Sunday, November 9, 2014

Exploring the Cherokee 1890 Census


The recent partnership between the Oklahoma Historical Society and Ancestry has brought about more than 3 million records to the public. For Oklahoma researchers this is more than a gold mine, the data contains everything from census records to full color scans of  Dawes Cards, to marriage records, wills, unique tribal records and so much more. One special feature for Oklahoma researchers is the fact that while most US based researchers lament the tragic loss of the 1890 census, but Oklahoma researchers do have data from that year available. Many of the records from the Twin Territories (Oklahoma Territory and Indian Territory) were never lost! And now, one does not have to travel to Oklahoma to see them, because one can easily research them online.


Oklahoma Historical Society Description: CHN 04 1890 Census of Cooweescoowee District A - TData from: Indian Marriage and Other Records, 1850–1920. Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
Ancestry Source: 
Oklahoma and Indian Territory, Marriage, Citizenship and Census Records, 1841-1927 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA



I have written articles already about some of these records on my other two blogs. (Choctaw Freedmen Legacy, and African-Native American) However, because of the diversity of the data found within the Cherokee Nation 1890 census, I decided to post this article on my primary genealogy blog, because so many people can benefit from looking at this record set.
The records from the Cherokee Nation in 1890 focused on the four primary groups that lived within its borders. There were 1) native Cherokees, 2) adopted citizens,which included Cherokee Freedmen and Inter-married whites, 3) Delawares and 4) Shawnees. 

It should be pointed out that the qualtity of the scanned images is excellent, and generally load quickly on the site, and navigation is not complicated. The records are divided geographically by the various districts of the Cherokee Nation that existed at that time---Canadian, Coowescoowee, Delaware, Going Snake, Flint, Ilinois, Saline, Sequoyah, and Tahlequah Districts. I am showing images from the Cooweescoowee District below.

It its very clear to see how the citizens were described in the "Note to Census Takers" provided at the very front of the ledger.

Source: Same as above.


The design of the census schedule was different from the standard design of the US Federal Census. Personal information about the citizens was provided such as name, age, gender, race, and occupation.


The census schedule from 1890 census
Source: Same as above



This close up view provides a more detailed look at data collected.
Source: Same as Above.

It is also noted that this particular census schedule focused upon details of the land, and the personal property owned by each citizen, including crops, livestock as well as improvements made.

Additional Agricultural Data Collected
Source: Same as Above

At the end of each district is also a population summary. And one can see that data collected included native Cherokees, Delawares, Shawnees, Whites and Negroes. With the last two categories Intermarried white citizens were simply classified as "whites" and Cherokee Freedmen were simply classified as  "Negroes".


Summary of District's Data

Also it is important to keep in mind that this 1890 Cherokee Nation Census was made of persons who were citizens of the Cherokee Nation and this is not a census of persons considered to be "intruders". However note that there are Intruder census records that were collected in a separate group.

Hopefully many will see the value of one of the critical record sets reflecting the 1890 census year.

*

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Continuing the Legacy

Harper's Weekly, November 16, 1867

After 150 years of freedom I, a descendant of people once enslaved was able to exercise my right to vote, again.

This mid term election is significant as it occurs on the eve of the 150th anniversary of freedom, and yet, there are son and daughters of those who were once oppressors who have worked hard to keep me, keep my family and many others who simply look like me from that privilege. And many of them will take office, for the climate has changed into one in which code words dominate but they all are signals that say so much.

Such times and social climates remind us that sadly we cannot rest and take things for granted. The forces are there to accuse people who ask for change as being not worthy of citizenship. In recent  years we have seen acts of violence go unchallenged and dismissed with a shrug, and possibly many with such shrugs will take office soon.

Days like today mean that one small gesture can possibly make a difference. Yes, things come and go, and as society progresses, occasionally the winds blow, and bring in negative forces as well. But one things is constant and that is time. How we choose to spend that time is important, so, I made to sure take some time today, to try to slow down the destructive winds, so that they will turn into nothing more than a passing thunderstorm with the rainbow at the end. 

