Friday, November 29, 2013

"Yet Still, like Dust, We Rise"! Many Rivers To Cross Final Episode

The Final episode of the PBS Series The African Americans. Many Rivers to Cross took the viewers through several decades very quickly and the times were full of contrasts from confusion to cohesion, from powerlessness to empowerment, from war, to peace and back again.

The 1960s brought about so much change--the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act by President Lyndon Johnson, started the nation down a new path, towards a new beginning. But the times were not without pain and hardship along the way. Many people paved the way, and they were men and women of true courage and conviction. And I was a young adolescent watching and asking why. Some of these people still stand out in my mind, as they became my heroes.

One of the most heartfelt heroes voices was a poor woman, from Mississippi. Working most of her life on a plantation, she came alive when the voter rights movement took hold. And she fell victim to horrific police brutality in a Mississippi jail, for only fighting for that right to vote. But the beating in jail did not silence her. In fact, she dared to tell her story to the world. This woman told her story at the Democratic Nation Convention in 1964. I was about 12 years old that summer and I sat there listening to this woman tell her story. Oh the horror! Her name was Fannie Lou Hamer and she became my hero.

She had the nation mesmerized as she told the nation about her treatment in Winona Mississippi---a vicious town with cruel law enforcement officers. But yet, they could not beat her spirit---because she told her story. And she told it to the world. For daring to register to vote, she was falsely arrested, then beaten mercilessly in a Winona Mississippi Jail. And she was told by the sheriff that they would make her wish she was dead. But as they made other prisoners beat her, they never broke her spirit. It took weeks to recover from this ordeal, but she made it to Washington, and the law enforcement policies of Winona were exposed to the nation, and to the world. As hard as they tried, they could never beat the spirit of this amazingly brave woman.

Hear this brave woman tell her story.

Fannie Lou Hamer speech at the Democratic National Convention 1964

She ended her speech with the statement of why so much had happened to her:

"All of this is on account we want to register [sic], to become first-class citizens, and if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings - in America?"
* * * * *

The passing years brought about change, but it did not come easily. More violence, more terror was in store for people who dared to take a stand. And more blood was shed. With time, the movement evolved from one exclusively of race, but also of class. And in 1968, when Dr. Martin Luther King traveled to Memphis to stand with the garbage workers, his fate was sealed with an assassin's bullet as he emerged from the modest Lorraine Motel. 

And like the funeral of JFK, we were glued to the face of his beautiful wife Coretta as she and the rest of the world watched the funeral services. I was by that time in high school, and I felt so empty as once again, one who stood up for something was taken. I stared at the face of Coretta, his widow and I thought about his children, some of whom were close in age to me. They had lost a husband and father. I had lost a hero.

Coretta Scott King, attending her husband's funeral

But 1968 was not over, because two months later, yet another man of the people was to be taken. Robert F. Kennedy was killed in June 1968 in Los Angeles California. I had been impressed with this young Senator and somehow had a sense of hope, but on that summer night in June, once again, I had lost a hero.

The feeling of sadness and emptiness and loss was expressed for me that year, by one song: 

They say it is always the darkest before the dawn, and eventually the dawn did come. Those years when so much blood was shared by so many people, eventually gave way to new chances. The country somehow became a bit more tolerant and as the vote was finally extended to people some growth occurred and America took a breath and relieved itself of some of it's own misery by recognizing that there were others who were in their midst in the same country, and they too, could call the nation their own.

Other movements came and went. Some bypassed us completely. We never had chapters of the Black Panthers in my part of Arkansas. And the food programs, and health screenings that some people knew the Panthers for, were only learned about years later. Political battles were fought and won, and they were also fought and lost, but eventually change came. 

Racial stereotypes were removed from ads, and from cartoons, and the faces of color even on the TV screen became more than sporadic. We began to see ourselves in the media, and our music, once hidden as "race music" became accepted, and we found our way through the maze of 20th and 21st century society.

The most unbelievable happened in 2008 with the election of a man of color to the highest office in the land. And like all pioneers, he has had to endure indignities never offered to his white predecessors, but, like the elders and ancestors before us, he has endured. And he took the unbelievable had an encore performance---he won a second term. 

And while many of us shake our heads at the unending filibusters and extreme right efforts to render him powerless, he prevails and presides, nevertheless. 

We all know that the battle is not yet over, for it is known that a young man or young woman can be killed for playing music too loudly, or ringing a doorbell, or simply walking down the street with candy. These are the realities, but we know yet that in spite of it all, we rise.....yes, we survive, and we rise. 

Maya Angelou the poet described it so well........

Out of the huts of history's shame, I rise
Up from a past that's rooted in pain, I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear, I rise
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear, I rise.

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.
    ~Maya Angelou!  "And Still I Rise"

* * * * *

This post is the last of posts as part of  the African American Genealogy Blogging Circle project. This is a small group of African Ancestored Genealogists who have been watching the PBS Series: The African American. Many Rivers to Cross.  In response to each episode, the bloggers have been sharing history as they saw it, and they presented it through the lens of their own family history and personal experiences. The bloggers and their blogs.

