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.

"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 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 listed 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 story, 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. So, I decided to read it.

Now, I should explain, that I have ancestors from Indian Territory. 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 would do to my ancestral community.

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.

***************** *****************
Articles from Social Media

USCT's Buried in Mass Grave, To Be Honored at Jefferson Barracks

After decades spanning over a century, 173 men who escaped slavery, fought for their freedom, and won, only to succumb to disease will have their names restored.
In 1866 men of the 56th US Colored Infantry died of cholera on route to Missouri where they were to be discharged and to live their new lives in freedom. An epidemic of Cholera struck the steamers that took them back to Missouri and within a few short days in August 1866 many would succumb. Many were buried in Quarantine Island and in 1939 their bodies were removed to Jefferson Barracks cemetery. But instead of single burials, they were placed in a large mass grave with their names no longer identifying their remains.
Thanks to the efforts of the St. Louis African American History and Genealogy Society, the names are now going to be placed on the site of the mass grave, and at last the "Unknown" designation of these soldiers at the cemetery will no longer describe who they are.  A plaque will be unveiled this Friday at Jefferson Barracks bearing the names of each these freedom fighters, and a respectful ceremony is also being planned.
Ms. Sarah Cato, a member of the society shared a press release from the Office of Veteran's Affairs inviting the public to attend this ceremony that will restore the honor to these soldiers.

The society is to be congratulated for its hard work in honoring these soldiers, and the names of these men can now be seen and known by all.

May these men rest in peace, and may their honor, service and record be known forever.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Reflections from MAAGI 2014

The second year of the Midwest African American Genealogy Institute took place last week in St. Louis Missouri at Harris Stowe State University, and it was an honor to be a part of it once again!

I can only say that the energy put into the classes, by both faculty and participants alike was truly amazing and so many had their genealogical process enhanced and expanded by the experience.

Was MAAGI Just Another Conference?

Not at all! This was a teaching institute and there was a good amount of "hands on" work, homework and projects. The participants were kept busy and they found that much of what they worked on, could be put to use immediately.

Last year, someone asked if this was an event "where people just talked about their own family history"! Nothing could be further from the truth!

And in fact, one only has to look at the courses offered to see that no such thing is a part of MAAGI and shall never be! And the structure of the institute guarantees that the program will not be a platform for people simply show what they did with their own family tree.

MAAGI is an institute where instructors teach and do not simply talk. From Technology, to Broadcasting, and from the scrutiny of pension files to planning their own blogs and platforms, the participants emerged as activists in the genealogy community. So no, it is not a conference at all and one will not find themselves bored with a story of how someone documented their own family.

On any day, one could peer into the classes and see small groups analyzing Civil War Pension files looking for briefs, or rehearsing for a radio broadcast, or even analyzing selective service records. As an educator, I appreciated seeing the hands on activities that kept participants engaged.

A real highlight was to watch an evening study group form and to watch how so many worked hard with their instructor on personal time lines, and got assistance from each other over a periods of several hours.

Professor Shelley Murphy gave every single person in the group individual attention, and to see that group in the hotel working around a table with laptops and notepads.

Renate Sanders of Virginia works on her laptop while a colleague looks on.
(Photo: Courtesy of Charles Brown)

Gary Franklin of Ohio listens closely as another group member speaks
 (Photo: Courtesy of Charles Brown)

Professor Shelley Murphy explains ancestral time lines as others listen.
(Photo: Courtesy of Charles Brown)

Pat Meredith of St. Louis takes copious notes during study session.
(Photo: Courtesy of Charles Brown)

It was fun to observe and later to listen to participants in Track 4 as they began to organize and plan the radio broadcast for Blog Talk Radio. Konnetta Alexander took the lead and directed some of the initial discussion for the group, working on the white board as the participants organized their possible topics for their broadcast.

Konnetta Alexander of Nashville TN records suggestions from Track 4 group.

It was exciting to walk around during break time and it was not unusual to see group members connecting and having intense discussions about research challenges and solutions.

Hazel Moore of Baltimore, and Argyrie McCray of Windsor Mill MD 
engage in detailed discussion of their research.
(Photo courtesy of Shelley Murphy)

There were also some amusing times such as when the photographer came to capture the Technology Track on camera, and they decided to take a photo of the photographer. The result is this fun shot of the classes with their camera's capturing their own image of the official photographer.

Technology Track photographs the photographer
(Courtesy of Nicka Sewell Smith)

The Faculty

We were honored to have two noted speakers of international fame speaking at MAAGI. Thomas Macentee of Geneabloggers returned bringing his technology skills with him, and Judy Russell, the Legal Genealogist dazzled two different tracks by sharing the legal policies that affected the lives of the families that we research!

