Wise & Young

Friday, October 12, 2007

Back to my Roots

For so many African-American’s the idea that you could trace your family history back akin to semi-fictional tale of Roots. But with the aide of modern technology it’s a reality that I am currently experiencing. My “journey” to find out who I am or where I come from started off rather innocuously with home décor. I know home décor, but I was looking for items that both fit into my pauvre chic but still spoke to me as an African-American.

Of course I was looking for paintings, drawings, and other artwork but I wanted something different. Something that was a real conversation starter, then it hit me. FREEDOM PAPERS, I wanted a copy of papers that set free, manumit, a persons and/or their progeny from slavery. But of course being the me that I am, I thought “wouldn’t it be great to be able to get a copy that had a surname that was I had in my pedigree, and possibly could be related to me. With the quick type of Google, I found it. I was literally stunned, I kept saying to myself, “No, no, no, it can’t be THIS easy”, but there it was, the surname of my mother’s maiden name starring back at me, with a list of fourteen slaves that were to be manumit from bondage at various ages. The records happened to be a school with Quaker ties. Before I realized it, I was on the phone with the person who was in charge of records.

What shocked him, was that no less than five minutes previously he was talking to the a colleague of his about those very records. In his mind he thought I must have talked to his colleague, and was stunned when he realized that no, I was complete stranger. Fate is funny I guess. In an hour, in my inbox, there were the pdf versions of the manumitted slaves names of fourteen persons: Robert, Eleanor, Mary, Lucy, Henry, William, John, Mark, Agnes, Polly, Joan, Richard, and Betsey. Of course after I got this and told my Mom. Understandably she was excited and happy charged with the idea that somehow maybe just maybe one of these persons was an ancestor of ours.

From there she told me a story that I remembered hearing that one of her ancestors on her father’s side as far back as we know was never a slave. The story went that he was on a ship bound to be a slave, but the captain of the ship could not pull into dock because slavery had been illegal, so instead of risking his life, the Captain burned the ship, and those on board, had to swim ashore, once reaching the shore. My ancestor got help from Quakers. I had heard this story before but I never really took it to heart, maybe it was the fact that I wanted to know if we were still related to one or more of the fourteen.

The Labor Day weekend that so many of the kids were out in Atlanta celebrating pride, I celebrated a different type of pride. After I told my new found interest of genealogy she turned over this pile of paper that she had been keeping just for this day. Information on various deceased relatives, contact information for those who she had been in contact with, and as much family research she did without having to pay (where do you think I got the pauvre chic genes from). That same day, after driving four ours to my hometown to spend that time with my mom, no more than an hour home, we decided on a spur of the moment trip to Accomac County, VA, to look for a town that had her ancestor’s surname.

Arriving in Accomac you could feel the history, the highway nothing more than a long seemingly forever stretch of asphalt, acres and acres of crops, a stillness in the acre, and often you could see abandoned farm buildings some larger than others where the vines had taken over. It was a Saturday and the whole county was still and quiet, eerily so. We finally arrive to the town that had our name, and only thing there was a street. A long street that was probably the only remnant of the place my great-grandfather grew up. While driving around we saw Black people, but we didn’t speak, my mother and I aren’t the type of people to just go up and talk to anyone.

But what that trip did was really spur me onto finding out as much information as possible about my family, the only way I knew how, by using the internet. Specifically ancestry.com. At first I was hesitant, I had used online communities, and subscriptions before, and all they ended up being was a hassle when you wanted to cancel. But I figured what the hell its 30 dollars a month and if I didn’t find anything then I would have just cancel. I started with knowing about only being able to go back three generations, after just a month I have been able to track my family back to 1835, and one person back to a specific owner, and plantation. It will only be a matter of time at least with that person that I can then trace who his mother and maybe father was due to the fact that most likely his parents were on the same plantation.

The only two issues that I have had so far is finding evidence to corroborate the story about the slave would be, and finding the last names of some of the ladies before they were married. Some of this information others in my family have, and they are just so damn trifling that I don’t know if they will ever give me the information that I need. But thanks to Ancestry.com I will be able to find it out eventually.

Since this has occurred knowing where my people came from Virginia and South Carolina, and learning more and more about them, has made me feel as if the United States is really mine. In fact, once I get my money right, I plan to buy an acre of land near or at the place in Virginia where my ancestor swam ashore.

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