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Archive for the ‘History’ Category

I ran across a startling deed recently. In the record, Monroe and Robert B. Warren, of Washington, DC, were selling land to Harry E. Mockbee in May 1927. After the typical legal language came this ominous phrase (click to enlarge):

1927 deed

1927 deed

“…Subject to the further covenant that said land and premises shall never be rented, leased, sold, transferred or conveyed unto or in trust for or occupied by any negro or colored person or any person of negro extraction.”

This is the first time I’ve actually come across a racially restrictive covenant while doing deed research. They are defined as “a legally enforceable contract imposed in a deed upon the buyer of the property.” I knew a little about the history, primarily from a few books I’ve read: “Not in My Neighborhood,” by Antero Pietila (focusing on Baltimore) and “Family Properties,” by Beryl Satter (focusing on Chicago). Although frequently used against African-Americans, they were also used to keep Jewish people from certain areas in cities like Baltimore.

We’ve all seen  “A Raisin in the Sun” which portrays a black family attempting to move into a white neighborhood. But, an even better introduction to the topic can be found in the 2004 National Book Award Winner, “Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age,” by Kevin Boyle. The book tells the riveting true story of Dr. Ossian Sweet, whose purchase of a home in Detroit in 1925 resulted in attack by a white mob and the death of a white man. If you read any book on this subject, read this one first. You will not put it down, especially since the author does such a beautiful job with Ossian’s history.

Initially, covenants became popular in response to the large migration of Southern blacks to Northern cities, essentially forcing racial segregation. On May, 1926, in a case called Corrigan and Buckley, the U.S. Supreme Court, by its refusal to hear the case, tacitly affirmed the legality of these covenants. Their use skyrocketed, and particularly in large cities, the result was that blacks were forced into certain “black” areas, whether they could afford to live elsewhere or not. The Federal Housing Authority institutionalized this racism with their Underwriting Manual which denied mortgages based upon race and by practicing “redlining”: deciding which neighborhoods to approve mortgages in.

In 1930, J.D. Shelly, a black man, bought property in St. Louis in a neighborhood covered by a racial covenant. He convinced a white owner to sell to him anyway. A neighbor sued, and the case wound its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. The resultant ruling, Shelley vs. Kraemer, held that the covenants could not be enforced without violating the 14th Amendment. However, it only meant that states could not enforce the covenants; people could and did privately continue to make them and voluntarily follow them.

Still the 1948 Shelly ruling put racial covenants on Death Row. NAACP lawyers Thurgood Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston put together a legal strategy to fight these cases all over the country. Still, it wasn’t until The 1968 Fair Housing Act that their use was deemed illegal.

There is so much important black history that is left out of the “official” story of America. Huge obstacles awaited black people every step of the way it seems –in education, labor, and housing were just a few. I am amazed that we made it through, and know the resilience and strength that must have taken. A generation of people are coming of age who have no knowledge of these obstacles. How would others have fared if after enslavement and Jim Crow, they were prevented from equal education, prevented from certain jobs, prevented from equal pay at the jobs they did hold, prevented from living where they wanted, prevented from marrying who they wanted and preventing from partaking in the fruits of society that depended on that labor? These people who placed their lives at risk by challenging the system and buying homes in “white” areas should absolutely be regarded as civil rights heroes.

What I find interesting is that some communities in the deep South, especially in rural areas, blacks lived alongside whites. My grandmother did in Tennessee. You can see it in the census records.

One of the beauties of genealogy is the history you learn. Let’s keep getting educated and telling others the real story of America.

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MP900390424Sometimes—well, probably a lot of times—our research veers off into an unexpected direction. Usually its because we come across a person or a circumstance that is of interest.

My 3rd great-grandfather, Perry Simpson, married a woman named Margaret Fleet. I found her family quite interesting, even though she technically is not a blood relative.

After their marriage, they lived in Montgomery County, MD, but Margaret was originally from Washington, D.C, which is my own birthplace. Margaret can be found on the 1850, 1860, and 1870 census records in the 1st Ward of Washington D.C., a freed black woman before general emancipation came. By 1860 she had 7 children: Robert, Annett, Cora, Edward, Augustus, Willy and Mary. After those years, Margaret appeared in Montgomery County, MD with her new husband Perry Simpson.

This is the record that made me “turn left” (click image to enlarge):

1880UnitedStatesFederalCensusForEdwardFleet

1880 Census

  I was fascinated by the fact that Mary’s father’s birthplace was “Mexico.” Was this a fluke? Was he really Mexican? I started tracking this family through the available records. Although Margaret birthed many children before her marriage to Perry –9 according to the 1900 census—no known record documents a marriage to any other man.

In 1850, Margaret was a freed black woman in a city bursting with contradictions. Amid thousands of freed blacks living and working in the city, were enslaved “quasi-free” people, many of whom were working and living on their own while paying their masters monthly fees. Washington had been the site of an active slave trade, and a notorious slave pen making it an easy target for abolitionists looking to shame the young nation. In 1850, the slave trade was finally outlawed in D.C. During the next decade, events would continue to escalate around slavery, finally culminating in Civil War. In 1862, slavery itself was outlawed in the district creating a haven for thousands of enslaved people from the surrounding states. “First Freed: Washington D.C. in the Emancipation Era,” edited by Elizabeth Clark-Lewis is a good book to read to understand what life was like for African-Americans in D.C. at that time.