Thomas Macentee of Geneabloggers and HiDefGen
(Courtesy of Nicka Sewell Smith)

Judy Russell, the Legal Genealogist

Janis Minor Forte, genealogists and author engages her class 

Nicka Sewell Smith shared the process of documenting the research process
(Courtesy of Bernice Bennett)

Bernice Bennett leads a session on DNA
Courtesy of Linda Bugg-Simms

Drusilla Pair answers a question for student
(Courtesy of Renate Sanders)

Shelley Murphy working at the white board
(Courtesy of Linda Bugg-Simms)

Angela Walton-Raji on break between sessions
(Courtesy of Linda Bugg-Simms)

It is difficult to describe an intense learning experience, but it has to be pointed out that this year's institute was truly engaging, stimulating and also lots of fun! I appreciate the seriousness in which everyone approached the class and the class assignments, and it was a special joy to be part of the team that helped to make it happen. I can only look ahead with enthusiasm towards the future.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Heartache of Cudjoe Lewis

His story is well known. The man's name is Cudjoe Lewis, and he was the last known survivor of the slave ship Clotilde, which brought him from West Africa, to Mobile Bay. He is also said to have been one of the very last people still enslaved and finally given freedom.

His story is similar to that of others, he was kidnapped when a young boy, survived the Middle Passage, sold when arriving in American. But he lived to see freedom and he lived well into the 20th century.

Thanks to the hard work of prolific writer Zora Neale Hurston, he was actually captured on film before he died in the 1930s. The Clotilde captured people from Dahomey (now known as the Benin Republic) and brought them into Mobile Bay in 1860.

Much as been written about him, and there are also a few images of Mr. Lewis that also survive. Though he lived well until the the 20th century, he never saw his beloved homeland ever again, he had longed for his return and frequently stated a desire to see home, again passage, his wish was never granted.

As I read about his life, I wanted to know more about Cudjoe Lewis, the  man. Perhaps, the fact that that this man who longed so, for his Native Africa, but was never to see it again, struck a note in my soul. Simply put, no one in the post Civil War South or North ever saw it in their heart nor kind spirit to return these captives of the Clotilde back to the land where they belonged. With time, he later admitted that he would, most likely not know his home anymore and beyond that, he would probably not find anyone who would have remembered him, either.

As I read the accounts of his life I noticed the names of his children were known, and I noticed that he did manage to pass a small piece of Africa to them. They had a mixture of western names, and also African names. Some of the names were from the West African Yoruba language.

So, I spoke to my husband about their names, and learned even more. My husband is Yoruba, and speaks 4 languages, three of which are from West Africa. He is fluent in Twi, Hausa, and Yoruba. So, I read to him the names of Cudjoe Lewis’ children, he pointed out quickly that some of the names were indeed Yoruba names that had meanings. 

And as he told me what the names actually mean in English, I felt even more about Cudjoe Lewis, and how his heart ached so to go home.

His children’s names were
Aleck Iyadjemi  Lewis (Translation of Iyadjemi: "I suffered")
James Ahnonotie Lewis
David Adeniah Lewis (Translation of Adeniah which is actually Adenirah "The Crown has Lineage")
Polee Dahoo Lewis
Cudjoe Kazolla Lewis Translation (Translation of  Kazolla, which is actually Kajola: “Let’s survive together”)
Celia Ebeossi Lewis  (Translation of Ebeossi, which is actually Ebiosi  “There is no begging.” )

How touching---his heartache continued even as he had his own American born family, and it carried through with their names. Indeed how he must have suffered.

According to the Encyclopedia of Alabama, Cudjoe lost most of the children in his family as well as his wife, as all had early deaths.

 "He and his wife had five sons and one daughter. To mark their attachment to their culture, they gave American and Yoruba names to four of them and Yoruba names only to two. Sadly, all of the children died young: Celia Ebeossi died of sickness at 15, Young Cudjo was killed by a deputy sheriff, David/Adeniah was hit by a train, Pollee Dahoo disappeared and was probably killed, and James/Ahnonotoe and Aleck/Iyadjemi died after short illnesses. Abile passed away in 1908, just one month before Aleck died. Cudjo again suffered the loss of his family."
Source of data: Encyclopedia of Alabama

In the 1920s all of the others who had survived the slave ship voyage, had died, leaving Cudjoe Lewis as the lone survivor of that historic voyage. But Cudjoe Lewis had grand children and great grandchildren who lived in the community in and around Mobile Alabama. And it is believed that his descendants still live in southern Alabama today.

Mr. Lewis died in July of 1935 and it is hoped that the descendants of this distinguished man still honor him and his legacy. 

And is it also hoped that his heartache is now settled as he continues to walk among the ancestors. 

Cudjoe Lewis with great granddaughters.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Uncle Leonard and The Sweet Davis Orchestra - Forgotten Musicians of Little Rock Arkansas

The Sweet Davis Orchestra

My mother's uncle was Leonard Martin of Little Rock Arkansas, though he was known by some of his closer friends as "Abe" Martin. He was known to have been in several musical groups, including the "Rose City Band", and even his own musical group called, Abe Martin and the Southern Seranaders. But Uncle Leonard was said to have had a fascinating career playing his trumpet in a number of venues and with a number of well known musicians. It is not known how long any of the groups lasted, but the one group that has caught my attention the most has been one group, known as the "Sweet Davis Orchestra". 