Between the Gate Posts by Linda Durr Redd
Black and Red Journal by Terry Ligon
Finding Eliza by Kristin Cleage
Into The Light by Renate Yarborough Sanders
Mariah's Zepher by Vicki Daviss Mitchell
My Ancestor's Name by Angela Walton-Raji
Roots Revealed by Melvin J. Collier
Who is Nicka Smith by Nicka Sewell Smith

* * * * *

Sunday, November 24, 2013

An Unforgettable Year.... The Book of Me Prompt #12

Nat King Cole Sings "Unforgettable"

I can't imagine a lot happening on the chilly December day when I was born born. It was a Saturday evening when I entered the world in the early 1950s. But that year was a memorable one when I entered the world. But I am sure that my parents must have shared unforgettable moments as their family grew, and I know that they heard this song by Nat King Cole, "Unforgettable", and we had several of his albums. I know that they also heard another popular song on local radio stations. Tennessee Waltz, by Patti Page which came out early that year.

In popular newspapers around the country, one strip about a menacing little boy emerged, Dennis the Menace. I am not sure if our local newspaper carried it though.

In July of that year, in Missouri the first United States Memorial Monument  to honor an African American was unveiled.

A landmark book was first published that year. J. D. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye", hit the stands. I would later read that book in high school. And 16 years later, I would read that book in high school.

Book Cover, Catcher in the Rye
Source of Image: HERE

On the music scene, a 3 LP recording of Gerwhin's Porgy and Bess was released. Porgy and Bess was a major opera, and my parents would often speak of the music, and story and later the movie.

Columbia Masterworks Record Label
Image Source: HERE

As the family grew, I wonder what my parents thought as decisions about schooling took place. My brother was about to go to kindergarten that year. Surely my parents must have had major discussions when news broke that year about 8 year old Linda Brown and the lawsuit brought against the Topeka Board of Education. Brown vs. Topeka would be a landmark Supreme Court Case. The case was decided upon by the Supreme Court in 1954.

Linda Brown sued for the right to attend an elementary school near her home.
Image Source HERE

Parents always have the concerns of the health of their children. In that year polio, a terribly crippling disease became an epidemic that affected thousands of people around the country. In that year a black child was selected to be a poster child for the March of Dimes. I wonder if they ever saw her image. That year, more than 70% of all cases of polio patients in Vicksburg Mississippi, were black children and almost half in the entire state were African Americans.

Emma  Pearl Berry was selected as the first Black Poster child for the March of Dimes
Photo Source, Jet Magazine 

I am not sure when my parents purchased the first family car, but I know it was a blue Chrysler, and it was probably purchased as a used car. This is the style of the first car that I can remember this image of the blue Chrysler as the first car that we called "Nellie Belle".  I know that later they  purchased another Chrysler, a 1954 model that to which they also gave the same name.

1951 Chrysler Image Source: HERE

So our family grew that year, and I had arrived on the scene. Born in late December, that chilly day marked a new beginning for the family. And interestingly, as I am looking back at the Walton family line, I was the first female child born to that one Walton line since the mid 1800s. My gr. gr. grandparents had one son and one daughter. The young girl died before the age of three leaving my gr. grandfather. He, would have one son, my grandfather and no daughters. My grandfather had three sons, and no daughters. My father was the only one of those 3 son to have children. And my dad had two children my brother and myself. I was the first girl born in that direct line since 1850s. Thank goodness I am here to tell the story.

Indeed it was an unforgettable year.

An image of me as an infant.

Friday, November 22, 2013

"You'd Better Say Your Prayers. The President has Been Shot"

Headlines from the Ft. Smith Times Record, Nov. 22, 1963
Courtesy SWTImes

I was in the 7th grade at St. John's the small parochial school I had attended since kindergarten, and I was not yet 12 years old. I remember the day so well. Lunch was over, and we were settling in for afternoon activities. Then the principal, Sr. Annene came in the room, and interrupted the teacher and said, "You all had better say your prayers. The president has been shot." We all gasped and were speechless. The teacher asked, "is he head?"  "We don't know", she said.

The air was almost sucked out of my lungs, and I felt sick! President Kennedy? No!!
A feeling of despair suddenly was there! I remember the emotion so well, "But--he was our friend", I remembered saying to our parents. They knew what I meant--he was a friend, we felt to the Black community.

An announcement came back shortly, that we were to go over to the parish church and have a prayer service within the hour. How strange--we were all so quiet. Usually pouring into church before mass, included the usual fidgeting and the teachers going "shhh" to settle down to a respectful reverence. But this time there was no need. We were all silent, even the children from the lower grades were quiet. We were ushered into the parish pews and began to pray the rosary. So solemn, so quiet and so sad. School was dismissed early and we walked home quietly.

At home the television was on and the footage that we have all seen thousands of time since, was showing. The motorcade, the grassy knoll, the shots, people scurrying for cover, the first lady scurrying for cover, secret service men climbing on top of the car, and confusion.

I recall two days later on Sunday morning after early Mass, of course the television was on. My parents were in another room, and I heard them say they were moving the gunman Oswald. I saw a man rush towards the prisoner, and saw confusion and heard the words, "Oswald has been shot."
I was not sure what was happening and went to ask my parents? "So they shot that Oswald man, too?"
They looked at me, and then they rushed to the television set. Again--for the next two days the flurry of events were shown. Then came the funeral.