But to get to that rainbow, I had to take some time to do one small thing, that my ancestors did long ago, and it planted them firmly on the soil as people who could make a difference.  

I voted today.



Monday, October 13, 2014

Slave Schedules & A Wonderful Exception to the Rule




I recently shared information about slave schedules in my previous article and how they can be used. One of the points mentioned was that basically data collected on enslaved families, reflected information about the enslaved people, but not who they were.  And for the most part, this is true in the majority of cases.

But there are those rare exceptions when one finds something a bit out of the ordinary. About 20 years ago, a Chicago based genealogist Belzora "Bell" Cheatham made a remarkable discovery. The census enumerator of her ancestral county, Bowie County Texas did not apparently obey the rules while counting the numbers of enslaved people. In this case, the enumerator did what we wish all had done. He recorded their names. 

That's correct. The names of each and every person enslaved in Bowie County Texas was recorded for the year 1850.

Bowie County Texas 1850 Slave Schedule
Every enslaved person's given name is reflected on this document
Ancestry.com. 1850 U.S. Federal Census - Slave Schedules [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2004

It is truly amazing to see 23 pages of the names of enslaved people on this Federal Census slave document! Thankfully they are now all digitized and can be found on several online sites.

The challenge is the pages may have been damaged or exposed to some kind of liquid stain, as there is what appears to be a dark water stain on the bottom portion of each page.

Image from Bowie County Slave Schedule of 1850 revealing stain from a liquid on the page.


However, it does appear that with some tweaking of the image, some names may be partially legible even in the stained portion.

This zoomed in portion does reveal some names if enlarged a tweaked slightly, so some names might still be obtained.

Regardless, this is one of those exceptions that has to be celebrated--because these enslaved people were enumerated by name, and  this could be used by so many people. Texas researchers, Bowie County researchers, community cluster researchers,  and even historians whose focus is slavery can all find this one exception to be useful.

Hopefully someone will study those families in 1870 to learn who survived enslavement and made it to freedom. Others will also be able to study those who may have resided near former slave holders once freed. Of course it is also important to remember that this document was taken in 1850. Twenty years will have passed before their names would appear on a census page, and many things could have transpired.

And of course assumption and speculation should be avoided, but this is still one of those records that could point to and provide useful information, and should be mentioned as one of those rare and valuable exceptions to the rule.


Sunday, October 12, 2014

Slave Schedules - Use Them Properly and Tell The Story

1850 Slave Schedule, Coosa County Alabama


In this season of the ongoing genealogy television programs, many of us enjoy looking at the many records shared with the featured guests. We all watched recently the episode on Finding Your Roots, in which a slave document was shared, reflecting the estate of an ancestor affiliated with featured guest, Derek Jeter. The episode generated much discussion in genealogical circles on the use of slave schedules. Some find the documents to be useful and others are frustrated by the limitations of the 1850 and 1860 Federal slave schedules, and rarely use them for their own research.

Because there are such feelings about slave schedules and their value in the African American genealogical process, I thought I would address some of them here.


How can one properly use the 1850 and 1860 Slave Schedules when exploring family history? 
From the earliest census years, slaves were counted but it was not until 1850 and 1860 census that two interesting census forms were developed and used to document the number of people enslaved. These schdedules provided a) a numerical count of the numbers of persons enslaved, b) information about the person who was the official slave holder, or owner of record, and 3) notations about the enslaved individuals, regarding gender, age and complexion.

However for many African American genealogists--the one thing that could take them farther back in time is missing. The names of the slaves. Sadly--page after page contain nothing more than simply the name of the slave holder, and his human "property." This provides no glimpse of the families by name, during those years. So for many genealogists, it is felt that Slave Schedules provide nothing.

But they do hold some value, and it has to be understood that though limited, these records may still be useful in the research process.

