Saturday, July 28, 2012

Diggin’ Up Family Dirt

I'm at the Tennessee State Library and Archives in Nashville about to "dig".

     Let’s face it.  A good amount of our family histories aren’t “peachy keen”.  History involves humans, and humans aren’t perfect.  Consequently, many – no, everyone – will encounter some family dirt when they embark on a journey to unearth their family’s past.  Some family dirt can be quite earth-shaking that it may cause an array of emotions – laughter, anger, sadness, etc.  Since the family dirt is in the past, hopefully it’s something that can be viewed with some humor in the present, and we can grow from the mistakes that our ancestors made.  However, if the family dirt involves the pain and suffering of other human beings that had residual effects, disregard my use of the word “humor”. Humor will be inappropriate, in my opinion.  Rather, we learn about the mistakes, acknowledge them, grow from the knowledge, and move forward with our lives with a better perspective. 

     Although the title of this blog post suggests premeditation to research specifically for “family dirt”, the research excursion that I am relaying in this blog post was one with a totally different intent.  I stumbled on the family dirt.  While I was living in Memphis, Tennessee, I decided to take a day off work (or I called out sick…can’t remember which) to conduct some research at the northern Panola County, Mississippi courthouse in Sardis, 50 miles south of Memphis. My great-great-grandfather Edward Danner’s Civil War pension file revealed that he, my great-great-grandmother Louisa Danner, her mother Clarissa Bobo, and others were enslaved by Dr. William J. Bobo near Como, Mississippi.  He had brought them to Panola County from Union County, South Carolina in 1858.  Learning that Dr. Bobo had died suddenly in 1863, after he was thrown off his horse, I wanted to see if there was a will and estate record for him at the courthouse.  Wills and estate records are some of the most valuable resources in tracing enslaved ancestors.  They often contain the names of the enslaved frequently listed in wills and estate inventories by names, values, and often by ages, too.  If you’re a fortunate researcher, slaves are sometimes inventoried in family groups. 

     To my dismay, Dr. Bobo’s estate record did not contain much information and no information was found on his slaves.  Why?  Because the legal matters of his estate were not handled until December 1865.  At that time, African Americans had been emancipated and were no longer chattel (property).  Dr. Bobo had died without leaving a will, likely because he died a sudden death; therefore, he died intestate.  However, my day was not totally in vain.  To my surprise, I saw the Danner name listed in the index of court cases.  The Chancery Clerk office worker pulled the file for me, and thus the “family dirt” was revealed. A quick tangent before the juicy dirt: it never ceases to amaze me at what researchers find in courthouses, local, state and federal Archives, and other repositories. Sadly, I’ve observed that some people in academia often scoff at genealogists, not considering their work to be “scholarly”, when many genealogists have vast experience and knowledge of many primary sources that can accurately document and tell a more comprehensive story about an aspect of American history. I digress….

     Anyway…..I learned that there was a family fight that ultimately involved the Panola County authorities.  This fight was over land left behind by my great-great-grandmother, Louisa Bobo Danner, famously known as Grandma Lue.  On October 3, 1898, my strong-willed, widowed, 56-year-old ancestress, a former house slave, purchased 100 acres of land in Panola County for $1,050.  I have yet to determine if Grandma Lue was the first African-American female landowner in Panola County.  However, after her death in 1921, all hell broke loose, in a manner of speaking. Siblings started fighting over the family land.  Another quick tangent/humor moment: I never shared this with my family members, so this post will probably be a surprise to her descendants who may read this.

The land deed of my great-great-grandmother, Louisa Bobo Danner, purchasing 100 acres of land in Panola County, Mississippi in 1898

     Based on my interpretation, the documents in the court case revealed that Grandma Lue’s oldest child, Uncle James “Jim” Danner, did not pay off sustaining debts from her estate when he sold a portion of her land without the knowledge and consent of his siblings.  Uncle Alfred Danner filed the complaint in 1924, with the backing of his four sisters, Mary (my great-grandmother), Mattie, Laura, and Francis, their two youngest brothers, Phillip and Edward Jr., and the widow and children of their deceased brother, Alexander Danner. In other words, as the court case was titled: “Alfred Danner et al, complainants, versus James Danner et al, defendants.”  Annie Danner, the widow of their deceased brother Mack Danner, was the only other defendant who was on Uncle Jim’s side.  Although all of the details of this family quarrel are still not quite clear to me, there were 12 family members against 2 family members. 

