to solve mysteries and find lost branches of our family trees. We call ourselves the Torrence Cousins because we all have connections to that North Carolina family.

In April I met two of my Torrence cousins - Helen Mickens (left) and Judith Hughes (right) - at North Carolina's State Library and the State Archives in Raleigh. They were there for Tar Heel Discoveries, a weeklong workshop for genealogists. I dropped in for a day so I could meet them in person since they both live in the Midwest. 

I highly recommend the Tar Heels Discoveries workshop and plan to go back. The workshop includes a one-on-one consultation with professional genealogists and tours of the library and archives, including the vault where the state charter and other rare and priceless documents are stored.

I also highly recommend collaboration. For years genealogy was a solitary hobby for me. Now I recognize how important it is to get to know other descendants of my ancestors, and the relatives who are descendants of the people who enslaved them. If you find cousins who are open to this idea, embrace them, and get to work -- together. It has been a life-changing experience for me, and has enriched my understanding of the lives of my ancestors.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Miss Pauline

Pauline Cunningham was my Grandma Madie's best friend. When Miss Pauline and my grandmother were little girls growing up in Lancaster, S.C., my grandmother said they would hide under the front porch and listen to grown folks' conversations.

Miss Pauline spent most of her adult life in Washington, D.C., where my military father was stationed for three years. I attended middle school and a year of high school there.

During those years, we visited Miss Pauline several times. I remember her home was full of antiques, and my little sister and I loved looking at her old Jet and Ebony magazines stashed under her coffee table.

While living in D.C., we visited three or four other families that had roots in Lancaster County, S.C. All of these people were our people, although at the time I didn't understand why they all lived there.

Since then, I've learned through genealogy research and DNA matches that Washington, D.C., was one of the northern destination cities for many Lancaster, S.C., families during the Great Migration of African-Americans from the early 1900s through the early 1970s. Buffalo, N.Y., was another destination, and Cleveland, Ohio, and there were other places.

Growing up, I always considered the Carolinas as home, but by following the paths of my ancestors' involuntary movement through slavery and their voluntary migrations through freedom, I've come to realize that I have to look beyond the Carolinas to find my roots.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Archaeology Expedition

In early August I participated in Excavate: Archaeology Expedition, a weeklong immersive archaeology program at Montpelier in Orange County, Virginia, the home of James Madison, fourth president of the United States.

During the archaeology expedition, I worked side-by-side with professional archaeologists in the field and in the lab, where artifacts are cleaned, analyzed, preserved, and cataloged.

Artifacts found at Montpelier during my trip in early August.
I have always loved studying American history, and archaeology lets you touch history. I was moved by the reality that many of the artifacts we found -- nails, glass, pieces of pottery -- were probably last touched by enslaved people.

One morning, we went to Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States. Both Madison and Jefferson are "Founding Fathers." They penned the documents that define what it means to be an American in a democracy. Yet, both men enslaved hundreds of black people.

As we worked in the heat of the day a stone's throw from the domestic slave quarters, more than one person commented that they could not imagine being forced to work under such miserable conditions. We could take breaks whenever we wanted, or we could quit for the day if the work became too hard.

And we could go home to our families.

I was impressed with how the tours and exhibits at both Montpelier and Monticello explored these contradictions and blended the narratives of the lives of the Madison and Jefferson families and the families they enslaved.

It is one story.

Top photo: My husband and my nephew at the site. Above: The site is under the white tents to the right of the mansion. We were searching for the locations of trees that were once in a grove at that location. The trees will be replanted as part of the effort to recreate a particular era of the plantation. All photos by Michele N. Johnson.

The domestic slave quarters in the South Yard.  

We stayed in the historic Arlington House, which was used as a hospital during the Civil War. 

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Slave Narrative: Rosa Starke

Book cover art for Slave Narratives: South Carolina

Rosa Starke was enslaved by the Peay family in South Carolina. She told her story as part of the Federal Writers' Project: Slave Narrative Project when she was 83 years old. 

Sunday, July 8, 2018

A Family Bible

Guest blogger, Judith Hughes, did not grow up in the South, but her roots run deep in Colonial Virginia, and the Carolinas. In this essay from 2013, she writes about a visit to North Carolina, and what she discovered in an old family Bible. Judith and I are DNA cousins. We believe our connection is through the Withers and Torrence families of Mecklenburg County, N.C. According to oral history in my family, William Banks Withers (1819-1889), was the father of my second great-grandfather, John Frank Lytle (1854-1939). Judith and I have been collaborating with other DNA cousins to document how we are all related. - MNJ

I spent enough time in the South during my childhood to witness and abhor the injustice of the Jim Crow laws. One incident is as clear to me today as the day it happened.

As a small child, I was waiting with my grandmother for a Trailways bus to arrive. I do not remember who we were meeting. I do remember not understanding why my grandmother was so upset when I went to get a sip of water at a fountain. She then pointed to a sign that I was too young to read and explained that the fountain I wanted to use was the “colored drinking fountain.” I do remember the way it made me feel, and it is something I have never forgotten. I did not comprehend the need for it when I was a child. It is something I will never understand.

Coming to grips with the fact that your ancestors were slaveholders is an unpleasant fact for many whose ancestors lived in the Old South. I always knew my father’s maternal roots extended into the Colonial South. As the first generation “raised off” as they say where my father grew up, I am in reality a 10th generation Tar Heel. As such, I knew that at some time I would uncover my family’s participation in what the South called "our peculiar institution." However, I did not expect to encounter it in the manner and place where it first happened.

During a visit to Davidson, N.C., my cousin Anne and I stopped at the local hardware store bearing the name of our great-great grandfather. After introducing ourselves to the owners, we learned that they were also descended from the family. The owner’s father was the brother of our great grandmother. After conversing with them a short time, we asked if they had any family stories or memorabilia that they could share with us.

