Saturday, October 17, 2009

I See Dead People

Last week the NYT published an article on Michelle Obama's ancestry, prompting me to do some Obama digging myself, being an amateur genealogist. The piece focused on the line of Melvina Shields, born about 1844, died 1938, and her son Dolphus. For me the piece raised more questions than it answered and left out some interesting details I won't go into here.

The NYT, with genealogist expert Megan Smolenyak, says Melvina's "... 1938 death certificate, signed by a relative, had “don’t know” in the space for the names of her parents, suggesting that Melvinia, then in her 90s, may never have known herself."

Gasp, how horrible.

Even I, an amateur genealogist know that "don't know" for parentage on death certificates from this era is very very common, whether black or white, slave or free. Particularly if the deceased outlived those who might know the answer. I have sifted through thousands of death certificates of ancestors born in the 1800s, black and white, and sadly many had "don't know" for the parents. Often the "informant" was a grandchild or great grandchild or great niece, nephew, etc. Even had Melvina known the identity of her parents, and very likely she did as a young woman, there is nothing unusual about family members in 1938 not knowing the information.

The article also says that in the 1870 census, three of Melvinia’s four children, including Dolphus, were listed on the census as mulatto. Yes, they were, as I checked on FamilySearch. What the Times does not say is that 2 of those children were listed as 1 y/o twins, Alice and Talley, male and female, with Talley listed as black and Alice as mulatto. What this could mean is one twin was lighter skin - which doesn't necessarily mean daddy was white. Or it could mean both were mulatto but Talley was darker and listed as black, which means the census taker was making a judgement on skin pigment rather than fact.

In the 1870 census Melvina, age 26, is in household #363, and #362 is Charles Shields, age 31, with his wife and daughter. Charles was the son of Melvina's previous owner. Either or neither could have been the father of her children. It is also possible not all of the 4 children were Melvina's children as the 1870 census did not list relationships to head of household, and after the war many people, black and white, raised orphaned children. Most likely, with Melvina living next door to Charles, she was mistress and the children were his. Believe me, the public records for average white folks from this era is little better. Sometimes genealogy is little more than educated guessing while hunting the proof to confirm.

Slave owners kept detailed records of slaves, their pairing and offspring - after all, slaves were property, and owners nearly always knew who was impregnating their property, usually assigning certain men to certain women, sometimes allowing slaves to live as a couple with their children. Not so much out of kindness - but because they believed it good business sense; they knew the lineage of their livestock and slaves were valuable livestock. Melvina's original owner's will read: "Mr. Patterson asked that his slave families "be kept together as far as possible." Such a request was not unusual. I have spent years going through old plantation ledgers and you might be surprised at the details of most - in my own family the owner listed each day's activity for each slave - he listed when a slave was ill, when one gave birth and the father, who worked in what field, etc. Sometimes the information is infuriating, sometimes humorous, sometimes heartbreaking, and sometimes opposite of conventional thinking. You develop a close feeling to the long dead, not angry, not bitter, just finding yourself connected to branches that at times seem more a bramble bush than a tree.

Local, state, and federal governments have a huge amount of recorded documentation from the 1800s - the problem is sorting, indexing, and putting it online - it's in the process but slow, genealogy is not an area of political pork begging for funding. If you're fortunate enough to have time and money you can physically go to the sources and search through the records.

The Times article used a good deal of trite prose. For instance, when Melvina returned to Alabama to reunite with former slaves from her childhood, "A community that had been ripped apart was somehow pulling itself back together." But freed men and women searching for family members was the norm for years after the Civil War. It means many former slaves knew who to look for, who their family members were. I have traced family members who traveled from Virginia to Mississippi, after the war, to find children, parents, siblings.

I also found in the 1840-50s more than one Irish/Scotchman married to free black women; I assumed interracial marriage was illegal, but they married. I found whites raising black children and blacks raising white children and the relationships endured until death. I found 1880 court documents where black men won judgements against white men, usually over land or livestock disputes, and one for stealing clothes off the clothesline. I found black politicians and lawmen. I found an ancestor Fredrick X. registering to vote in 1867. The worst of Jim Crow laws seemed to begin in the 1890s. It was also around this time that whites stopped differentiating black/mulatto. Between 1890 and 1910 southern states passed laws to disenfranchise blacks and thousands of poor whites.

Yes, we all have a horror story from long ago - just let me know who's collective pot/kettle to punish today for it.

From my research, it seems to me, regardless the conditions after the Civil War, most people went about living their lives, regardless what corrupt politicians were doing or more important, perhaps in spite of.

Like I said though, I wasn't going to blog on this because I found the NYT piece rather pointless fluff with the usual cliches to the abuses of slavery, phrases like every day rape, the little slave girl, no shortage of work on the big plantation, white slave owners lingering in the bloodline etc., "sentimental mush."

But then today I read Kimberley's piece over at BAR. The piece goes on and on about the "oppressed and despised group" who even when they rise to power are disrespected (although apparently BAR doesn't like Obama either); how the black condition in the 21st century is only investigated as an opportunity to "condemn and to blame black Americans as the source of any and all problems." Or: "To add further insult, Dolphus Shields’ life was rendered into nothing more than a simplistic “pull up by the bootstraps” story which usually does nothing more than let white people off the hook."

Ummm... in a bit of a diatribe are we? condemn/blame, the black condition in the 21st century. Hmmm, I see something ... I see ... some people are never gonna let white folk off the hook.


The Crap Blog Detective said...

so you are a mobsters wife?

Kate-A said...

Would I tell you if I were?

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