May 25, 2012

Gems in a Sea of Stones: Part II

A simple double-click of the mouse would open an email from a complete stranger in another state who I cyber stalked in hopes that he could tell me about my relatives.  Highly improbable. But I double clicked anyway.

It wasn’t as improbable as I thought.  Turns out that Murray – that’s his name – was more than willing to help me.  He’s done extensive research that included my family for a yet-to-be-published book because they were at the center of an incident in Pierce City, Missouri that changed the town forever. While I was very interested in the incident, I was more interested at the time in knowing what he knew about my family.  He understood and immediately filled me in on information about my great-grandfather:
“Wiley worked at the lime kiln, where lime was dug up…He was a hardworking man.”
Out of all the stones on and the myriad of rocks on Google, it seemed like I had found a gem. We’ve communicated since that time, and he’s been emailing me his novel chapter by chapter, which I devour as soon as it hits my inbox.

One night, I received an additional email from Murray with the subject line “The Motherlode of Information For You.”  He explained that as part of his research, he had a genealogist research the Godley family history, and of course, he’s kept the documents since that time.  Including the family tree she pieced together. It was attached to the email. It dated back to 1795.

I sat staring at the screen, jaw dropped in unbelief.  I printed it and began to read, half-thinking I’d find out I had become emotionally invested in the wrong family over the past few days.
“Milla (also known as Milley) was probably married to Joseph [surname unknown, but not enslaved within the Godley family]. Milla was born (say about) 1795 in Virginia.”
I read on and soon found the name often mentioned by my mom and aunt: French; and the pieces came together:
French’s son was Wiley, who was
My grandmother’s dad, and also
My mom’s granddad, and
My great-grandfather.

I blurted out “It’s him!  This is him” (again with incorrect grammar) “Who’s him?” called Jamie. I started reading the main points aloud and before I knew it, tears flooded my vision and a big crying-lump choked my voice back. I handed the paper to Jamie, only able to squeak out: “This is my family...It’s really them.”

A Long but Important Footnote
History is just that. History. In my case, it means my 3rd great-grandma was owned by someone. It also means that the “incident” involving my family was lynching and subsequent banishment of all the black folks from Pierce City in 1901. Mark Twain even wrote this essay about it, and PBS' Independent Lens included it in a feature.

It takes courage to acknowledge things like this.  Murray’s done that through his research, his novel, an extensive exhibit for the local museum and a series about it that he wrote for the local newspaper. Some residents wanted to keep it a forgotten footnote, but he stuck to it because he didn’t want it forgotten.  So much so that he pretty much sponsored a marker for the people who were killed – they included a cousin Will Godley, his cousin Pete Hampton and my 2nd great-grandfather French.

I’m sure Murray didn’t do all of this to help me build my family tree. Heck, he didn't even know I existed before last Monday. He was just doing it because acknowledging history – good and bad – is the right thing to do.  I’m glad he did. By remembering that part of history, he’s allowed me to learn about not just the event, but more importantly to me -- about my family.

What I’ve learned is that, yes times were rough and things weren’t fair, but my ancestors were people who lived their lives. They didn’t sit around wringing their hands about injustice: they established community, fell in love, got married, raised babies, occasionally drank more than their fill (truth be told) and my great grandfather was even voted President of the Independent Colored Voters.

Here’s the bottom line: They were the ones who truly found gems in a sea of stones.

May 18, 2012

Gems in a Sea of Stones: Part I

Can you find the raw ruby in this picture?  Take a look; it’s right there.  Still don’t see it? It’s the one with the roundish, but jagged sort of edges. Maximize the photo if you still don’t see it.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait here.  Did you find it? Look again. It’ll be the one with rich-red hues.

Okay, I lied: there’s no ruby - raw or cooked - in that picture.

But searching for a gem in a sea of stones is kind of what it’s been like piecing my family tree together. 

I knew my maternal ancestors were from a small Missouri town, and I even have a rough idea of their ages.  I used that information to conduct my search…and generated records for about eight billion people with the same last name from that same small town. Okay, that’s an exaggeration. But there were a lot more than one or two.

One of the records belonged to a person with a name that I had heard my mom and aunt mention numerous times while they were having conversations that kids are too bored to be bothered with. “Is this the guy?” I thought.  And who did they say he was? My cousin? A great uncle or great-grandfather? …why didn’t I listen better when I had the chance?