Members of the group.
The full names of the group are not known, however, the photo above was made on a post cards, and Uncle Leonard, carefully wrote down the surnames of each of the participants.

Names of musicians in Sweet Davis Orchestra

Top Row: Brewton, Andrews, Mercer, Blackmon, Danille (or Danville)
Second Row: Doc Pepper(?), Alison, Davis, Longley, Porter
Bottom Row: Martin, Hopkins, Watkins, Cox

My mother's uncle Leonard Martin, is the man on the left in the bottom row.

Leonard Martin, Trumpeter, Sweet Davis Orchestra

 But who are the others musicians? They were based in Little Rock, but were they primarily a traveling band or did they play mostly in the Little Rock area? Did they play on 9th Street, which was the business and entertainment district of Little Rock? And did they ever play at the ballroom of the Mosaic Templars?

It was said that the Davis orchestra played in central and eastern Arkansas, as well as in popular ballrooms. I have searched, but have not found any evidence that that any kind of recording was made by this orchestra.

So who exactly was the band leader, Sweet Davis?
Was he from Arkansas, or did he move there from another state?

And the other musicians, can anything be learned about them?

A possible identification
Another name in the group, caught my attention, the man with the surname, "Longley". I happen to know this name as I grew up in Ft. Smith Arkansas where there was and still is a large family in the area, with that surname. In fact, the patriarch of the family that I knew while growing up was a Mr. Leland Longley, who relocated to Ft. Smith in the 1940s. He joined the police force and served there many years as one of the few black lawmen in the 1950s and early 1960s. Mr. Longley died in the early 1960s.

I learned several years later, that the Longley family of Ft. Smith, has roots in the Longley settlement in the Little Rock Arkansas community. And I also learned that for many years, Mr. Longley, the policeman also had a strong passion for music, and in fact had played the saxophone.

Could the image of the man in the photo identified as Longley (to the right of the band leader) possibly be the same Mr. Longley who later migrated to western Arkansas?

Musician Longley, of the Sweet Davis Orchestra

It is known that the youngest child of the Longley family, Christine Longley Gatewood wrote an article about her family history, including her ties to a Civil War soldier. In the article she spoke about her father's parents Egbert and Hattie Longley. Ms. Gatewood's grandfather Egbert was a Civil War soldier and married a much younger woman Hattie with whom he raised a large family. They were the parents of Leland Longley, who later in life became a policeman. 

Now, in an effort to identify some of the musicians of the Sweet Davis orchestra, I attempted to look up the names of some of the musicians from the photo. But there are no first names and it was quite a challenging task. But having seen the name Longley, on a whim, I looked to see if I could learn anything about Mr. Leland Longley before he moved to Ft. Smith, as I wondered if he ever worked as a musician. Well, I located him in the census. In the 1930 census he was a young man of 21 years, living with his mother Hattie and two other siblings. This was the Ms. Gatewood's father.

Source Citation: Year: 1930; Census Place: Little Rock, Pulaski,Arkansas; Roll: 91; Page: 26A; Enumeration District: 0007; Image: 53.0; FHL microfilm: 2339826.

Finding the family in the census was no surprise, and I know that Ms. Gatewood had well documented her family already. But what surprised me was the occupation listed for Mr. Leland Longley. He was a professional musician!

Source Citation: Year: 1930; Census Place: Little Rock, Pulaski,Arkansas; Roll: 91; Page: 26A; Enumeration District: 0007; Image: 53.0; FHL microfilm: 2339826.

So if Mr. Longley worked as a profession musician, could that have also included his having worked with a professional orchestra like the Sweet Davis orchestra? 

I realize that more proof is still needed but I am getting a strong feeling that this was the same person.  I did also note that the photo of musician Longley with the orchestra, closely resembles the image of Mr. Longley whom I had known as a child. Though the family may or may not be able to shine more light on this possibility, I have a strong feeling that this portrait from the Sweet Davis orchestra is possibly the same man!

So now, with possibly three men identified as part of the Sweet Davis orchestra, can more be identified? Can the the history of this long forgotten group be learned? And can more be learned about the man behind the band, Sweet Davis himself?

This is one of those stories that does not have an easy answer, but one that does require more research, and some input from persons in Pulaski County.

I have had this photo of the orchestra for many years, but only when I decided to write this piece about Uncle Leonard, that I studied the surnames of the other musicians.

My mother spoke so fondly of Uncle Leonard, and loved him dearly. I doubt if it was ever known that Mr. Longley who attended the same church as we did, and who was a close friend to my father, was a musician who had once played in the same musical orchestra her my mother's beloved uncle.

Hopefully with time, more will be learned. I would hate for this group to be forgotten and lost to time. In the meantime, hopefully those who study Arkansas music history will also be able to remember this professional, poised and elegantly presented orchestra, that was possibly part of Arkansas Jazz history.