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.


  1. This is fascinating! Thank you so much for sharing this. I am so glad you were able to find out about your family.

    Morgan from StoryDam

    1. Thanks, Morgan

      It's been a really amazing journey so far; and just as amazing was that one person's commitment to not letting that particular event be forgotten would be my key to finding out my family's place in history.

  2. Replies
    1. Thanks's been an interesting journey, to say the least. :)

  3. What a Gem of a story to have land on your lap - the Universe was looking out for you

    1. A gem indeed! Still can't believe it happened how it happened...must have been meant to be. :)

      Thanks for reading, Fiona!

  4. First (only) silly question: Is your family from wherever (Florida?) Rosewood is/was? That would throw some light on the story; a fictional piece with Jon Voight and Ving Rhames has been on my "To Watch" list for years, and if so, this just moved it to top of the line.

    Happy you are finding peace as well as uncovering history, Rochelle - the tears pass in time.

    1. Oh, Rick...just to think that you took time to read this warms my heart. And that's a such an understatement...

      My family's from Missouri and the "incident" was one many "banishments" that happened throughout the US in the early 20th Century. I'm not sad or bitter, but rather as time has gone on, I don't feel the need to cover it up in fear of making people uncomfortable.

      History is uncomfortable, but I've been afforded a huge blessing in at least knowing it and being able to pass it onto my daughter. She knows who "her people" are -- even if that means she's aware of their scary ending. Most of all she knows that our line of the tree was spared -- and that she's a result of that -- which means there MUST be a reason for her living on this earth.

      So, it's all really is.

      Thank you again SO MUCH for reading.