What Slave Schedules Provide:

1) Names of slave holders during those census years. (see image above)
2) Numbers of enslaved people held within a specific geographic region
3) Useful glimpse at the size of the slave holder's estate

Partial list of slave owned by James W. Jeter, Coosa County Alabama, 1850
Ancestry.com. 1850 U.S. Federal Census - Slave Schedules [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2004.

4) Composition of real property, with the number of slave houses.


In the case of James W. Jeter, it can be seen below that he had 10 slave houses on his estate. That provides an idea of the size of his property and the number of enslaved men an women to work on the estate and maintain it.

1860 Slave Schedule, reflecting slaves owned by James W. Jeter, Coosa County Alabama


Ancestry.com. 1860 U.S. Federal Census - Slave Schedules [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2010.

5) Acts of Resistance among slaves--number of slaves missing or reported to be "fugitives"


Top of 1860 Slave Schedule provides a column to count runaways


As seen in this full shot of the Jeter estate from 1860, no runaways were listed.


What Slave Schedules Do Not Provide:

1) Names of enslaved men, women, children.




2) The total number of every slave held by that particular slave owner. Slaves were bought, sold, traded, rented and deeded continually.The numbers of people held as chattel changed and depended upon the circumstances within a household, an estate, or the presence of auctions for slaves being brought into a community. The total numbers reflect those in bondage only on the day that the count was made.


So, in the case of James W. Jeter in Coosa County Alabama, a total of 41 people were held in bondage on the Jeter estate, and they lived in a total of 10 houses on the grounds.

3) No specific slaves are reflected on slave schedules and thus are not easily identified. Even if the age of a person on a schedule is exactly 10 years younger that the targeted person appeared in the 1870 census, slave schedules do not pinpoint specific individuals with certainty.

4) Schedules do not reflect data pertaining to the lives of slaves. No occupation, or special skills can be gleaned from slave schedules.

5) Slave schedules do not provide an overview about the quality of their lives, nor how they were treated. 

How to Use Data From Slave Schedules

Though these documents are limited, they can still be a part of the family narrative. The size of the estate, the number of houses on a slave holder's estate and whether or not there were fugitives or runaways still associated with the estate can be gleaned and when speaking about the persons enslaved, one can share this data with family as part of the story. 

Here are some basic rules and precautions to follow.

1) Report What is Shown. Data collected should be studied and analyzed and then told without embellishment.

2) Stick to the Evidence. When sharing the record of enslaved people on the slave schedule, stick to the evidence. Though one "might" be the targeted ancestor, with no name listed, there is no evidence.

3) Avoid Assumption. A person found in the 1870 who was 25, is not guaranteed to be the nameless person on the 1860 slave schedule whose age is listed as 15.

4) Avoid invention. The slave schedule can be a tool and can provide some useful information about the composition of the population held in bondage, in terms of demographics. The ages of fellow slaves, the number of houses their quarters consisted of can be useful information. However, beyond that kind of data, no definitive statements can be shared without supplemental records to tell the story.

It is our responsibility as researchers and genealogists to tell the story accurately, and to maintain the integrity of our research by providing the evidence to support that which we share. 

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

In Search of Victoria Ardella's Family

We all watched last week's premiere episode of Finding Your Roots. The segment featuring Courtney Vance was the most touching, as he learned a bit of the history of his father's birth mother, Ardella.

Sadly only a few facts came out from the story, of a young teenage girl, who became pregnant by someone, at a tender age. She would give birth to the son, who would be raised in the social system, living in foster homes. But who was this young girl Ardella? She was a young girl, born victim to her circumstances into a world that was not a friendly one for her.

But she was a girl with parents, grandparents and history. Much was not shown though possibly edited out for the broadcast. But for me, I had questions.

Who were her parents?
Who was the loving mother who died and left her as a motherless child?
Were there grandparents to assist in any way?
Did she have others who showed her love?