We all watched it. The motorcade, the military and John Jr. saluting his father on the steps of the capitol.

I was only 11 and so much had happened in three short days---and I remember trying to make sense of it all.

To me, to my family, to my school mates, to my community--he had meant something---he had represented a ray of hope.

The country had dared to elect a man from New England, a Catholic, and for many people of color, this president was possibly a true friend to the black community. And we had reasons to hope that year, the March on Washington in August of that year had given us more hope and more of the dream.

And this president had even met with leaders  in the Civil Rights movement. And to so many of us, this meant so much, as he represented justice and possible equality.

Image: National Archives/Newsmakers/Getty Images

But on November 22, things changed. I learned so much that day. And my life had changed forever. At 11 years I was a child and had never watched the news, but from that time forward, I realized that the world was much bigger than my small world, I realized that words like justice, equality and hope were so heavy and actions of people unknown to me, could affect me.

And I learned on November 22, 1963 that sometimes dreams are deferred.

"What happens to a dream deferred?

      Does it dry up
      like a raisin in the sun?"
-Langston Hughes-

* * * * *

Thursday, November 21, 2013

"They Never Saw A Child" Many Rivers to Cross Episode #5 Afr. American Blogging Circle

Painting by Normal Rockwell Depicts Ruby Bridges On her Way to School. 
The painting currently hangs in the White House.

Episode 5 of the PBS Series The African Americans, Many Rivers to Cross aired Tuesday November 19th. This particular episode was a poignant one, simply because it covered the years that were part of my own childhood. Much of the film footage I remember seeing when it happened. I was in school when the Civil Rights Movement was in full bloom.  The word "integration" was on the lips of everyone--whether spoken loudly, or in whispers when white people were close by.

I remember the fears some of which resonated in the home. My mother worked for the public school system, and she was often cautious and fearful if her own job might have been in jeopardy, if any relatives were known to be active in the struggle for equal rights. The fears of losing one's job for simply having a belief in equality was real.

In Little Rock, Arkansas we had our own national crisis when Central High School was integrated and the Little Rock Nine, courageously entered the school in 1957. I was too small to fully understand what that meant--but I recall that it was explained to me by my parents, that some teenagers wanted to go to a certain school and a mean governor did not want them to go to that school. That was about all that my 6 year old mind could comprehend. And oh yes---the teenagers were the same color as me.

Elizabeth Eckford Walking into Central High School, Little Rock Arkansas 

I remember seeing those photos and kept wondering why she was not wanted. I was only 6 years old, but heard everybody talking about, and I often stared at the images from the papers, because she looked clean and tidy, and seemed so terribly alone. I kept wondering why the crowd was screaming at her.

I simply did not understand.

And then there was Ruby Bridges, who entered school in 1960. By this time I was a little older ---8 years old, but that was enough to understand the issues of color and race. And I recall images in Jet Magazine of the little girl in Louisiana on her way to school. The real Ruby was a tiny girl, and I recall looking at  her in her dress neatly pressed jumper, with the crinoline slip underneath, in the style of the day. I looked at her, because I had a dress like that! And this little girl did not look different from many of my own school mates.

Ruby Bridges Escorted by US Marshals to School

So Ruby went to school, was also greeted at her new school met with screams of rage and hatred.
I knew that many people did not like people of color, but Ruby was so small, she was a little girl. She could not have harmed them.  But it became clear----they never saw a child.

They saw a color, they saw something that they had been taught by their parents and by the nation, to hate. Nurtured by a culture of  "hate for hate's sake", and encouraged by more than a century of legalized endorsement of that hatred and mistreatment they did what they were taught to do. And as the Ruby Bridges stated in the program, "they never saw a child".

In my town:

I reflected about what happened in my own hometown. I attended a small Catholic elementary school---a segregated Catholic school, of course. (There were 3 white Catholic schools in the city, and there was the black school, St. John's.) The high schools were unique---integration had occurred quietly on the high school level. St. Scholastica Academy had quietly integrated in the early 1950s, without incident, and St. Anne's in the early 60s. The public schools were next. The press and turmoil of Little Rock were on the minds of many in the city, and it was decided that there had to be a less dramatic way to integrate the public schools. Thankfully, there was no major drama, in my hometown. Some of the process was discussed in a video made by the Ft. Smith Historical Society Oral History Project.  (Scroll down to video with Mr. George McGill.)

We knew that our daily experience was not the real story, because restaurants and hotels and other public places were simply off limits, and we all knew growing up that to challenge things was dangerous. We had to obey to apartheid rules of the south, or face dangerous consequences. And always on the mind of everyone was what could happen next?

While watching Many Rivers to Cross, I remember watching most of the film footage that was shown when it aired. And like many children, looking towards a future with hope and wonder, I often feared what the restrictions would be for me.

From those years I learned early on, to ask, the question "do they allow us there?" Many of us know when driving into the country to be cautious--because we know about Sundown Towns.  And countless numbers of people of my generation, when we were children never experienced the "great outdoors", because we knew that if we went the wrong way, many, if not most, would never see the child.

