Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The National Rosenwald Schools Conference and the Surprise Afterwards

Representing my employer, the Robert W. Woodruff Library Archives Research Center, I had the honor and pleasure of attending and presenting at the National Rosenwald Schools Conference that was held on the beautiful campus of Tuskegee University on June 14 – 16, 2012.  This was the first-ever national Rosenwald Schools conference held, and it was well-attended by nearly 400 scholars, educators, preservationists, librarians, historians, and archivists from around the nation.  The conference was sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, D.C.

Brief Overview

In 1912, Booker T. Washington and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald conferred on the education of African-American students in the South, particularly at Tuskegee Institute.  That monumental meeting marked the beginning of a partnership that not only led to six small schools being constructed in rural Alabama, but it served as the catalyst for the implementation of the Julius Rosenwald Fund in 1917.  That fund provided financial assistance for the construction of over 5,000 new schools, 217 teachers' homes, and 163 shop buildings that served over 600,000 African-American students in fifteen states.  By 1928, one in every five rural schools for African-American students in the South was a Rosenwald school.  For more information, see www.rosenwaldschools.com.

The Oaks – the home of Booker T. Washington on Tuskegee’s campus

The Conference

Beginning on Thursday, June 14, 2012, the conference included a number of education and plenary sessions, as well as tours, documentary films, poster presentations, and hands-on workshops to aid preservationists, archivists, and historians with their Rosenwald School projects. After arriving on Friday morning, I had the pleasure of attending the education session, Rosenwald Schools: Research and Records, which was led by Tuskegee’s head archivist, Mr. Dana Chandler.  This session included an awesome tour of the Tuskegee Archives, a wonderful repository for many great collections and artifacts related to the institution.  This informative session tackled the issues of archival preservation of records and photographs, and the group was allowed to view some historical treasures, including George Washington Carver’s notebooks and his Bible. 

 George Washington Carver’s original Bible
Yes, my flash was turned off. Photographing was permitted.

 Inside the Tuskegee Archives

On Friday evening, I also attended the documentary discussion session, The Rosenwald Schools Film Project.  The audience watched a preview of a documentary that is currently being produced.  This documentary will reflect on the stories surrounding a number of Rosenwald schools and the life of Julius Rosenwald.  After the viewing, the audience was given the opportunity to discuss with the panel the history of the Rosenwald schools, its impact on the nation and African-American history, the challenges that were faced by the schools, as well as by the Jewish Rosenwald Family.  The panel included several descendants of Julius Rosenwald – a grandson, a granddaughter-in-law, and a great-granddaughter. 

On Saturday morning, I was one of three presenters for the education session, Uncluttering Your Historical Records, with Elvin Lang, a former manager for the Alabama Dept. of Environmental Management, and Dr. Howard Robinson II, archives manager at Alabama State University.  Implemented and coordinated by Frazine Taylor, retired archivist, author, and genealogist from the Alabama Dept. of Archives & History, the session's objective was to outline inexpensive and timesaving steps to sort, preserve, and organize historical records, as well as address issues related to the preservation of old school buildings.  My twenty-minute PowerPoint presentation discussed resources and tips to properly archive records, and I provided examples of archival materials that are used to process old and fragile records, books, and old photographs.  After our presentations, we enjoyed an active Q&A session in which many addressed their archival preservation concerns and were subsequently given preservation and archival advice. 

Following our education session and other concurrent sessions that morning, a closing plenary was held at the Tuskegee Chapel; world-renowned poet, writer, educator, and activist Nikki Giovanni was the guest speaker.  Her powerful message to the audience had nearly everyone on their feet.  She awesomely sprinkled her message with several power poems that spoke poignantly to the plight of African Americans in this country.  The closing session also included a PowerPoint presentation about the new Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) that's being built in Washington, D.C.  This presentation was given by Jacquelyn Days Serwer, NMAAHC’s chief curator.  The new museum will open in 2015.  I am excited! 

 Nikki Giovanni Speaking!

 The George Washington Carver Museum

The Surprise

After I returned from the conference, a sudden thought (an ancestor’s nudge) led me to see if the Ealy School of Leake County, Mississippi may have been a Rosenwald school.  This school was located in the community of my father and paternal grandmother’s birth, Lena, Mississippi, and it was named after my paternal grandmother’s family – the Ealys.  I’ve known about the existence of this school for quite awhile.  However, during the conference, it never occurred to me that it might be a Rosenwald school.   Well, as I was relaxing on my couch, resting from my trip back from Tuskegee, Alabama, I googled “Rosenwald Schools Mississippi” and came upon a link to the Rosenwald Schools database that’s maintained by Fisk University. See http://rosenwald.fisk.edu/.  Low and behold, Ealy School was in the database!  It was indeed a Rosenwald school!