One of the documents in the court file – an affidavit to publish land sale notices in the Southern Reporter, the Sardis, Mississippi newspaper, February 1924. The newspaper clipping was a commissioner’s sale notice for the sale of my great-great-grandmother’s land that highlighted the family dispute: Alfred Danner, et al, Complainants, versus James Danner et al, Defendants

     After finding this court case, I questioned Uncle Alfred Danner’s son, the late Cousin Robert Danner, who was a walking history book. He died in 2008 at the age of 103. He remembered the family quarrel, as he was 18 years old when the battle occurred.  Although the legal dispute did not seem to create too much of a permanent division within the family, he shared how he had crossed paths in Memphis with Uncle Jim’s only child, Sarah Danner Paschall, and she angrily expressed to him that she wanted nothing to do with him and the rest of the family.  So, he went on his way.  Perhaps, her father’s conniving actions caused her great embarrassment that led her to distance herself from the family.  That is rather unfortunate.  Nevertheless, although Annie Danner sided with Uncle Jim for some unknown reason, her children maintained a relationship with many of their first cousins and did not let the land dispute break the family unit. The Danner Family has had several family reunions over the years.  I attended one in 2007 in Omaha, Nebraska. 

Disclaimer: If the descendants of Sarah Danner Paschall – some of whom probably still reside in Memphis, Tennessee – read this blog post, you are more than welcome to contact me and connect as cousins. It will be foolish of me to hold the actions of Uncle Jim Danner in 1924 over the heads of his living descendants.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

You Have A Story, Too!

     On June 26, 2012, I attended Rachel Swarns’ book presentation and signing at the National Archives – Atlanta branch.  She wrote the new book, American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama.  The title of the book is pretty much self explanatory.  Beginning in the 1800's, the book narrates the story of the First Lady Michelle Obama’s ancestors and their five-generation journey from slavery to the one of the most prominent positions in this country.  Her great-great-great grandmother, Melvinia Shields, was enslaved on the Shields farm in what is now Clayton County, Georgia, where she ultimately birthed several “mulatto” children, including the First Lady’s great-great-grandfather, Dolphus Shields.

     In an June 14, 2012 article in the New York Times, author Edward Ball noted, “Rachel L. Swarns, a reporter for the New York Times, has uncovered the story of an ordinary black American family, typical in so many details: generations of forced work on Southern farms; sexual exploitation; children born half white; attempts to flee slavery; emancipation at the end of a rifle barrel; terrorization by the Klan during Reconstruction; futility stirred in with pleasure and church in the 1900s; a stepladder into the working class — and finally, the opportunity that allowed for Michelle Obama’s superior education and unlocked 150 years of bolted doors.” (See source.)

     Although Rachel Swarns’ book is a story that should be told, I desire for African Americans to realize that we all have family stories that should be unearthed and told.  Many are great ones. Others will be not-so-great, but they all are noteworthy.  Sure, we might be a little fascinated and curious about the ancestral stories of the First Lady that ultimately made her what she is today – an elegant, brilliant woman and the first African-American First Lady.  However, the stories of Melvinia Shields and the rest of the First Lady’s ancestors are not any more special or unique than your family story simply because she’s the First Lady.  That type of thinking is absurd, in my opinion.  Her family stories mirror a lot of the histories of African-American families – the descendants of slaves. 

      Like me, many of us can relay accounts about:

·           That ancestress who was used as a concubine and bore “mixed” children; mine was my great-great-grandmother, Lucy Kennedy Cherry of Leake County, Mississippi, whose children could have passed for white if they desired. My great-grandfather, Albert Kennedy, did so when he traveled by train to Louisiana to visit his sisters so that he could sit at the front.
·            Those ancestors who were sold away or taken away from their family like Melvinia was taken away from her family in Spartanburg, South Carolina; mine were named Bill Reed, Pleasant Barr, Polly Partee, Bob Ealy, Caroline Morris, Jack Bass, Edward Danner, and many more.
·           Those ancestors who persevered and accumulated some form of wealth like Dolphus Shields; mine were Bill Reed, Paul Ealy, and others.
·         That ancestress who looked “Indian-ish” and who had “hair so long that she sat on it”; mine was my great-great-grandmother, Louisa Bobo Danner of Como, Mississippi.
·           Many of us even have stories of ancestors fighting over hard-earned land; mine was my great-grandmother’s conniving oldest brother, Jim Danner, a root doctor who was sued in 1924 by the rest of his siblings for selling off land without their consent (a future blog post).
·            AND, if we are really lucky, a few of us may even have oral history about an ancestor from Africa who was captured, endured the Middle Passage, and was disembarked in Charleston, South Carolina, Virginia, New Orleans, Savannah, Mobile, or in Maryland.