So common events like camping, unless it was truly protected was not a spur of the moment option for any of us. We knew it, and would be foolish to think otherwise. Unless an outdoor swimming hole was on the property of a relative--one would never dare to think that it would be fun to take a splash. We new better and our parents protected us for they also knew that strangers would never see the child.

These words stood out for me in that episode the most, and I was compelled to write some words.

They Never Saw A Child

One day, six year old Ruby went to school, and was met by an angry mob.
But they never saw a child.

Children marched in Selma, and were sprayed with water hose and bitten by dogs.
But they never saw a child.

In Birmingham, children from 6 to12 marched with Dr. King and were thrown in jail.
But they never saw a child.

In far away Soweto, far away, boys and girls took bullets.
Because there too, they never saw a child.

And in today's world, teenager Travon in Florida, walked with candy and tea.
But was killed, when an armed man, refused to see the child.

This 5th episode brought back many memories and emotions for me. These were trying times, but we are obligated to tell those stories.

I have to say a thank you to Ruby Bridges for her innocence and her courage.

* * * * *

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Quilter Told My Story

The Famous Bible Quilt of Harriet Powers

Genealogy is a passion and not a single day in the year passes in which I am not engage in some kind of genealogical activity. Some days I bury myself in census records, and other days, I study the Dawes Roll, Kern Clifton Roll and Dunn Roll from Indian Territory. On another day, Civil War research might take up my time, and a different day might take me to a cemetery as my eyes scan the burial ground for USCT's or benevolent society members from the Mosaic Templars.

Of late, thanks to the inspiration from a fellow genealogist, in Tennessee  I have been nudged to also re-visit another old passion--that of quilting. 

In fact, since October, I have dared to pull out an old unfinished quilt from the closet, and to my own surprise, I actually finished that quilt and since last weekend, I have been sleeping under that quilt for several days.

Quilt recently finished now on my bed.

Last week, while looking at the calendar, I realized that a significant day had just passed. But since the weather had been quite cloudy, I had not undertaken my annual late night toast to my ancestor, Amanda Young, who spoke about her being a witness to an astronomical event--the Leonid meteor shower---of 1833. My gr. grandmother Amanda Young often spoke about this event until she died, and I wrote a blog piece about it three years ago. She was a witness and because of this, and my interest in quilts one day I was able to piece together the story, and her age, and the event.

It was another quilter who provided the details that I needed to "piece" some of the details about my Amanda's life. The quilter was Harriet Powers, a woman whose quilts now hang in the Smithsonian Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. She was born a slave in Albany Georgia, and she was most known for her story quilts. Her most famous one is a bible quilt (shown above).

Harriet Powers, Master Quilter

In that quilt, she had stories from the Bible, and also stories from historical events. One of the panels in the famous Bible quilt depicts the historic Leonid Meteor Shower---the Night the Stars Fell.

Panel from Harriet Powers Quilt Depicting the Night the Stars Fell

In 1991, I decided I wanted to learn how to quilt and was going to teach myself. While reading a quilting magazine an article discussed the work of African American quilters including Harriet Powers, and her inclusion of a panel depicting the Night the stars fell. She had been a witness to this event, like my Amanda. Amanda's would simply say that she was a little girl, when the stars fell, but she spoke of the seeing the stars fall in detail, and also of the fear the event instilled in the community. And here in a quilting magazine--was mention of a former slaves who included mention of the same event in her hand work! She saw the same stars fall!

The article was brief, but it mentioned a professor who had written a book about African American quilters, and in the book Dr. Gladys Marie-Fry made a reference to Harriet Powers, and the same event, the night the stars fell. I had to find the book, called Stitched from the Soul, which I did! And there it was--the footnote that I needed--the gave me a date! Amanda said she was a young girl--about 8 or so, and there it was--the years the stars fell---1833!

I never knew Amanda's age, but thanks to Harriet Powers, and also the.nomers who recorded this major event, I learned that the stars fell 1833, about November 10th,

So, 180 years ago, in November, a small girl, in Maury County, Tennessee near Columbia, saw the stars fall. And 180 years ago, a young woman in Georgia saw the stars fall. The tiny girl, born into slavery would tell that story throughout her life. The young woman in Georgia made a quilt and included that event as she pieced and stitched that quilt. 

Reading about this event in the 1990s would help me make a better estimate of Amanda's age, and time of birth. Amanda always said she was a small child when the stars fell, but she also had a vivid memory of the event and the effects of the falling stars on the slave holders and overseers and I blogged about this 3 years ago.

I had wondered for years exactly how old Amanda may have been, even though I was able to make a partial estimate from the various census years, in which her name was found, I was never sure if I was close.

But the knowing about the famous meteor shower of 1833, helped me, because this was a landmark event. Ironically, it was a quilting magazine that lead me to Gladys Marie-Frye whose book Stitched from the Soul gave me the date.

So from a quilter, I learned when the event, the Leonid Meteor shower took place. And I somehow felt closer to my Amanda, the young girl, who saw the stars fall, who heard the overseers and slave holders tell the slaves where they had sent their loved ones, and who hear the whaling and crying, for they all thought that it was judgement day.

