This is not a scheduled post, but I thought I would share pictures from my weekend. This past Saturday, I visited George Washington’s home, Mt. Vernon, with one of my friends. This plantation is the only colonial plantation I have ever visited, the others having emerged in the post-colonial era.
Take a look at Washington’s Mt. Vernon in the pictures from my visit:
The pictures above depict the first president of the United States, George Washington’s mansion and the land on which it stood. Mt. Vernon sits on the Potomac River and was, perhaps, one of the most beautiful views I have ever seen. My pictures caught only a glimpse of Mt. Vernon’s beauty.
At the time of his death in 1799, it is estimated that George Washington owned 317 slaves, most of whom lived on one of the four farms outside of Mt. Vernon and worked as agricultural laborers. Those enslaved on the Mt. Vernon plantation were mostly skilled in the areas of seamstresses, blacksmiths, carpenters, and spinners. They were skilled laborers, but slaves nonetheless.
Pictured above are the slave quarters that the men and women shared. There were two bunk rooms, one for the men and one for the women. The men and women’s bunk rooms could house 10-15 people each, with the women’s bunk room also including their children. We counted 10 beds in each bunk room.
The overseer’s quarters is located near the slave quarters and are pictured below.
On the grounds are memorials to honor the enslaved and free blacks that worked the plantation.
The pictures above are of those memorials. The first memorial, with the epigraph in the circular monument, states,
In memory of the Afro Americans at mount Vernon This Monument Marking Their Burial Ground Dedicated September 2, 1983 Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association
The last memorial, which is in the shape of a rectangle states,
In Memory of the Many Faithful Colored Servants of the Washington Family Buried at Mount Vernon from 1760 to 1860 Their Unidentified Graves Surround this Spot 1929
This area that is designated for memory of the enslaved and free blacks was in a quiet and serene area and I immediately felt like the area I was in was sacred. I felt reverent of those being honored and after picture taking and reading the memorials, my friend and I sat quietly in reflection of the lives of those black people who toiled on this land.
I cannot begin to tell you how much I get on my mother’s nerves, asking her questions about our family. At times, I am sure, it must feel as if I am asking her the same questions over and over again. What I have learned is that, how I ask questions matter in what my mother actually remembers. That’s how memory works, and so I ask often and in different ways.
As important as documentation is to our research, so are the verbal conversations we have with our family members. The two work together. We need to understand that memory is not always reliable and neither are the documents that we use in our research.
As far as documentation is concerned, when considering the U.S. Census Records, for example, the person recording your family’s information could have made mistakes, answered questions based on their own judgment, misunderstood the information being conveyed, along with many other possibilities. This is what explains how our family members may be “B” (Black) in one record and “Mu” (Mulatto) in another. Too often, recorders simply observed a person and made a judgment call on their race or any other category.
Equally as important to this scenario is the person being interviewed for the Census record. Too often, the person answering the door was interviewed even though they may not have known all of the answers to the questions being asked. They also could have been skeptical of the interviewer and chose not to respond truthfully to protect themselves or their family. To be honest, black folks were not always trusting of random people showing up to their doors asking them questions about their lives, especially when those random people were white. They could have had a perfectly good reason for not telling the truth in an America that forced them to confront racial injustice on a daily basis.
These are just a few reasons why it becomes important for family researchers to balance family stories with the documentation we use in our research.
Using Verbal History with Documentation
The following experience I had with my family research exemplifies why it is important to examine both the oral history and the documentation together.
So, my mother always talks about my grandmother’s “Aunt Julia,” who my grandmother was very close to. I have several pictures of my grandmother and Aunt Julia that my grandmother had in her photo album. The two look alike, in fact. My mother informed me that Aunt Julia was my great grandmother, Effie’s sister. After poring over census records, I could not find Julia Adams anywhere.