But wait, there’s more.  My maternal great-grandmother, Mary Danner Davis (1867-1932), and two of her sisters, Frances and Laura Danner, were school teachers in Tate County, Mississippi.  One of the schools where they taught was named Springfield School, located east of Senatobia, Mississippi.  I discovered that Springfield School was also a Rosenwald school!  Not only that, Fisk has pictures of both schools.  Stay tuned as I attempt to find out more about Springfield and Ealy Schools from their records.  I want to uncover how much my family contributed to the construction of Ealy School that prompted the Lena community to name it after them. 

 Ealy School, Leake County, Mississippi

 Springfield School, Tate County, Mississippi

Source of pictures: Fisk University Archives, Rosenwald Schools Records, Nashville, Tennessee

Friday, June 1, 2012

When Compelling Pieces of Circumstantial Evidence Just Ain’t Enough for Me

     With relative ease, I traced one of my paternal lineages back to my great-great-grandfather, Peter Belton of Vicksburg, Warren County, Mississippi.  He was found living alone in the 1870 census.  That year, his reported age was 23 (born around 1847), and he was the only Belton in the county.  His reported birthplace was South Carolina.  I found him again in the 1900 Warren County census and his reported birth date and birth place were January 1840 in Mississippi   Because of these findings and no oral history about him, I ascertained that tracing him back even further would be quite a challenge.  Unfortunately, I was right.  A number of clues were unearthed, but I have been longing to find something that I consider concrete.

     Before I go into a few details about my research of Peter Belton’s history, let me present a brief synopsis about a very interesting and notable figure in Mississippi history.  His name is Capt. Isaac Ross of Jefferson County, Mississippi.  I believe Peter’s history is directly connected to this man.  Maybe one day soon, instead of using the terms “I believe”, I’ll be able to say, “The facts are.”  On the other hand, the circumstantial evidence that I will present just may be preponderantly adequate for some people to positively tie Peter to Capt. Ross.  I’ll love your personal feedback and opinion about the weight of this evidence.

       In a nutshell, Capt. Isaac Ross left Camden, South Carolina in 1808 and established a large plantation in Jefferson County that was known as Prospect Hill.  When he died in January 1836, his will stipulated that his plantation be liquidated and the proceeds be used to provide safe passage for his 200+ slaves to be freed and transported to Liberia in West Africa through the American Colonization Society (ACS).  His will also stipulated that his slaves be allowed to vote whether or not they wanted to go to Africa as free men and women.  It further stated, “Should the slaves refuse to go there, they (except those that have been specially named) are to be sold, and the proceeds paid over to the ACS, to be invested at 6 per cent, the interest to be employed for 100 years, in maintaining an institution of learning in Liberia, in Africa. If there shall be no government in Liberia, the said fund to be transferred to the State of Mississippi for a similar institution.”

     Not surprising, his heirs contested his will and battled it in state courts for nearly ten years.  Well, the enslaved Prospect Hill laborers grew very frustrated, and they orchestrated a revolt that burned the Ross mansion to the ground in April 1845.  Luckily, Capt. Ross’s will was finally upheld by law, and on January 7, 1848, the first group of 35 former Ross slaves left New Orleans on the Nehemiah Rich. A second group of 141 sailed out of New Orleans in 1849 on the Laura.  Both groups settled near the towns of Sinoe and Greenville in Liberia.  Their saga is told in Alan Huffman’s Mississippi in Africa: The Saga of the Slaves of Prospect Hill Plantation and Their Legacy in Liberia Today

     Let me now present the circumstantial evidence of why I believe one or both parents and/or a grandparent of Peter Belton may have been on Prospect Hill plantation. 

EVIDENCE A:  The estate of Mary Allison Belton, Jefferson County, Mississippi, 1823 & 1827

     In my quest to determine who Peter Belton’s last enslaver may have been, I quickly determined from census research that no white Belton families ever resided in Warren County. I could not even find any white Beltons in the neighboring counties of southwest Mississippi, although a number of African-American Belton families were found living in those counties – Jefferson, Franklin, Claiborne, and Adams County.  This seemed odd.  However, an explanation was soon found.  Turns out, there was indeed one white Belton who resided in Jefferson County up until 1823.  Her name was Mary Allison Belton; someone had placed a transcription of her will online which named 16 slaves.  Dated April 12, 1823, it also named two nephews, Isaac & Arthur Ross. 
     Very interestingly, Internet contacts revealed that Mary Allison Belton, the childless widow of John Belton of Camden, South Carolina, had moved to Jefferson County with Capt. Isaac Ross and his family.  Capt. Ross’s wife Jane Allison was her sister.  The nephews she mentioned in her will were their sons.  I soon found her estate record at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, and an inventory dated Dec. 6, 1827 listed 20 slaves by name, age, and value.  Capt. Ross was the executor of her estate.  This was a major find, but unfortunately I have not been able to determine the names of Peter Belton’s parents.  Perhaps, someone on this inventory was his parent?  I look at this inventory in wonderment.