The 180th anniversary of that day passed only a few days ago. As a descendant of that child who saw the stars fall, and also as a quilter, I am continually reminded of my legacy and how so many things in the present are a direct result of events from the past.

Rest in peace Amanda, and thank you for telling the story of the night the stars fell.
Rest in peace Mrs. Powers, and thank you for telling my ancestor's story through your quilt.

I am amazed that a humble quilter told my story.

Monday, November 18, 2013

African American Genealogy Blogging Circle Continues

The number of bloggers watching the PBS Series The African Americans, Many Rivers to Cross, is expanding and many are using the series as a launch pad to share and tell their own individual family stories. The bloggers are from the genealogy community and have formed a unique circle of of support called, the African American Genealogy Blogging Circle.

And last Thursday a few of the bloggers from the African American Blogging Circle were guests on the Blog Talk Radio Program, Research at the National Archives and Beyond. I had the wonderful opportunity to serve as guest host for that show, and to speak with several of the bloggers about their experience blogging their way through the PBS series. I also allowed them to voice their personal opinions about the program.

Since that time the number of people joining the blogging Facebook group and the circle of bloggers has grown and more are exploring this new venue to tell their own family story, with the PBS series Many Rivers To Cross, as their inspiration, and as the launching pad to propel their writing.

So far, in response to the 4th Episode of the PBS Series, the following posts can be found:

"Going, Leaving" is on the blog: Who is Nicka Smith? by Nicka Sewell Smith

"Gone to Oklahoma"  is on the blog Roots Revealed, by Melvin J. Collier

"Making a Way Out of No Way", on the blog, Between the Gate Posts , by Linda Durr Rudd

"Should We Go, or Should We Stay?" on the blog, Mariah's Zepher,by Vicky Daviss Mitchell.

"Surviving Against the Odds" is one the blog My Ancestor's Name by Angela Walton-Raji

"The Great Migration Continued" is on the blog, Finding Eliza by Kristin Cleage

* * * * *

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Surviving Against the Odds. Many Rivers To Cross: Episode #4

The first half of the 20th century brought about tremendous changes in the trajectory of the lives of African Americans. For my ancestors living in the early years--some were in the rural south like Horatio Arkansas, while others found their way to larger cities, like Memphis, Nashville and Little Rock. And others made their way on the western frontier and saw Indian Territory enter the Union and become the state of Oklahoma.

But all of my ancestors faced the uncertainties of a future in a land that could bring tragedy at a moment's notice. Events similar to those shown in this fourth episode of Many Rivers, took place in my home town, and some events occurred nearby. Therefore I am looking at history as some of it unfolded in and around Ft. Smith, Arkansas.

A Ft. Smith Lynching:
In the early 20th century, my home town of Ft. Smith took a dramatic turn from the days when Black Marshals worked for Judge Parker. Gone were the days when there was a frontier spirit and the promise of the west was present for black families. Southern Democrats had come into the town and brought a different flavor to the city of southern anti-black hostility. In March of 1912 Sanford Lewis was lynched not far from the First National Bank Building. More can be read here: The Lynching of Sanford Lewis.

A Community Destroyed:
In 1923, not far from my hometown, to the north in nearby Crawford County there was the tragedy of the black settlement of Catcher. What resulted were charges of assualt against three black men, including a 14 year old boy, and the elimination of an entire community 40 families simply removed from their homes, driven off their land and simply wiped off the map of the Crawford County Arkansas landscape where they had lived. The three men accused were doomed to a fateful end, in spite of their innocence, but the horrors did not end there. The small farming community also paid the price for living where they were simply not wanted.

With only minutes to pack---this small farming settlement, of black men, women and children were forced to march out of Catcher into Van Buren and find a new place to live. Property was seized and a church, (St. Paul's Methodist Church) was destroyed and the nearby cemetery was destroyed. Some of the headstones were smashed and some graves were said to have been removed with remains dropped in the Arkansas River. (The few remaining headstones were found several years ago, and were documented by historian Tonia Holleman, and placed on Find A Grave.Some of the residents of Catcher settled in the city of Van Buren. But many were so terrorized that they left the county, and moved to Ft. Smith and formed a large portion of the community that is now Midland Heights. More can be read here: The Catcher Race Riot.

Survival Amid Segregation:
Like Little Rock, my hometown of Ft. Smith Arkansas was one in which the Black community thrived in spite of the racial climate of the day. A business district arose especially on north 9th Street. 

A Place to Stay
In 1940, if one was driving through Arkansas there were a limited number of places where one could stay. In Ft. Smith there were two places, The Ullery Inn, (719 N. 9th Street) and the home of Mrs. Clara Oliver, (906 N. 9th Street). These were recorded in the Green Book, that was mentioned on the PBS program Many Rivers to Cross. In 1949, The Ullery Inn, and the home of Prof. E.O. Trent would provide space for travelers as "tourist homes".

Images from the 1940 Green Book reflecting Arkansas are found in these three images:

(Images above reflect pages describing safe places for African Americans driving through Arkansas.)