I along with several other genealogy friends from the AfriGeneas community and from the MAAGI community have had numerous conversations since the program aired about the episode. There were several clues to follow, to find a bit more detail about Ardella Vance's life, and I decided to see what I could learn.

It was pointed out that there were no details about Ardella that were found in the census, and it was noted that the only clue about her came from an article in the well known African newspapers, known as The Chicago Defender. I was able to use a database and found the same article mentioning the circumstances about Ardella. That article provided a few additional clues about this young girl, from Arkansas.



The article was written in 1932 and she stated that the young girl "Idella" as she was called, had intimate contact with a pastor of a local church and that he may have been the person who left her in a "delicate condition." The case was later dismissed, and a subsequent news article by the research team for FindingYourRoots, confirmed that the pastor's case was dismissed and it was concluded that the pastor was not the father of her child.

But there is so much more to the story.

In the article it is stated that she lived with relatives and not her parents.  It did not mention her parents, and in fact the only family mentioned in the article was an uncle, James Holman. This provided more clues as to whom she was related.

An Error in the Broadcast
In the broadcast the voice over said that there was no trace of Ardella in the Census. (Advance the broadcast to 26:13 minutes.)

On first search in the census there is no Ardella. But could this really be true? She was from the small community near Brinkley Arkansas, located in Monroe County. Since Arkansas is my home state, I was extremely curious and began to study the community. There was one cluster of Vance's that lived in that area for some time. But sure enough---there was no Ardella.

I mentioned this to some genealogy colleagues, and one of them (Sarah Cato of St. Louis) pointed out to me that her name was not just Ardella Vance, but that it was Victoria Ardella Vance. She had noticed that on the screen when the show aired. So, I re-watched the online version of the program, and sure enough on the family tree presented to Mr. Vance, her name appeared as Victoria Ardella Vance.

Image from PBS Finding Your Roots, showing Ardella's full as "Victoria"
For full image scroll to 28:10 on the broadcast. Click HERE

So I followed that suggestion, and looked for Victoria, and I was surprised to find her!

In fact she was in the census twice in the same year!

Since the voice over narration mentioned that Ardella was said to have been about 17 years old, in the 1932 article that meant that she was born about 1915. Therefore, I looked for Victoria in the 1920 census and found her there with her father, a step-mother and others.
Year: 1920; Census Place: Dixon, Monroe, Arkansas; Roll: T625_73; Page: 7A;Enumeration District: 93; Image: 765

Interestingly, also in 1920, there was another child in the same community, in Brinkley Arkansas named Victoria Vance as well. And in this household, she was a grandchild. And in addition---another tie in to the article in the Chicago Defender---the Holman family!

Year: 1920; Census Place: Brinkley, Monroe, Arkansas; Roll: T625_73; Page:7A; Enumeration District: 87; Image: 524

So the question arises---were these two enumerations showing a Victoria Vance--reflecting the same child?

Dr. Gates stated that Victoria's mother had died when Ardella was two years old, so her mother would not be present in the 1920 census. And the woman "Hattie" seen in the first 1920 census document above was most likely not Ardella's mother, but her step mother. And the same woman was only 24 years old, and had just given birth to a baby, in that census document. (The youngest child was 0 month's.) She may have been the "new wife" alluded to on the broadcast

Plus note---the first census reflecting Victoria with a father and siblings was taken on the 3rd of January, 1920 and the second census reflecting Victoria with a grandfather from the Holman family, was taken later in the same month---the 24th of January. So this is quite possibly the evidence reflecting the fact that this was the child Victoria Ardella being shuttled from household to household.

But could there possibly more evidence connecting Victoria Ardella to the Holmans?
In other words--can it be proven that Victoria was the same "Idella" mentioned in the Chicago Defender article above? And if so--can a tie to the Holmans be confirmed in another way?

Well, I found the connection in a marriage record. 