     1-  Bridget very old wench  nothing
     2-  Harry   ditto ditto           ditto  (ditto means same as above)
     3-  Fanny  54 years of age                                                           $100
     4-  Hector 52 years old Stepney 34 years old                                 800
     6-  Sam 31 years old Esaw 29 years old                                       1200
     8-  Jacob 29 years old Hector 27 years of age                              1200   
     10-  Jefferson 25 years old Ben 24 years old                                1200
     12-  Dinah 43 Mathew 7                                                               450
     14-  Mary 26 years old Laura 4 years old                                       500
     16-  Risse (?) 24  Irn alia worth nothing
     17-  Henderson 5 years of age  Peggy 24 years of age                   500
     19-  Thornton 6 years old  Adam  4 years of age                            400

EVIDENCE B:  Peter Ross and Hector Belton of Liberia

     Twenty-four letters were written by “Ross Negroes” in Liberia to ACS officials in the United States.  A man named Peter Ross wrote the most letters before he died after 1859, and many of them expressed his grievance over the Ross estate administrators’ failure to submit funds in accordance with the provisions of Capt. Ross’s will.  Seeing the name “Peter” among the “Ross Negroes” raised my eyebrows. 

     On October 12, 1849, a man named Hector Belton wrote a letter to John Kerr of the A.C.S.  He stated, “….Now my dear sir, knowing you were always kindly and friendly disposed towards me, even when Capt. Ross were alive, and I now am old and helpless, can’t work, let me intrude upon you, notwithstanding past events…”  Hector Belton was undoubtedly the 52-year-old Hector in the slave inventory of Mary Allison Belton’s estate, 1827 (see above). 

EVIDENCE C:  Location

     As I mentioned earlier, Peter was the only Belton in Warren County in 1870.  However, considering Warren County’s close proximity to Jefferson County, one can plausibly surmise that a connection to Capt. Isaac Ross’s slaves seems very possible.  Perhaps, Peter decided to migrate up to near Vicksburg when he became a free man?

EVIDENCE D:  Peter Belton’s Marriage Record

     In 1880, Peter married Mrs. Martha Wilkins (nee Miller) in Warren County.  On his marriage record, a man named Jack Ross was his bondsman.  Bondsmen on marriage records are often relatives or long-time friends. In fact, a bondsman named Wesley Johnson was part of my great-grandfather John Hector Davis’s marriage record. I later learned from an elder family member that Wesley was a first cousin to John’s father.  Seeing Jack Ross’s name on Peter’s marriage record was quite an eye-opener. 

EVIDENCE E:  James Belton’s Accounts

     An online contact encouraged me to get into contact with James Belton of McComb, Mississippi.  He descends from the Beltons who lived in Franklin County (see map above for its location).  Luckily, his contact information was in the phonebook and I called him up.  As a lover of family history, he was very happy to talk to me.  James didn’t know anything about Peter Belton of Vicksburg, but he shared the following interesting tidbits based on oral history told to him by his father, Julius Belton, who was born in 1888.

(1)   His father had two great-uncles named Wade & Edmond Belton who were part of the Prospect Hill uprising in 1845.  Edmond escaped to Louisiana.
(2)   Most of the slaves that Capt. Isaac Ross owned and transported to Mississippi in 1808 were obtained from the Belton Family of South Carolina.  Many of them were mulattoes and were known as the “Ross-Beltons”.

     These oral accounts have not been proven with documentation.  However, it establishes that the African-American Belton families in southwest Mississippi in 1870 are likely linked to the enslaved people on Prospect Hill plantation.  Yet, in my personal opinion, the circumstantial evidence have not been enough to positively prove that Peter Belton is linked to the “Ross-Belton” slaves of Prospect Hill as well. Or is it??  What are your thoughts?  More research will be done to try to determine Peter's parentage, which has been the major brick wall in this research.  I can’t let it go!  Stay tuned.