     The point is: The First Lady's family stories are our stories, and our stories are the First Lady's stories.  This sentiment was echoed by a Facebook friend and National Archives’ Education Specialist, Kahlil Gabrin Chism, who wrote the following in his Facebook comment after reading an article entitled The Complex Tapestry of Michelle Obama’s Ancestry: “Umm….couldn’t this article just as easily be titled ‘The Complex Tapestry of INSERT RANDOM AFRICAN-AMERICAN HERE’s Ancestry’? Duh.” 

     Let me briefly demonstrate how any random African American’s family story can involve a fascinating and complex tapestry.  During Black History Month in 2007, while I was a full-time graduate student at Clark Atlanta Univ., my grad school buddy and possible cousin, Travis Lacy, and I had a discussion about tracing his family history.  He had never done it and was curious about his ancestry.  We both were consumed with graduate classes, reading assignments, papers to write, presentations to give, and thesis preparations.  However, Travis found the time to do something that many should do to start uncovering their family history – talk to the elders.  He called his aunt in Phoenix, Arizona and got some background information about his maternal grandmother’s family, who had migrated to Arizona from Okmulgee County, Oklahoma.  His great-grandmother was Irene Erath McCuin Sanders, who was born around 1908 in Oklahoma.  She and her family were known to have been rather fair-skinned.   

     Easily accessible via, census records were researched to see what I could quickly find.  Travis’ great-grandmother Irene was found in the 1910 Okmulgee County, Oklahoma census.  She was in the household of her parents, John Wesley & Phennie Erath; everyone in the household was noted as “mulatto”, which corroborated the oral history about the skin tone of Irene and her family.  Interestingly, John Wesley Erath’s birthplace was reported as Texas, around 1880.  Travis did not know that there was a Texas link on this side of his family.  Here’s an image of that 1910 census:

John Wesley & Phennie Erath, 1910 Okmulgee County, Oklahoma census, Boley Township 
(Note: Irene was erroneously spelled “Arene”.)

     I was then able to locate Travis’ family in Texas in 1900.  They had migrated to Oklahoma from McLennan County, Texas sometime before 1908. The city of Waco, Texas is in this county.  John Wesley Erath was in the household of his father and stepmother, John & Annie Erath.  Here’s that census image:

John & Annie Erath, 1900 McLennan County, Texas census, Justice Precinct 1

     Further investigation of the earlier census records revealed that Travis’ great-great-great-grandfather John Erath was the son of John Wesley & Nancy Erath, who were born into slavery around the late 1830’s.  I soon discovered that the Erath name in Travis’ family came from the last slave-owner, George Bernard Erath, who had migrated to America from Vienna, Austria in the early 1800’s. George B. Erath, his wife, and children were the only white Eraths in McLennan County. In 1860, he owned 11 slaves, as per the 1860 McLennan County slave schedule. (Note: slave schedules only report the names of slave-owners and the age, sex, and color of their slaves.) Here’s that 1860 census image:

1860 McLennan County, Texas slave schedule, George Bernard Erath
The 25-year-old black male was most likely Travis’ 4th-great-grandfather, John Wesley, and the 25-year-old mulatto female might have been John Wesley’s wife, Nancy

George Bernard Erath (1813 – 1891)

     However, I soon learned that George B. Erath was not only a slave-owner, but he was a surveyor and a Texas Ranger who laid out the plans for the city of Waco, Texas, which was founded in 1849, as well as the plans for the town of Stephenville, Texas.  Travis’ fourth-great-grandfather John Wesley was a teenage boy at the time, but one can plausibly assert that John Wesley may have assisted George as he surveyed the land that was to become Waco, Texas.  This research of a random African-American named Travis from Los Angeles led to me discovering that his history is directly connected to the establishment of Waco, Texas.  More in-depth research in Texas just may uncover a “complex Tapestry” between the white Eraths and the African-American Eraths that were Travis’ ancestors.  We all have that “complex Tapestry” in our history. It just needs to be dug up and told.  Collectively, all of our family stories provide a microscope into American and African-American history.

Statue of George Bernard Erath in Waco, Texas
(Source: Wendi Lundquist)

 Aerial View of Downtown Waco, Texas. In 2010, the city had a population of 124,805.
George Bernard Erath, the enslaver of Travis' 4th-great-grandfather John Wesley Erath, was noted as the surveyor who surveyed the area and laid out the plans for Waco, which was established in 1849. The 1850 slave schedule reported George Erath with one male slave, a teenage boy who was likely John Wesley. One can plausibly assert that John Wesley may have assisted George Erath with the survey and plans for Waco, Texas.

Travis Lacy, his wife, Lerniece, and their daughter, Asia, reside in Los Angeles, California.  He is currently a Ph.D. candidate in African-American Studies at the University of Nevada at Reno and is currently working on his dissertation.  An aspiring professor and ethnomusicologist and a music enthusiast, writer, and historian, his blog is Just SOul You Know and can be read at