In 1911, Todd Vance married Kate Holman. Ardella's mother was Kate. Kate Holman. I can now call her name aloud.  I could not help but find myself saying the same thing about Kate that Courtney Vance said on the program about Ardella, "Wow, that's a pretty name."

Marriage Record of Ardella's parents

Now it was pointed out that the Chicago Defender article revealed that there was an uncle called James Holman who lived in the same household. Well, in that second census document shown above, there is a young boy called James Holman living with his parents John and Pollie.These were Victoria Ardella's grandparents, the Holmans.

So within a month's time this child was living with her father and a new wife and young baby, then three weeks later, enumerated with the Holman family grandparents.

I wanted to find Katie, Victoria Ardella's mother in her life before marriage as well. Katie Holman Vance's name was never named on the program, but her name needs to be shown, and needs to be said. 

Hopefully the current Vance family was given this data.

So I went looking and I found Katie Holman, in the 1910 census, a year before she married Todd Vance. And at that time, she was living with her own parents, John and Pollie Holman. And in that household, was the younger brother James, who was later mentioned in the newspaper, as the uncle to "Idella".

(This is the document showing Victoria Ardella's grandparents the Holman family. Katie--Ardella's mother is shown as the oldest child in the household at that time. This document reflects the Holman family a year before the marriage to Todd Vance.)


By the early 1920s when Ardella was still a young girl, her grandfather John Holman died, thus leaving the Holman's now without the head of household. 




In an effort to learn more about the Holman family (Ardella's mother's side) I see that Uncle Henry was actually John Henry, and in 1917, he registered for the Draft as was required at that time.

Draft Card of John Henry Holman, son of John Holman, Brinkley Arkansas. John Henry was the brother to Kate Holman and a great uncle to Victoria Ardella Vance.

Source:
"United States World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918," index and images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.3.1/TH-1951-25075-40866-73?cc=1968530 : accessed 30 Sep 2014), Arkansas > Monroe County; Hackelton, Joseph F.-Z > image 318 of 3022; citing NARA microfilm publication M1509 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d).

My curiosity for the Holmans stemmed from the fact that Victoria Ardella did have a legacy and a family that was not rooted totally in tragedy.

It is true, that her mother died when she was young and little Victoria Ardella did get moved around. But this must be said, her trials in life did not and do not define the legacy of Conroy Vance, nor his descendants. They came from a family with a foundation. Although the tragedies in Victoria Ardella's life put her on a different trajectory path, her descendants should not feel that their legacy through Ardella's line was rooted completely in tragedy.

On significant clue comes from the 1910 census record in which Katie (Ardella's mother) was found living with her Hollman family.

In that record, using one of the tools on the Ancestry site, it was indicated that John Hollman, Katie Holman's father owned his own land. He was not a poor sharecropper at that time, but he was himself a landowner. He was his own man, carving out a living as a land owning farmer.

(Source: Same source cited in same image above.

(The fact that he owned his own land, can eventually lead the Holman family researchers to additional information by inquiring in the county court house to find out about the history of his land ownership.)

But yes, there were tragedies that the young Ardella faced, in her young life, including the loss of her son Conroy to the social service system, But that was only part of the story. And there were many other clues found in the broadcast last week that were most likely given to Mr. Vance, the guest. 

For example, Ardella had another child.

The voice over narration by Dr. Gates, mentioned that she was pregnant at 15, and we know from the articles that Conroy Vance was born when she was 17. And it appears that the researchers for the broadcast had found the other child, and in fact they had located the social security application of that older child, a male child. (See the following image.)

Image shown on PBS Program Find Your Roots.
(Ardella's first son's name is blocked out for privacy to persons who may still be living.)

The image was flashed on the screen very quickly, but I was able to see it. I have intentionally blotted out the name of the other child, out of respect for the families involved, as there are most likely other living relatives related to the first child. On that application for a social security number,  the parents are named. One can see Ardella's name faintly on the record. To the left is the name of the father, and sadly it is noted that the father of the child was a Vance. A relative of Ardella. Yes, this tender young girl was most likely taken advantage of by a relative. 