After searching for Aunt Julia for years, I declared that Julia Adams may not have been the daughter of my great-great grand parents John Quincy Adams (not the president) and Rachel Adams. This was a conundrum to me, and I could not figure out how they were related. They did share the same last name and lived in the same area, so maybe they were related in a way that was different from what we originally anticipated. Perhaps they were just cousins.
Once, while talking to my mom, I said, “Maybe Aunt Julia was a ‘play aunt’ or maybe they weren’t really related at all.” My mother proceeded to roll her eyes at me and look at my research in skepticism. She responded, “I don’t care what that paper says, mama called Julia her aunt and I believe that’s who she is! Besides, she and mama looked just alike.” Because my mother was so adamant, I decided to consider other possibilities.
Our work oftentimes requires us to think creatively to discover the answers to questions that are now buried with our ancestors, so I tried another approach: I created another tree that I labeled, “experimental” and I made it private, so others could not see what I was working on (Note: I only make public, trees that I feel pretty confident about because I don’t want to contribute to a body of false information, especially regarding my own family). I then started a tree with Julia Adams as my primary person of research. Although I couldn’t confirm that Julia and Effie were sisters, we knew they had the same last name.
What I discovered is a census record that indicated Rachel as Aunt Julia’s mother, but to my surprise, John Quincy Adams was not her father. Another “Adams” was, though. His name was Arcenous James Adams (or, James Arcenous Adams in some records). I am still searching for a divorce record for Rachel and John, but I believe I found him in another census record, married to another woman. They both seemed to have moved on and had children by their new partners.
My great grandmother, Effie, was the only child that John and Rachel Adams had together, but they both went on to have other children. Rachel gave birth to Julia around 1893 with Arcenous Adams, according to the 1910 Census record. What this lesson taught me is that oral narratives are as important to understanding the overall picture of our family’s lives as the documentation. We need them to validate each other, and too often, we are only going to have one or the other to rely on. But, when we have them both, we must not be so rigid that we are unwilling to use both to make sense of the whole.
Updated last paragraph on 8/20/18 at 11:26pm to make clear that Effie and Julia were indeed sisters, making her my grandmother’s aunt.
Neither of my grandmothers are alive, yet I carry them with me in my heart wherever I go. One I grew up with and was very close to, while the other I just saw a picture of for the first time within the last 5 years (my paternal grandmother passed away long before I was born). My parents, as different as they both may be, are very similar in the way that they adored their mothers, an adoration and love that I have adopted.
I research my family’s history with both grandmothers in mind. As I pore through census records and other documents, I wonder about their experiences migrating from their hometowns of Upper Marlboro, Maryland and Saluda, Virginia to Baltimore City. One came to Baltimore as a young adult to stay with her cousin, while the other came as a child with her entire family.
Because their stories became too long to fit into one post, I broke them down into two. This first post is about my maternal grandmother, Mary, who I grew up with, and Part 2 will feature my paternal grandmother, Edna, and I will post it in days to come.
My uncle (who is deceased) carried with him in his wallet a picture of his mother, my grandmother, Mary. As we were collecting pictures to celebrate the life of his son, one of my uncle’s daughters pulled out this picture of our grandmother and said, “Here’s the picture of Grandmother that my father carried with him in his wallet every day.” First, I was struck by my uncle’s sincere love for his mother, which was undeniable in the way that he took care of her. Then, I was struck by the youthful look in my grandmother’s face; this is, indeed, the youngest image of her that I have ever seen.
This picture is special because, to our estimate, it must have been taken within her first years of living in the city. We guess that she must have been in her early 20s. I often wonder what it must have been like for her to have left her family in Upper Marlboro to move to Baltimore to live with her cousin, Margaret, and Margaret’s mother. The two cousins remained close for the rest of their lives.
Still, I wonder what my grandmother was leaving when she left home and what did this country girl run into in the big city? Although she is not here for me to ask these questions, my grandmother did leave us with some thoughts on what her life may have been like before her move to Baltimore.
