Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Symbols of Racism

Facts are freely available to people who want to know them. The facts about Confederate monuments are clear. The context in which they were erected is not debatable. So knowing the facts, if you still support Confederate monuments, then you are willfully supporting a false version of history. 


My true friends know I’m obsessed with history and genealogy. I can read about and talk about American history all day. The Civil War is one of my favorite topics. But my obsession is about learning the truth ... the good, the bad, and the ugly. I have no interest in romanticizing the past and celebrating the Confederacy.

Trust me, when I dig through the wills of my ancestors who fought for or supported the Confederacy, there is nothing there to make me feel proud. There is nothing to celebrate.

My Confederate ancestors listed my enslaved ancestors in the inventories of their wills along with the wagons, kitchenware, horses, pigs, and cattle. Their “values” are included. They leased them to neighbors, sold them off to raise money, and did whatever they wanted to with them or to them.

I’ve always found it interesting that the people who say African-Americans whine about slavery and racism too much are the same people who have the firmest grip on their Confederate flags and the tightest embrace of their monuments.

People who want to celebrate the Confederacy and honor their Confederate ancestors have the right to do that. This is America. I have lived all of my adult life in the South, so I see Confederate flags in yards and on vehicle bumpers every time I go out. It’s part of the Southern landscape. I actually support the right to do that even if the fact is that that flag, like Confederate monuments, represents oppression, racism, Jim Crow, and a belief in white supremacy. 

The public —- which includes people of all races and backgrounds  —- shouldn’t have to pay for monuments that honor symbols of oppression. And while there’s whining and crying on other timelines about monuments toppling and “history” being erased, there won’t be any whining or crying on mine.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

I Remember

By Dianne Campbell Johnson

Note: Our guest blogger is Dianne Campbell Johnson, my mother who passed away in 2011. She is in the photograph above seated on the right. The others, from left, are her brother, Harry Campbell Jr.; her mother Kate Irene Russell Campbell McCree; and standing, her sister, Geraldine Campbell Marshall. My mother began working on our family history as far back as 1970. I know this because I inherited all of her notes, and I was surprised to learn that way back then, she was digging up records and asking questions. I found this essay in her papers. - MNJ

I remember my shoes being tied by my Uncle Jim while standing on the marble shelf on the back porch on a Sunday morning while the church bells rang.

Pie school.

Rounding the corner just as Uncle Jim was throwing out his wash pan of water.

Being told the “chain gang” men would get hold of you and do bad things to you.

Saturday baths in the #2 tub beside the woodstove.

Having to eat after my step-grandmother fed my grandfather.

Charming “doodlebugs” out of their holes with branch stems.

Riding in my grandfather’s car, standing between persons in the front seat looking out the front window.

After I got so tall, I had to ride the middle front seat on my knees facing back looking at the back seat riders. Car rides were mainly to church. Cedar Grove on Sundays and rides on Sunday evenings.

Grandfather was a father figure. He was a loving grandfather. My father died when I was 18 months old. His name was Harry Alex Campbell.

We lived with my grandparents from my earliest memories.

I could lie in bed and hear the trucks on Highway 29 which was miles away.

We didn’t have an indoor toilet until I was 5 years old. The night “pot” or “chamber” was our bathroom placed in the bedroom at night and removed in the morning.

Mama cooked on a wood stove that was green and white with lids that lifted so wood and paper could be put in to make a fire to cook by.

Lights were turned on by a chain that hung from the middle of the room attached to the lightbulb holder. All electrical appliances ran from this outlet in the center of the room ceiling. Drop cords get their name from this.

Lace doilies adorned the furniture, armchairs, and backs. Embroidered pillowcases covered all pillows. Nothing was Perma press then. Grandmother boiled water and poured it into a pot outside with a fire around it and washed clothes.

Easter meant new clothes all the way to the skin. The Easter bunny left eggs, and our parents made it so real.

There was usually ice water for supper but it was a pleasant surprise to get fresh-squeezed lemonade instead.

Special occasions meant fresh green coconut cakes and homemade icing made of egg whites. My favorite kitchenware was a grayish-blue enamel pan that my mama served oatmeal in.

The serving table always had a linen cloth on it.

The house was well furnished with a blue velveteen living room set with a sofa and two chairs. A tiger-skinned rug with its head still attached once spread across the room in front of the big piano. The old mantle clock would chime away the time.

I remember the opossum tree in the Christmas parade and the dogs barking underneath. White men had a float with a tree and real possums with dogs jumping up trying to catch them. That’s the only time I got to see a possum.

I remember my granddaddy’s chicken yard. We weren’t allowed in there. A rooster jumped on me once and had me pinned to the ground. Everyone ran out the house and my granddaddy chopped off his head.

We made soup in a lye pot.

Mr. Dan started to appear. He later swooned Mama and they were married. Any reference to Daddy hereafter will be him because he is the only father I know.

We threatened to run away if Mama didn’t marry him. She got our approval before marrying him because we were a package deal. Geraldine, the oldest, then Harry, then James, and me.

Schools have been a part of my life since way back. I first went to a Lutheran school (Mount Calvary), then the Baptist Church school where my nickel rolled into the crack where they baptized people under water. I was afraid to walk across the trap door.

At the Lutheran preschool, Mr. and Mrs. Skinner were pastor and wife. They were real good to me. However, I decided I’d had enough school and wanted to stay home with my grandmother. I got a Dick Tracy baby doll just to make me go back to school. I took the doll and still stayed home, and my grandmother taught me to braid hair.

My first day of school, I sat across from my cousin, Alice, my daddy Harry’s brother’s baby. She had the biggest bow I’d ever seen on her top braid. It was so crisp and pretty.

We were all dressed up and our first-grade teacher was Nancy Miller. You didn’t have to go to kindergarten then, but it helped. I liked Nancy Miller so much that I told the school administrator that my first name was Nancy. I don’t even have a middle name.

These were the days of Spot the dog, and Dick and Jane. What would we have done without them?

These books had other people’s names in them that no one in the school knew. We later found out that we got the white school’s old books and they got new books.

I had other school experiences besides my time of school-hopping and my preschool drop-out record.

I went to school a lot with my sister, Geraldine who was five years older. Then it was allowed. I had a head start on the other kids because the teachers already knew me and I knew their routines.

Mrs. White was my second-grade teacher and that year was fairly uneventful. Third and fourth grade was spent with Effie Brown. The school was a little crowded, so my third-grade year was spent in the fourth-grade room along with about seven or eight other kids. 

Mrs. Brown wanted to skip me to the fifth grade, but Professor Reid thought I might suffer or lose something if I did. Back then you could skip kids.

In eighth grade, I was the “Grammar Grade Queen.” I was in spelling bees throughout, always a finalist but never winning. I was Les Amies’ first queen. Les Amies was a black women’s group. The name meant “let’s be friends.” There was a junior group with lots of social activities.

I walked barefoot home from the eighth-grade Valentine’s ball and gave my shoes to Betty Jean Horton.

I attended Bennett College for Scholastic Achievers in the 10th and 11th grades. Delores Morehead, Rogerlene Thompson, and Marilyn Gaither and I attended. 

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.