One cannot help but feel compassion for this young girl who ended up so soon, in Chicago, as a young frightened mother. And she then sought safety in a place that would lead to a second pregnancy---her church.

The story of Ardella's situation attracted attention in Chicago, and it was even covered in the national press. In fact the Baltimore Afro American featured the story as well when the pastor was freed of paternity charges.

Summary of the case from Baltimore newspaper


However, Ardella's tragedy does not define the Vance family history.

The Vance-Holman legacy is a strong one and should be noted. Through Katie Holman--(Victoria Ardella's mother), that line brought a rich and strong family tradition or hard work and land ownership, and spirit of industry to the Arkansas community where they lived.

The Holman family did recover after the death of John Holman in the 1920s. And it was Ardella's Uncle James who was her largest supporter during some of the difficult years when Victoria Ardella was so young and so vulnerable.

A follow up---Ardella's first child died in 1993 in Chicago, but there is a possibility that the Vance line is still alive in Chicago. And the Holmans have a strong tie still to eastern Arkansas as well.

Though Ardella's journey was a bumpy one--her son Conroy's line continues and extends to a successful line of astonishing artists and professionals.

Somewhere out there, Victoria Ardella who died in the 1990s can look down from her eternal home, upon the following generations of grandchildren and great grandchildren and realize that all was not lost in her tragedies. 

They are successful and hopefully, she is proudly smiling, saying "look at my children shine."

I was so happy to find the names of  the parents and grandparents of Victoria Ardella, and to see her as the young person that she was when she was a young girl, full of hope and faith. 

My only hope is that she also found some joy through the years as  her life unfolded. 
Ardella died in the 1990s but through her, comes a family that is truly strong. 

Perhaps Katie Holman Vance, the loving young mother that Ardella never got to know, also smiles with her as they both watch their descendants move on taking on life's challenges with success and with pride.


Friday, September 19, 2014

One Newsaper, Two Homes



Over a year ago, I was fascinated when doing some research to come across a digitized image of a Black newspaper called the Broad Ax.  This newspaper started out in Salt Lake City, and had an amazing history from an amazing editor.

Julius Taylor was a unique man with unique ideas that covered many aspects of politics. He traveled from Virginia, to the Midwest before settling in Salt Lake City Utah in 1895. A year later he launched the Broad Ax, from his base in Utah. This is amazing since at that time, there were so few people of color in the state of Utah. It is estimated that there were less than 1000 African Americans in the state at that time. It has been noted that in 1890, the population was less than 600. (1)

Taylor was often in conflict with people of varying opinions politically and religiously, but stated in his newspaper that people of varying opinions could respond to his thoughts "so long as their language was proper, and responsibility is fixed." [2]

Taylor could be described as a man of interesting politics in many ways. At a time when most Black Americans were politically leaning to the policies of the Republican party in the late 1800s, he was one who encouraged Black readers to consider more the politics of the Democratic party. Interestingly, that shift would occur decades later in the 1960s after the Voting Rights Act. Black registered as Democrats and those with more conservative and sometimes "anti-black" sentiments began to shift in larger numbers to the Republican party. Taylor often lectured how the preferred party of the time had abandoned the Lincoln values and had shifted away in a different direction. He particularly deplored the actions of the Republican Party convention of 1896 nominated persons of all religious and ethnic backgrounds except African Americans.

Julius Taylor did become a strong voice against the lynchings throughout the nation of black people and often was a spokesperson against lynching in The Broad Ax. He also worked tirelessly to encourage the placement of Blacks in Salt Lake City city council, where he met much opposition from a strongly conservative population.

Taylor did not have strong religious feelings and often spoke against issues and conservative policies of the Mormon church and other faiths as well.

His strongest interests were continually equality for all people and the sentiment was found often in his editorials.

