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 NPR.org 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 ancestry.com, 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 http://justsoulyouknow.wordpress.com/

6 comments:

  1. Melvin,

    This is an excellent post. You hit the proverbial nail on the head!

    Peace & Blessings,
    "Guided by the Ancestors"

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  2. Your so right Melvin. Believe there are many people out there digging up the information that will give them the background for telling there unique story and with all the tools available, I believe they will make wonderful accomplishments.

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  3. Love, Love, Love this post!! You are so correct in your belief that many of us have similiar family stories. Reading your list of accounts many of us can relate to brought a smile to my face because I like many others also have ancestors who fought over land, looked Indian, passed as white and bore mulatto children! Great post. You have inspired me to make some time and start writing these family stories down.

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  4. Question for you. Do you know anything about Kemper County Mississippi??? Some of my ancestors lived there and I've done some research but it's really difficult because they had "SOOO" many court house fires there. I've read that many of the fires may have been started on purpose to destroy certain records.

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    1. Thanks! I don't know much about Kemper County, but if you haven't already, you may want to browse the catalog on the MS Archives website to see what records they have for that particular county. Good luck!

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