Saturday, May 19, 2012

How Oral History Can Get Misconstrued

      I remember when I was in junior high school, and our class played a game to show how a story can change as it is being relayed by many people.  I don’t remember the example story we used in class, but imagine the following:  Person no. 1 relays the following to person no. 2, Mary Jones got married to Robert Williams in Huntsville, Alabama, and they soon moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where they had three children, Bob Jr., Sallie, and Katie Mae.  Each person relayed what he/she is told to another person.  By the time the story reaches person no. 8, it has become, “Katie Mae Williams married Bob Jones in Atlanta, Georgia, and they moved to Mobile, Alabama, where they had three children, Bob Jr., Sallie Mae, and Callie.”  This simple exercise demonstrates how a lot of the oral history we hear is often not entirely true.  The operative adverb is “entirely” because there might be several parts of the story that are partially true.  In the example, the only true parts that person no. 8 hears are the first name of the husband (Robert/Bob) and the states where they lived (Alabama and Georgia) but in the wrong order.   

     When I was in high school, my grandmother told me some things about her paternal grandfather, Robert “Big Bob” Ealy of Leake County, Mississippi.  She shared how his slave master used him as a breeder, and he fathered a whole lot of children by many enslaved women.  He never laid eyes on those children.  However, he and his wife, Grandma Jane Ealy, had at least 13 children, whom he was able to raise to adulthood.  I was no more than 15 years old when Grandma relayed this story to me, and it took me awhile to fully grasp what she was telling me.  Then, as I talked to more family elders about our history, they shared that my great-great-grandfather was purchased and transported to Mississippi from Macon, Georgia by his mean slave master, who was known as “Masser Billy”.  This oral history had also been printed in some of the family’s early reunion booklets.  So for awhile, I had a mental picture of Grandpa Big Bob being placed on an auction block in Macon, Georgia, and “Masser Billy” was the highest bidder who purchased him and brought him to Leake County, where he was used as a breeder.

     Well, in 1993, my search began at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in Jackson.  By this time, Grandma had been deceased for nearly three years, but I still heard her voice in my head relaying some things about Grandpa Big Bob.  Indeed, I found him and Grandma Jane in the 1870 and 1880 Leake County, Mississippi censuses.  But I was surprised to see what state was reported as his birthplace.  See here for yourself what was reported in 1870:

 Now look what was reported in the 1880 Leake County, Mississippi census:

Now look what was reported in the 1900 Scott County, Mississippi census.  Grandpa Big Bob, reported age of 86, was living in nearby Scott County with his oldest daughter, Mrs. Adeline Ealy Orman.

      Even in the 1900 census, North Carolina was also reported as the birthplace of Grandpa Big Bob’s father and mother.  Interestingly, Virginia was consistently reported as Grandma Jane’s birthplace in 1870 and in 1880, so this recollection about Macon, Georgia did not initially appear to be about her.  I soon figured out that “Masser Billy” was William W. Eley, who lived in the neighborhood of Grandpa Big Bob in 1870 and was the only white Eley in Leake County and the obvious last slave-owner.  Billy was a nickname for William.  To add, further research findings have concluded that Grandpa Big Bob was first enslaved by Jesse Bass of Nash County, North Carolina.  When he died in 1822, his youngest daughter, Frances Bass, inherited Grandpa Big Bob and a slave named John.  Frances soon married William W. Eley, and they moved to Mississippi around 1837, bringing Grandpa Big Bob, John, and several others with them.  Again, why on earth did my family elders think that Grandpa Big Bob had come from Macon, Georgia?  I was bewildered.

     A possible explanation soon came to the horizon when I noticed what was reported as the mother’s birthplace of Paul Ealy in the 1910 Leake County census.  Paul was my grandmother’s father and one of Grandpa Big Bob’s sons.

      Someone reported that Paul Ealy’s mother (Grandma Jane) was born in Georgia.  Maybe the reference to Macon, Georgia was actually about her history??  But, the state of Virginia was consistently reported as her birthplace in 1870 and 1880.  Additionally, Uncle Robert Ealy Jr’s death certificate revealed that her maiden name was considered to be Parrott, which led me to figure out that she and her children by Grandpa Big Bob were last enslaved by William Parrott, who was originally from Lunenburg County, Virginia.  He had moved to Leake County, Mississippi around 1840.  William “Billy” Eley and William Parrott were neighbors.  Therefore, Virginia appeared to be Grandma Jane’s correct birth state.  Still, I felt there had to be a reason why Macon, Georgia had been part of my family’s oral history.  I just didn’t feel that it was thrown in the story to make it sound more sensational.  Besides, in Mississippi, the small city of Macon was probably not as well-known as Atlanta, Georgia or Savannah, Georgia. 

     Nevertheless, a light bulb began to go off when Norma Money, a direct descendant of William Parrott, shared info with me about his family that was researched by Dr. Mavis Parrott Kelsey of Houston, Texas.  To sum it up, here goes (pay close attention):

·         (1) William Parrott was born around 1789 in Rockingham County, North Carolina.  He has his wife, Betsy Johnson, had lived on a 300-acre plantation in Lunenburg County, Virginia.
·         (2) William’s father was Abner Parrott. His mother was Mrs. Elizabeth Parrott Sr., who moved to Greene County, Georgia, but died in Overton County, Tennessee where her son Benjamin lived.
·         (3) William had two sisters, Micah and Elizabeth Jr., who also moved to Georgia; Micah died in Monroe County, Georgia and Elizabeth Jr. had settled in Greene County, Georgia Monroe County is just north of Macon, Georgia, around 10 miles to the northwest.  Hmmmmm……
·         (4) MOST INTERESTING: There’s a lawsuit dated 1839, in which the executor of Benjamin Parrott’s estate (William’s brother) sued another brother, Riland Parrott, for part of the $1200 proceeds from the sale of a valuable slave named Jerry, a blacksmith, claiming that the proceeds from the sale belonged to the six heirs of their mother, Elizabeth Sr.  According to Dr. Kelsey, the court proceedings mentioned that a group of forty negroes in Georgia were entailed to the heirs of Elizabeth Parrott Sr. (William’s mother), but there was little likelihood of gaining title to them.

     There is little doubt in my mind that the reference to Macon, Georgia in my family’s oral history actually pertained to happenings in Grandma Jane’s history, not Grandpa Big Bob.  Although she was born in Virginia around 1829, perhaps when William Parrott left Virginia, he went to near Macon, Georgia first, perhaps Monroe County where his sister Micah lived, and stayed there for a few years in the 1830's before making Mississippi his final home by 1840.  Perhaps Grandma Jane relayed stories about her time in Georgia before William brought her and others to Mississippi.  Or perhaps she relayed to her family that some of her people were living near Macon, Georgia during and after slavery.  William Parrott was in the 1820 and 1830 Lunenburg County, VA censuses, and then he shows up in the 1840 Leake County, MS census.  However, this does not mean that he never went to Georgia.  I truly believe he did, and Grandma Jane probably remembered being in Georgia for a few years, but I have more work to do to prove my speculations.  Stay tuned!

     MORAL OF THE STORY:  Oral history has to be taken with a grain of salt until proven with documentation.  Once proven, one may often find that some parts of the story are inaccurate, yet there may be some parts that are true but misconstrued.


  1. This is just what I've found, some of it's true as told but some of it is true in a different way. good detective work!

  2. Great work, Melvin--and a great post with a valuable lesson.


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