Three  years after publication, Taylor left Salt Lake City, and after efforts to have involvement of people of color  and relocated the offices of The Broad Ax to Chicago, where he worked within a city that had a more sizable black population. (2)

************************

1.  Utah Digital Newspapers, Creating Citizen Historians [Link to quotation]

2, A detailed article about Julius Taylor and The Broad Ax can be found in a digitized copy of the Utah Historical Quarterly, Volume 77, No. 3, Summer 2009 p. 204.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Stories We Need to Read

A few books from my personal collection

Yesterday, was Alex Haley's birthday. A genealogy blogger mentioned it and from there, some interesting dialogue emerged. The discussions  about the merits of the work of Alex Haley's Roots, took me back to a conversation that I had over 10 years ago.

What came out of that conversation was the fact that for over 150 years, an entire nation had never been presented with the stories of those once enslaved people as human beings with loves, losses, trials, triumphs and basically human needs and conditions. Now, I had started a piece about this some time ago and had never posted it, but in light of the discussion about the merits of "Roots", I am compelled to share some of my thoughts here.  My point is that there is a lesson greater than Roots--and that, for me is the need to put the human face and to insert our own family journey into our history.

**************************

"But, I don't read romance novels," I explained to my good friend who was also my genealogy buddy. She had recommended that I read a novel that she had recently enjoyed and suggested that I read it as well. The book was called Topaz, and it was a romance novel by writer Beverly Jenkins.

"Well, it has your people in it," she explained. "It has people from Indian Territory and the main character was a Freedmen, a Black Seminole in fact."

Ok, I admit that she caught my attention with that, and I listened while my friend Argyrie explained to me, why I had to read this book that took place on the western frontier. She pointed out that there were Black US Deputy Marshals, in the novel, and that the plot unfolded in 19th century America, with the main character escorting a group of women bound for a town similar to that of Nicodemus Kansas, the black town on the Kansas frontier. I know a lot about the Black Marshals and have written about them on one of my websites. So, I decided to read it.

Now, I should explain, that I have ancestors from Indian Territory, which is now Oklahoma. My gr. grandparents were Freedmen from the Choctaw Nation, and since 1991, I have continually studied and researched the history of the Freedmen, once enslaved in the Five Civilized Tribes, (Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole nations.) So I was curious to see what author Beverly Jenkins would do to my ancestral community in her novel.

Well, I not only enjoyed it, but also, noted that the author, Beverly Jenkins got her history right! Next, I read Night Song, the story of a Black frontier school teacher, a freed woman who had a complicated relationship with a Buffalo Soldier. Her books were classified as "romance" novels, but I read them for their historical content.

And I read book after book---Indigo revealed amazing story of a free woman of color working on the Underground Railroad, and her experiences assisting people to freedom. Then, Vivid exposed me to life for women in the late 19th century who dared to enter the field of medicine when women were not encouraged to do so. And what a history lesson it was, learning about the all black settlements in 19th century Michigan! Then it hit me! I had for the very first time, read a novel that reflected people that I knew, people that I research and people who were my own people!

Three book covers by author Beverly Jenkins


Now, as I child as I was an avid reader, and I had read Jubilee many years ago, and it provided my very first glimpse into the story of people enslaved. It was a sobering book and it was also a poignant and painful book to read.

Jubilee by Margaret Walker was first published in 1966

Then came Roots, by Alex Haley. This too told a painful story beginning in coastal African and ending in in the deep south. But, somehow for me Roots put a human face on people enslaved. I remembered reading Jubilee when I was a teenager, and I recall how sad I felt after reading it. I was enlightened, yes, but sad nevertheless. And I had the same emotion with Roots, even after watching the parts of the mini-series that I could bear to watch.