Imagine our surprise when they told us to go on up to the cemetery and they would meet us there with some things we might find interesting.

We did as he instructed and were busy taking photographs of family tombstones when they appeared and told us to take our time exploring what they brought, and we could drop the box off at the store as we left town. We sat on the grass beside the grave of our great-great grandmother and opened the box.

Thus, began a genealogical adventure that continues for me today. For inside that box among other things was a family Bible.

The Bible had a publication date of 1858. On the blank page facing the inside cover were pasted three yellowed newspaper obituaries, a handwritten notice and a large square where at some time another a notice had been pasted. It was not located anywhere within the Bible or the box.

The first notice was for James Johnston, Esq., who died at the age of 59 years in February 1860. Like the others, this notice did not contain a year in the text of the printed notice. However, the year was noted in pencil beside it and another of the notices. James Johnston was my third great-grandfather.

The next notice was for the infant sons of Margaret Malvina Johnston and her husband Samuel Meacham Withers. The boys died within days of each other. There was no date beside this notice, but from other sources, we knew they died in May of 1860, a mere three months after their grandfather’s death.

The third notice was for my great-great-grandfather. It read, “In Salisbury, on the 27th of July, Samuel M. Withers of Mecklenburg County. He died in the service of his country.”

The year 1864 was written in pencil beside the notice. At the time of his death, S.M. Withers served in Col. Peter Mallett’s Company and was in Salisbury, N.C., enrolling men to serve in the Confederacy.

The last of the death notices was for Margaret Johnston Withers’ brother James Johnston. His handwritten information was dated 1870.

On the inside back cover was a newspaper clipping from Mecklenburg Lodge 176 on the death of Patrick H. Johnston in 1858. Patrick was the son of James Johnston and was another brother to my great-great-grandmother.

Inside the Bible were a bride’s cake recipe and a typed memorial tribute to Rosa Withers, another of Margaret and Samuel’s children. She died at the age of 20 in 1875.

Then, we turned to the center Family Record pages and instead of family records, we found a list of slaves. Many of the names corresponded with the names of slaves left to Margaret by her father James in his 1860 will filed in Mecklenburg County, N.C. The carefully written list contained ages and birthdates where known.

What makes this list so special is what was added later in the margin.

There, written in pencil beside the name of each child born after 1855 was the name of the child’s mother. The entries were made at different times and by different hands. I knew how extraordinary the Bible list was that sunny North Carolina day, but I didn’t know how to share it with those who would want this knowledge.

With the advent of the internet, I now have the ability to gather additional information to compare with Slave Schedules, copies of the wills I have gathered and other pertinent information. Through wills I discovered how pervasive my family’s link to slavery was.

There are generations of family who passed ownership of their slave(s) to their children. I have discovered slaves who were set free according to the will and some who in fact were not.

In some cases, generations of slave families passed from one generation of slaveholders to the next. In most wills the slaves were listed by name, which I have come to learn was often not the case.

With this story and the eventual publication of corresponding ongoing research, I hope that someday those whose ancestors’ journey joined with my ancestors in a most horrific way will find the key they need to unlock their history.

Judith J. Hughes, 2013

Friday, June 8, 2018

Making a List

Every summer I assign myself a project that will enrich my life as a writer and librarian. One summer I read/reread all of Toni Morrison’s books. Another summer I read nothing but Octavia Butler. This summer I’ve been doing something different ... compiling a list of all of the enslaved people mentioned in the wills of the Peay family of South Carolina. 

I’ve read that the family owned 1,000 people on multiple plantations. Reading the wills is helping me understand the family that controlled every aspect of my ancestors’ lives, including, for example, how some ended up in Alabama. 

I had been wondering why I had so many DNA matches in Alabama. It turns out one of Austin Ford Peay’s daughters, Mary Lucilla Justina Peay Poellnitz, moved to Marengo County, Ala., with her husband, and took her inheritance — 30 slaves — with her. Those enslaved people are all mentioned by name in her father’s will.

At some point, it occurred to me that this list I’m creating has probably been done already, but I’ve decided to keep going. Typing these names is therapeutic and informative because I know many of these human beings listed amongst mules and tools and wagons and tablecloths and silverware and other ordinary things ... are my people.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Rosenwald Schools

Image result for rosenwald bookOne of the joys of doing genealogy is learning how our families fit into the larger picture of American and even World History and sharing the knowledge of this context with other family members.

This past weekend while visiting my father, he mentioned that he had recently learned that his church, Bethel AME Zion in Kannapolis, N.C., was once the site of a Rosenwald School. The Rosenwald Initiative was a collaborative project founded by Booker T. Washington of Tuskegee Institute, and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears, Roebuck and Co. Their partnership resulted in the construction of more than 5,000 new state-of-the-art schools for black children in the South in the early 1900s.

Ironically, part of my family is from North Carolina, which had more Rosenwald Schools than any other state, but I didn't learn about this story until I moved to Sapelo Island in 2005. Sapelo had two schools, and the one at St. Luke Baptist Church is still standing.

I showed Daddy the website for the Rosenwald Database at Fisk University, and he was able to see a photograph of the schoolhouse for the very first time. He also learned that his high school was the site of a Rosenwald School, as well as several sites in our ancestral home, Lancaster County, S.C., including Mount Carmel AME Zion Church. There were also schools in Mecklenburg County, N.C., and others in nearby Cabarrus County, where our ancestors lived.

Our ancestors no doubt helped build these schools and attended these schools, making our family part of the Rosenwald legacy, a fascinating chapter in the history of educating black children in America.