Well, this is what I know from my research: By census record account, my grandmother’s mother, Effie, had given birth about 14 times, though some did not survive to be adolescents. She had at least 3 sets of multiples, but it is difficult to determine how many for sure. My grandmother said that she, too, was born a twin, but her twin died at birth. My grandmother often remarked on how many children her mother had and kept having, and as one of the oldest girls, she was responsible for taking care of them. We all got the feeling that she wanted to get away from the responsibility of taking care of her siblings and that moving away from home was a relief for her.
There are also a number of accounts of how mean Effie was. There are many stories of Effie’s abrasiveness, in which she spoke terribly to people, and my grandmother in particular. One story my mother recounts is of Effie visiting my grandmother and how she made a horrible comment about one of my uncles. Effie died before my mother was born, but the mentioning of her name alone to my mother, seems to invoke my grandmother’s pain.
In addition to what must have felt like an oppressive home-life with Effie, there are other narratives of my grandmother’s experiences before moving to Baltimore. One story in particular that I heard numerous times is regarding my grandmother’s own experiences with racism and sexual assault in the home she worked as a domestic servant.
My grandmother worked as a domestic for a well-to-do and well known white family in the area. One day, while she was in their home alone, the fiancee of the family’s daughter came to visit. Upon noticing that my grandmother was home alone, he sexually assaulted her. My grandmother fought him off by stabbing him in the hand with her sewing shears. I am not certain all that happened next, but the family found out and she was fired from her place of employment despite the fact that they believed her story. That irony never escaped her, especially when he never did marry their daughter. I cannot imagine how terrifying this experience was for her.
I have heard these stories on a number of occasions, first from my grandmother and now my mother who still tells them to this day. My mother has remembered her mother’s stories to such a degree that they have become intwined with her own. And now I do my best to remember them.
Although it is difficult to pinpoint the exact reasons my grandmother left her family for the big city, it is fair to explore the circumstances in which she was living and to consider them as possible reasons for her migration to Baltimore.
“We are the children of those who chose to survive.” –Nana Poussaint, Daughters of the Dust
I am a storyteller who also loves reading and listening to great stories. My favorite writers, who I am sure to invoke in a post at some point on this blog, are writers who weave narratives as if they are weaving them with the care of a loom. That’s how I hope to care for my family’s narratives. Some of the stories I cherish most were passed on to me by those still living, while others have been passed on to me over the years by those who have since joined the ancestors.
These are the stories that personalize the history of slavery, lynching, and Jim Crow that so many of us read about in books. These are the stories that humanize the names in census records and other formal documents, making the records more than a list of people residing together in a home on a particular street. Unfortunately, humanizing black people’s experiences has been a necessary part of our journey since we arrived on these American shores.
What I value most about these stories is how they convey the joy, the love, the fear, and the hopefulness and resilience of family members who survived a system of human bondage (whether they were “free” or enslaved), family members who survived racial segregation and violence in the mid-Atlantic states of Maryland/Virginia, and family who survived acts of gender inequity and gender violence. They navigated their way through these oppressive systems all while working to provide their children and their children’s children opportunities that they never imagined for themselves.
As Nana Poussaint declared in Daughters of the Dust, “we are the children of those who chose to survive,” and as the daughter of my grandparents — Mary and James, Edna and Charles — and all of my aunts and uncles who chose to survive, I strive to keep their narratives of survival alive.
This blog, Bearing Witness to Our Stories: Sharing Family History and Genealogical Research, welcomes you to journey with me as I discover the lives of so many who came before me. I imagine this blog as a space for readers to converse about their family history and their experiences researching that history.
My goal is to share with you some of the resources I have come across and I welcome conversations with you, my readers, where I learn from you some of the resources or tactics you find helpful.
Please take some time to peruse the blog for some of the resources I listed. Also, I have listed my family’s surnames and geographical areas of research. You can expect two posts a month (every 1st and 3rd Monday) from me and the occasional post in between whenever I feel so inspired. I look forward to sharing my research with you.