I rolled the dice and did what everyone does when they don’t know what to do: I Googled him and that small Missouri town just to see what would happen.  What happened was that he appeared in newspapers stories from around the country from 1901, he was in collegiate history books, referred to as part of what inspired an essay by Mark Twain, but most interestingly a newspaper story from 1991.

This couldn’t be right.  Or could it?

By then, I couldn’t let it go. I needed confirmation – I needed someone to help me piece together whether this guy was a relative and if so, which one. And now I needed to know the story behind all the stories in cyberspace.

It wasn’t like I was going to find information from immigrant ship manifests and I knew I needed a black ancestry historical reference, so I emailed one of Milwaukee’s black historical resources for help. They emailed me back very quickly, and even pointed me toward an African American Genealogical Society here in Milwaukee that I didn't even know existed.

Then, on a lark, I figured, why not email the guy who wrote the article in 1991? Through some cyber-stalking, I found him working at a Missouri newspaper. I scribbled a note, asking if he had additional information or whether he could point me to someone who did. One nervously sweaty finger pressed “SEND.”

That was in the morning. As I was telling my friend the whole long story on the phone that afternoon, an email showed up in my inbox.

It was from the newspaper guy in Missouri. “Oh my gosh, this is him” I said, grammatically incorrect and interrupting whatever my friend was saying. “It’s really him.” I swallowed hard and noticed that my palms were all sweaty again and babbled “Should I open it? Can I open it with you on phone here with me?” Now I was breathing hard. My long-suffering friend said “Yeah!  Do it! I want to know what it says too!”

I took a deep breath. “Okay. Here we go…”

The message in that email will be in my next post. That’s why this one has “Part I” in the title.

May 15, 2012

More Than a Gap and Knock-Knees

“I just love your gap!” A well-meaning person to whom I had just been introduced gushed the compliment. I was around twenty-three, and to tell you the truth, wasn’t even aware of this much-loved gap. A nervous giggle escaped as I politely said “thank you.” Later on after dinner, I pulled out my mirrored compact to reapply my lipstick, but that was a ruse. I was really checking to see if I indeed had a gap. I did. I do. In fact, just about everyone on mom’s side of the family has one. It’s hereditary.

Several years later, Jamie and I were a doting-dating-childless couple, strolling through the mall hand-in-hand. I tried on some jeans at a department store, and (quite uncharacteristically for me) did a little sexy model walk for him. I posed, expecting a wolf-whistle or a “how you doin?’” Instead I got: Are you knock-kneed?” Yes. Yes I am knock-kneed. First time I noticed it was in ballet class: the teacher told us to stand with our feet parallel, knees facing frontward – like headlights on a car. Well, my knees were like headlights but my toes were pointing at two opposite corners of the room. Yet another hereditary gift from mom.

Surely there’s got to be more to my ancestry than a diastema and messed up knees…right?

Well, lately, we’ve been watching Who Do You Think You Are? and Finding Your Roots. Both series are about ancestry research, and they’ve often called to mind the (sometimes hushed) stories about relatives in my own family tree. I decided to pick up my research where I left off a few years ago: on, although this time, I’ve actually signed on for a membership (was too cheap to do it before). The membership is key because it allows you access to census records going back to the 1700’s, Social Security information, immigration documentation, birth certificates, draft cards and even slave manifests.

I’m early in this journey, but so far have discovered my paternal great-great grandfather, as well as my mom’s great grandparents from both her mom and dad. This is a pretty big deal considering that today, both of my parents would be upwards of 85 years-old, and more than likely, their great-grandparents were born into slavery, being listed only by sex and age on slave manifests. But these folks did show up on censuses after the Emancipation Proclamation, and that’s partially how I found them.

What I’m really excited about is the fact that I’m discovering how my maternal ancestors are showing up – by name -- in the country’s history with drama, intrigue and mystery that I never imagined. Once I uncover more, I’ll definitely be blogging about it.

As a history buff, this entire exercise is tailor-made for me; and as a mom, this part of my history is relatively (no pun intended) new to me and I’m excited I can pass it on to my daughter.

That way she’ll have more to thank me for than just the knock-knees.

(and by the way - she’s got Fritsch teeth, so there’s no gap)