This is one of the two homes where one could stay in Ft. Smith Arkansas in 1940, if you were driving through and needed rest.

The Ullery Inn. (Many know this as the home of Mrs. Ullery and Mr. Arthur Lee Kirksey)

A vacant lot now occurpies the spot where the Clara Oliver Tourist Home once stood.

A 1949 issue of the Green Book still included the Ullery Inn as a tourist home and that of Prof. E.O. Trent was now listed. 

Trent Family Home. A "Tourist Home" in 1949

During the years of segregation, my hometown like many southern cities was a divided city. There were the schools for black children and those for white children. There were the restaurants where we could not eat--which was virtually all of them, with exception of the small cafeterias in the Black community (Mingo's, and the Ranch Burger, are the two that I remember.)

Churches were clearly divided by color for every denomination. And socially there were simply those lines that were never crossed.

Times have passed, of course, but this fourth episode of Many Rivers To Cross, did address the times in which our families had to cope during trying times, so many indignities endured by our elders, were superseded by their resilience and decision to survive, so that we are here today in a slightly better world.

* * * * *     * * * * *     * * * * *
This blog post is part of a collaboration of posts being shared by a group of bloggers who are part of the African American Genealogy Blogging Circle. We are sharing our own personal family stories, as the series air on PBS. 

The Bloggers are:

Kristin Cleage, Finding Eliza
Melvin Collier (Roots Revealed)
George Geder (Wanders, Wonders, Signs)
Terry Ligon, (Black and Red Journal)
Vicky Daviss Mitchell (Mariah's Zepher)
Yvette Porter Moore , (The Ancestors Have Spoken)
Nicka Sewell Smith (Who is Nicka Smith)                               
Drusilla Pair (Find Your Folks)
Angela Walton-Raji (My Ancestor's Name)

Monday, November 11, 2013

Honoring Those Who Served

(This post is also part of The Book of Me, Prompt #11 - Military)

Today is Veteran's Day. As the nation honors the thousands of men and women who served and who gave so much, I also look to my family history and think of the many in my family who also risked life to fight for freedom, not only for themselves but also for others. 

We sometimes forget that as we live our lives there are others who are risking their lives so that we may do the many things that we do without thinking. It is correct that we remember those who make what we do possible. And I am pleased to see how many in my own family have also been a part of the effort to see that the many rights we enjoy today are in place for all of us. 

I am especially humbled when I think of the ancestors who served in the World Wars, who sometimes returned to a country were they still were not granted all of the rights and privileges of being full citizens. Yet, these men who faced prejudice and limited opportunities still served the nation that at times did not always return full privileges to them. But--they knew that this was their country too, and so they enlisted, they served honorably and passed that sense of country to the next generation. Therefore, I thank all of them for their bravery to serve.

My brother Samuel served in Vietnam from 1970 -1972

My father Sam L. Walton served in World War II, in France and North Africa.

My grandfather Sam Walton served in France with the 809th Pioneer Infantry. He is buried at Oak Cemetery in Ft. Smith Arkansas. My uncle John Louis Bass served in the 309th Quartermaster Labor Batallion, and died in France. He is buried at St. Mihiel American Cemetery in France.

I have written about my Civil War ancestors from Tennessee. But I have several additional men who also became freedom fighters in the Civil War. They have all left an amazingly rich history and legacy. I honor all of them on this day.

My Bass and Oddaway ancestors served in the 111th US Colored Infantry. Berry Kirk served in the 61st US Colored Infantry, John Tuckington served in the 83rd US Colored, and Joseph Young served in the 59th US Colored Infantry.

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Since there is not much spoken about my grandmother's brother Louis Bass, and he gave his life during World War I, I share this video about his final resting place in France. Pvt Louis Bass you have not been forgotten and your service is appreciated.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Book of Me: Prompt #10 Memory & Recurring Dreams

I hundreds of memories from childhood, from the people to the places and the many experiences growing up in a small family in a small town. But the the suggestion of a recurring memory was a real challenge for me. So I really gave some thought about memories---which I have many, but I kept asking myself is there anything that seemed to be there continually through the years either from experience or dreams. I did finally give it some thought and few did come to mind.

"I've Been Here Before"
Like many people I have always had that "deja vu" moment that never makes sense. I might find myself talking to someone in a coffee shop and while we are enjoying a pastry one of us says something, or mentions something and then I am immediately straining my brain to remember--as it seems as if I have been in the same place at the same time, doing the same thing before. I have often mentioned it to the person---and stopped the conversation and said---"this is so strange--I have a weird feeling that I have been here and done the same thing." That deja vu moment usually fades, and I never quite figure it out.

The Strange Big Hole and the Recurring Dream

When I was a child I used to have a dream about a big hole---a hole large enough to swallow a house. The hole was in the back of my grandmother's house. Now I know why I dreamt of the hole. I recall being at Grandma's house and there was some work being done in the alley. Big caterpillar tractors were there working on something--it could have been the water line, or something. I remember the big machine scooping up the soil, and I moved close to the edge of the fence near her property to see what was taking place. Though I was safe and not in the way of the work, I remember feeling that I was close to something dangerous too.  I remember looking into the hole and being amazed at the depth of it, and noting the ease in which this giant machine was breaking the earth, and my wanting to see what was inside.

