Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Who is My "Priscilla"? Many Rivers to Cross - Episode 1

Silhouette of an African Girl

The first episode of The African Americans, Many Rivers to Cross, aired on Tuesday evening on PBS. In that beginning episode, the story of the beginning of the African slave trade was outlined. In that segment, the harsh cruelties of the slavery system revealed a complicated story taking captive Africans from West Africa to North America.  

I watched the program, and reflected on how my own family story is incorporated into the story that unfolded in the documentary. As a genealogist with over 25 years of research, I have had the fortune of being able to take several lines of my family history to the original places in America where my various lines were planted. And thanks to DNA, I can also determine where in Africa at least three different lines began.From my maternal line, I know that a female who started out in Nigeria, ended up in Virginia. From my father's side,, I know that at least two of his gr. grandparents have lines that began as Balanta people in Guinea Bissau. But there is a wide gap from a that of a captive in West Africa, to being an enslaved woman or man in Virginia, or Tennessee. 

After watching the program, I decided for this first piece to look at one of my lines in more detail and to tell part of that story from the perspective of that one line. I was most captivated by the story in "Many Rivers to Cross" with the story of Priscilla from the Ball Plantation. This is a story that I have read about before, and seeing it on the program made me pause, and then I knew where I would go after this first episode. I begin with a simple question:


Who is my "Priscilla"?

I don't know her name, but I do know her daughter, or her granddaughter.

My oldest documented female ancestor on my maternal line is a woman called Martha. Martha was born in Virginia, about 1795. But her mother---her name is never mentioned--it is only known that she was "brought to Virginia."  But from where?  From the West Indies? Or directly from Africa?

Ages, as we know are approximate, and at best this birth year is an estimate, but her daughter Martha was born, it is said in Virginia about 1795, and I know that she gave birth to a daughter in the 1820s called Amanda. It was through Amanda that the few slivers of early family data are known, But thanks to mitochondrial DNA testing, Martha's line is said be directly descended from the Yoruba and Fulani, in Nigeria and Niger.

Nigeria! While knowing this tiny piece of data, I ask, what kind of journey did Martha's mother make, And who was this young African girl? Was she alone, with her mother, or orphaned like Priscilla?

And what route did she make from the Yoruba kingdom to America? There are many maps that reflect the countless numbers of voyages to the Americas from West Africa. Which one was my young girl on? And when did she arrive? In the 1700s---but when?

Image: Copyright 2003  Pearson Education


From where she may have lived, Martha's mother most likely journeyed from inland Yorubaland to the coast. And since her origins point to Nigeria, and specifically to the Yorubas, I also ask if her point of departure was Badagry? This is the largest slave market in western Nigeria, and had she come from this region, her small tiny footsteps definitely had to have trod through this area.


The town of Badagry sits on the coast of Nigeria not far from the Benin border. Signs throughout the town point to many places reflecting the history of the town as a center of slave the Nigerian slave trade. 

One can easily note that more than one family, and more than one group of people were involved in the slave trade in Badagry, a town where I have personally traveled. When I visited there in the late 1980s there was not a lot of emphasis on the town's slave history, But today, at least six different sites point to the era of the slave trade, and invite visitors and tourists to come and learn more about what happened. 

I cannot help but ask, whether Martha's mother passed through one of these places that today bring those visitors and tourists:


Did Martha's mother walk along the beach behind this wall to an unknown fate?
Badagry Slave Port


Was Martha's mother, held in a Barcoon cell similar to this one in Badagry known as the Brazilian Baracoon that held thousands before they were taken to the Americas?



And would she have been branded at this market before being placed on the vessel that would take her to an unknown future in Virginia in British North America?

Slave Market in Badagry, on the coast of Nigeria


Somehow in spite of the horrors of the unimaginable, the young girl who would become Martha's mother survived.  

Who was she, and how did she fare?
Who first enslaved her?
Did she have have any tenderness or kindness shown to her in her life?
Was her only joy to have been the mother's joy at birth when Martha was born?
And did she live to see Martha for long in her life, or was her child sold away from her?

Only a few details remain and they come through the few facts about Martha, her daughter. Martha, though born in Virginia was taken at some time from to Tennessee, enslaved by "Squire" Robert Campbell of Maury County Tennessee. Martha would give birth to several children during the 1820s. It is known that Martha and her children were living in the 1830s and would live through the Night the Stars Fell. By the 1850's some of Martha's children would be taken to Mississippi, as slaves of William "Tandy" Young, of Tippah County, in the town of Ripley. The Tennessee slave holder died and Martha's children "were taken in the draw" as the slaves in the estate were divided. Martha's children and grandchildren would live to see freedom and and the other chapters in that family line would eventually unfold.

But I still must pause and ask, who was Martha's mother?  

Who was my "Priscilla?"

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(The African American Blogging Circle is a group of genealogy bloggers who have decided to share their family stories seen through their own lens. As the PBS Series The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross Airs, the bloggers will be sharing their stories as seen through their own personal lens. Click here for a list of the participating bloggers.)


3 comments:

George Geder said...

Hello Angela,

I must first say that this is a brilliant piece of writing. I was with the story on every word.

This post is a great lead-in and inspiration for the African American Blogging Circle.

Who was my Prisilla?
That is a question (and challenge) for all of us. Thank you!

Peace & Blessings,
"Guided by the Ancestors"

Angela Y. Walton-Raji said...

Thank you George! This is a question that so many of us have and so few will have answered, but in their memory and in their honor, we must still ask.

Kristin said...

I found finding out where my MTdna came from very emotional too. It surprised me at the time. Even though we will most likely never know all the names and stories, the imagining and recreating was healing to me. Your telling made me remember what I can't remember.