Cover of Roots by Alex Haley

After hearing  about the historical inaccuracies in Haley's work, the story however, of the ancestral family of Alex Haley stuck with me, because I know that at least for the first time, on film, I saw the enslaved as people with feelings, heartbreak, dreams, though many times deferred. And I know that somewhere in the story of Kizzy, and Chicken George, no matter how much he erred in telling the story--they were still part of my story, too.

And now, here I was three decades later, long after Roots  I finally had new stories that reflected my own people---as human beings facing the challenges of life, without the backdrop of absolute adversity, of American slavery.

For the first time, as I read Ms. Jenkins works, I read stories reflecting people of color facing their lives, without slavery as the one and only backdrop. In fact, the characters presented by Ms. Jenkins were simply what I needed--men and women, like my own ancestors, facing life! And her characters were not victims, and were in charge of their own destinies as people--and I then understood what I had so long needed! So, I realized that as important as facing and embracing history was I also needed the stories of survival and resilience!

And perhaps as story told with Roots it gave the readers a much needed glimpse that there were such stories! So Mr. Haley had put a crack in the wall if nothing else. And once the wall was cracked--our stories have begun to come forth!

I learned that Ms. Jenkins was an avid history buff who liked to write, and she infused true history in to the lives of her fictional characters. And it must still be noted that Alex Haley put a human face and name to people enslaved.

I cannot help but wonder if perhaps because of his story, errors and all, Ms. Jenkins could come forth, years later, and allow her readers to visualize the lives of those once enslaved, who could emerge and who would carve out lives their own lives, in freedom! I know how I felt when I had learned of a writer who went far beyond static photos of people frozen in sepia toned images, and staring back from a plantation estate.

Now as a genealogist trying to tell the stories of my own ancestors, I still appreciate what Alex Haley did. He took the enslaved beyond the one dimensional caricatures of slaves and moved them from the horrid fiction of the 1930s and he let them speak. And the he also encouraged me to find my own story. And as I sought my own story, what a surprise to find some of my own ancestors as slaves in Indian Territory, enslaved once in an Indian tribe,--a still widely unknown aspect of America's story.

Enrollment Card from the Dawes Records reflecting my great grandparents
National Archives Publication M1186. Choctaw Freedman Card No 777


In recent years, I have come to read the works of others who also tell the unique stories that they have to tell. And many of these writers are from varying backgrounds.

I appreciate the work of retired professor Carolyn Schriber. who in her work The Road to Frogmore, described what it was like to work on a post Civil War plantation and how workers fared, as they struggled with exposing freedom to people who had never known it before. Her description of those once enslaved revealed the Freedmen as human beings and not as flat or static caricatures.

As one who explores family history, community history and also stories from the Civil War, I realize that it is critical that we embrace the stories from those who can tell them in an historical context. We need to know how they lived, to be able to truly show the value of what we have discovered.

So, I have come to appreciate the value of historical fiction, and the historical narratives as both being a part of how we view ourselves. And it is also through art that we find that life is reflected, and writing, when done well, is part of the world from which we find the answers to the questions we ask about ourselves.

So the discussions that arose yesterday,  about Alex Haley in social media were stimulating for so many reasons. And as one who dares to attempt to tell the stories of my own ancestors, I am still grateful for the possibilities given to me, by Mr. Haley, telling his story.

And as I tell that story, I shall not be distracted by time or the need to "finish the story" quickly, nor shall I be tempted to "borrow" the words of others. The story, when told, will be my own, and the resources will have to be cited clearly.

But on an even larger level, I hope to see more writers emerge in the genre of historical fiction, simply because we need them.

-I need to see and to read the stories of Freedmen of Indian Territory.
-I want to read details of the lives of Black homesteaders in Nebraska.
-I await the stories of settling down in Nicodemus.
-I look forward to learning what life was like for the Gandy dancers
-I yearn for those stories from the contraband camps.
-And I hope to hear the voices of nurses and matrons from the Civil War.

I know however, that the scenarios from Roots gave us the courage to tell our own stories. And even with the inaccuracies of his story, Alex Haley has earned his place.

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