I should mention that when I was a child I lived with a very simplistic view of the world. And there was a giant whole, that I remember thinking might give me a glimpse into the inside of the earth. What would I see? So I looked into that big hole in the alley--and I recall vividly that I wondered if  I would see people burning in hell. Now, keep in mind that I was a small child and assumed that hell was a place that was somewhere underneath the earth. So I had to look inside that big hole----and course I only saw soil, a few worms, and I recall that I noticed the huge pile of soil scooped up to the side.  My grandmother called me back to the house as she did not want me too close to the fence, and that was it.

But that wasn't it. Off and on for many years---the image of that hole would appear in my dreams.  But in my dreams the big hole was always filled with water, and the water was always blue, and swirling around like a whirlpool. I was always a bit afraid of the swirling water. I would never get in it, but it always made me a wee bit nervous. And then---I would wake up. This dream of the swirling blue water in the great big hole would occur off and on into adult life. Never was sure what that was all about.

"It's a Twister!"
There is one other dream that was inspired by life's circumstances. I grew up in the tornado belt. And in the spring, if you live in the heart of the country, you are used to sirens, telling you to take cover immediately! These sirens sound like an air raid sirens from World War II movies. But in reality they are weather sirens alerting the local population of approaching danger from the skies. If you have not experienced this, then simply believe me---this is frightening! 

I grew up with those sirens, and lived for many years in fear of blowing away, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. And of course like many children, the tornado scene in that movie was one of the scariest scenes. (Apart from the flying monkeys!) 

The twists and turns of the tornado in the distance from the movie, plus the real memory of sirens going off in the middle of the night and having to get out of bed and run to the center of the house where there were no windows, since we had no basement is a vivid memory.  Sometimes there was real damage, so this was no fantasy--tornadoes are real and they are dangerous.

Tornado Scene from Wizard of Oz - MGM Production, 1939

The end result is that I have become a constant weather watcher---and I am very aware of changes in the weather, and when conditions are such to lead to unstable weather conditions. 

But the other result---tornado dreams! I usually have one or two a year---just brief dreams where there may be funnels in the distance. And of course I admit to watching the Wizard of Oz with nieces, nephews, whenever it comes on, and that scene usually inspires at least one tornado dream per year. Yes, it's true---I still have tornado dreams! They are sporadic, but at least once a year I have a dream where there is a tornado coming or way off in the distance.

I often laugh about these odd dreams, and though I have other dreams that never make any sense I guess it is a good thing that I am truly not haunted by some truly dark sinister secret from the past. (Even thought the swirling water is kind of weird.) I think of how there are countless other people who have truly deep seated fears and thoughts from terrible events in their lives. And I know that for many these memories come to them when they sleep.

I think about these dreams and if nothing else I realize how lucky I am. I lived in the south, during the terrible years of the Civil Right struggle. And growing up in an African American community, in a harsh southern world, my parents kept many horrible things away from my eyes, so that the innocence of childhood would not be impaired by the stresses of living in a world of turmoil.

I was so lucky that any recurring dreams or memories were not brought about by any acts of violence or hate to my own family. But I have met others over the years whose parents were in the fray of the movement, and the turmoil of the 1960's, and these individuals were truly affected even to this day by recurring dreams of violence. They have talked about how the terrorist acts in their community have left permanent scars on them though they are now adults in their 60s and 70s.

I was so fortunate to be simply a little girl amazed at the big hole in the back, and sometimes having the memory of the storms blowing through. And since no major weather tragedies occurred during those years, I have only a child's memory that occasionally visits me in my adult years.

Those simple times, even with the recurring dreams, eventually would lead to years in which I was more aware of the real world and its harsh realities. But, I am so glad that when I needed the time of innocence, and wonder, I was fortunate to have them, and no harm came to me.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

My Soldiers Escaped and My Contrabands Freed Themselves! (Many Rivers to Cross Blogging Circle Response to Episode #3)

Service Records of My Bass Ancestors who were Taken Prisoner Then Escaped

Episode 3 of The African Americans, Many Rivers To Cross, aired last night on PBS and it was quite well done. As I watched  the segment about the involvement of the US Colored Troops, the story of my Tennessee ancestors came to mind.  I have told the story of my gr. grandfather's brother Cephas Bass many times. I also wrote an article about how I found him on my blog in 2010. His is a remarkable story where he and his brother Braxton enlisted in an Alabama regiment of Black soldiers. This regiment was later re-designated as the 111th US Colored Infantry. In addition to enlisting with his brother, Uncle Cephus also enlisted with his two sons, Henry and Emanuel.

But the story becomes unusual, because he and his brother and son were were taken prisoner in the fall of 1864. This is significant because six months earlier also in Tennessee, the massacre at Ft. Pillow of hundreds of Black soldiers took place. The series Many Rivers to Cross presented the story of the Ft. Pillow massacre quite well.

Historical Image from Harper's Weekly of the Ft. Pillow Massacre

So when I obtained records on my ancestors, what a surprise it was to learn that my ancestor Cephas Bass, his brother Braxton and his two sons were in a unit that was captured and taken prisoner six months after the Ft. Pillow massacre when confederate soldiers swore that they would "give no Negroes any quarter." But yet, here were my ancestors in the 111th US Colored Infantry, and they were captured and taken prisoner, and not killed. 

And the surprise for me, was to learn that they were captured by the same man who it is said, ordered the Ft. Pillow massacre--Nathan Bedford Forrest. 
General N.B. Forrest

This name is well known to people in Tennessee, and he was a well known General. But I learned that he not only captured the entire regiment, but my ancestors--the Bass soldiers then escaped from him!!

According to a deposition in the pension file of my ancestor Cephas Bass, Forrest pulled him and his kinsmen apart from the other soldiers, then did not guard them closely, and they "got away." They got away!!! My ancestors escaped from General Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Civil War Deposition Describing the Escape from Nathan Bedford Forrest

And sure enough, the service records of each one of my ancestors indicate that they were indeed taken prisoner and later escaped.

(All images found on Fold3 among the service records of the US Colored Troops.)

Their story is a remarkable one, and after the segment on the US Colored Troops, I was compelled to share this part of the story.

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My Contraband Ancestors Freed Themselves

It is often believed that apart from the bravery and accomplishments of the US Colored Troops in the Civil War, that those left behind stayed behind and waited to be free. I was so glad to see that the story of the contrabands, the thousands of Black men and women who took advantage of being near the Union line, and as it was shown in Many Rivers to Cross, that just like the three men who began it all at Ft. Monroe, thousands of others got the word, "get to the Union Line!"

On my maternal line, in Tippah County Mississippi, there was a Union Army raid that had been sent out from Corinth, and had spread through the neighboring counties in northern Mississippi. When the soldiers arrived at Ripley, they began enlisting able bodied men to join the Union Army. My gr. gr. grandfather Berry Young was among them. He and the family had been held in bondage by William "Tandy" Young of Ripley. But with most of the men in Ripley who had left to fight in the Confederate Amry--and so the enslaved men had their chance to resist at last!! And they wasted no time in enlisting to fight for their freedom.

As the soldiers left, the women and children were left behind, but many wanted to follow the men. They would do anything to be free and away from the place that once held them from freedom's door. For my ancestors in Ripley many of the events following the raid in Ripley Mississippi, were shared in another Civil War pension file. Mary Paralee Young who was a sister to my gr. gr. grandmother Amanda, told the story of what happened.

Deposition of Mary Paralee Young, describing her escape from Ripley

What I appreciate about this story, is how there was no hesitation to leave. As she says when the men left, she left that night! There was no thought about it---she was at freedom's door and seized the opportunity. She described how they made it through the woods and when she arrived at Saulsbury Tennessee she and others were placed on a train and sent to President's Island Contraband Camp.

I think of the contrabands often and the image that they must have made. Some walking, some in wagons, and some on the back of a horse or mule if they were so fortunate. They were truly walking out on faith, and when the time came--they freed themselves with permission from no one, except their spirit to walk to the unknown.

I also can imagine the mere sight of these self-freed men, women and children. We don't envision slavery often--we forget that before emancipation, the roads were not for black people--the enslaved were bascially a controlled population, contained for decades on farms, on plantations, and in the fields. The roads were not for them to use. Their days consisted of moving from the slave cabin to the field, and back to the slave cabin. But here they were--suddenly taking to the roads.  What a startling sight it must have been to the white population. Only slaves with an approved pass were on the roads. But now here they were by the hundreds--- on the roads, and now, walking about freely in the towns. This had to shock the nation---the world for all of them had changed!

Contrabands Receiving Rations

Today we see images of refugees in foreign countries fleeing war. But 145 years ago so many of our ancestors did not flee from war. They fled to it! They walked, road and some were carried, but all took to the roads, that led to their freedom, their empowerment and their new lives!

Contraband Camp in Western Tennessee
Image: Courtesy American Antiquarian Society

The PBS series Many Rivers To Cross is walking through many time periods in the country's history, and during those critical years of the Civil War, it is essential that we also tell our own family stories during those times of war, and change as well. The Civil War and it's outcome dramatically changed the trajectory of the lives of my ancestors, as well as the direction of the nation. I am so proud to tell the story of my Mississippi ancestors who seized the moment when the time came and freed themselves.

 Although we had come so far, indeed we still had many more trials ahead. But truly by this time in the nation's history and the history of the ancestors who had come from Africa, we truly had already encountered so "many rivers to cross."
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This blog post is part of a collaboration of posts being shared by a group of bloggers who are part of the African American Genealogy Blogging Circle. We are sharing our own personal family stories, as the series air on PBS. 

The Bloggers are:

Kristing Cleage, Finding Eliza
Melvin Collier (Roots Revealed)
George Geder (Wanders, Wonders, Signs)
Terry Ligon, (Black and Red Journal)
Vicky Daviss Mitchell (Mariah's Zepher)
Yvette Porter Moore , (The Ancestors Have Spoken)
Nicka Sewell Smith (Who is Nicka Smith)                               
Drusilla Pair (Find Your Folks)
Angela Walton-Raji (My Ancestor's Name)