Margaret had been fortunate; she came from a family of skilled artisans. Her father was Henry Fleet Jr., a freed black shoemaker from Georgetown, who learned the trade from his father, the senior Henry Fleet. Today, Georgetown is a mecca of white wealth and privilege, but it had historically been home to a thriving freed black community. Henry Fleet Sr. purchased his wife Ann and “5 or 6 children” and later freed them, something many skilled blacks were able to do if allowed by the slaveowner. Henry Fleet Sr. was doing well enough that several boys were apprenticed to him in the early 1800s to learn the trade of shoemaking. An 1803 apprenticeship document notes that “He purchased his son Henry Jr. in 1812 and he is also a shoemaker.

In 1864, while living at K Street and 21st street, Margaret was assessed $25 in the brand new federal tax system as a “Retail Liquor Dealer”. In 1870, Margaret is still in D.C., and her daughters Annie (living with her) and Cora living next door are both dressmakers. This would have been one of the best occupations for a freed blackwoman of that era. I wonder if they would have known Elizabeth Keckley, the freed black dressmaker for Mrs. Lincoln?

In that same 1870 census, Sarah Carter, Margaret’s mother, is living with her and is 100 years old! Margaret also owns $1000 worth of real estate, no small feat for a black woman.

U.S.IRSTaxAssessmentLists1862-1918ForMargaretFleet

1864 Tax Assessment

1870 Fleet

1870 Fleet

In 1873, Margaret opened an account with the Washington D.C. branch of the Freedmen’s Bank, naming her new husband Perry and her children:

Freedmans Bank

Freedmans Bank

Her sons Robert (a policeman) and Edward also opened accounts. Most of Margaret’s children can be tracked through their marriages, vital and land records and city directories in D.C. The death certificate of her daughter Annett names a “Greg Jarvis” as her father. That man, Greg Jarvis, appears in the 1850 and 1860 Washington D.C. census also living in the 1st Ward. By 1860 he is married with children:

1850 Jarvis

1850 Jarvis

1860 Jarvis

1860 Jarvis

In these records, Jarvis is shown as being from Mexico and also New Mexico–it was probably the Territory of New Mexico (it was not a state yet). The Mexican War had just been ended by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the country was also reeling from the recent Compromise of 1850. I wonder what would have brought him East?

Jarvis also went from being a “mulatto” in 1850 to being “white” with an Irish wife in 1860. So what his racial background is exactly we can’t quite tell. This man appears to be heading two families, at least for awhile: one black, one white. It is unknown whether he fathered all of the children of Margaret Fleet, but documents tie him to at least 3 of her children.

A mortgage executed in Montgomery County in 1911 noted Margaret’s date of death and listed all of her heirs living at the time, who had inherited her land:

“Edward G. Fleet, Sr. & wife Lucinda William Fleet & his wife Blossie, Mary Fleet, widow Harry Fleet, unmarried, Anna Grant, widow Cora Lemos, widow Augustus Fleet & his wife Sarah, Mary Lemos & her husband Beverly”

Margaret, amazingly, lived into her early 90s, long enough to leave a death certificate:

Death Cert

Death Cert

Margaret’s life was pretty interesting and only goes to prove that sometimes veering off-course is absolutely well worth it.

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I enjoyed those who shared their family artifacts- they were all wonderful! Because I loved this topic so much, I’ve got to post just a few more of my current favorites.

My dad attended Howard University and for awhile wrote a column in the school paper, The Hilltop. It’s pretty cool to read his columns and get a peek into the twenty-something mind that would later become my daddy. He was also the school photographer, his lifelong love of photography starting in high school in Jacksonville, Florida (Shameless plug: see some of his gorgeous pictures at his website):

Howard Today

Howard Today

My Daddy

My Daddy

My grandmother saved lots of cool memorabilia about her sons. Among the papers were my dad’s high school baccalaureate (try to spell that):

1960

1960

Also, here are a few more great items from my Tennessee branch. This appears to be a daily work log, of picking cotton, probably in the 1930’s or 1940’s. The whole community is involved:

Work Log

Work Log

Postcards surprised me with how well-traveled my ancestors were:

Postcard

Postcard

Postcard Back

Postcard Back

This 1925 document shows that George Holt was well read, subscribing to a popular Tennessee state paper, The Weekly Commercial Appeal:

Newspaper

Newspaper

This amazing clip shows part of a log kept in the year 1885, and provides an interesting peep at how much things cost and what kinds of things our ancestors purchased (as well as how important store credit and accounts were):

Store Account

Store Account

My maternal great-grandfather, Walter Springer, was given this award while working at the Wolf Creek Ordnance Plant in Milan, TN. This plant was apart of the whole military buildup before and during World War II that gave many of our African-American ancestors factory jobs making decent wages (while they still experienced discrimination and usually had the worst factory jobs):

Walter Springer

Walter Springer

Always be on the lookout for these unique treasures and what stories they tell about your family.

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beatrice_chair_fixed

Beatrice Prather

When I refer to an artifact, I am referring primarily to those items passed down within our families, or items we’ve dug up from family members during our quest.  Pictures are one kind of course, and family bibles, military papers, marriage and birth certificates, letters, deeds, and even quilts are things commonly found within families. I wanted to post some of the items I have gathered, both old and older, and show how each has expanded my understanding of my family and the communities in which they lived. The artifacts tell their own stories, and we should use them in the writing of our histories alongside the census and other records that we uncover. In many ways these are even more valuable because many of these can’t be found in public records or archives.

I’ve got a silver necklace my paternal grandmother gave me when I was probably about 16 (thank God I didn’t lose it). It had belonged to her mother Beatrice Prather and it came with a note that reminded me that it “was pure silver, and don’t be too proud when you wear it”;). Beatrice was an extremely well-educated woman to have been black (negro or colored in her era to be more accurate) and born in Maryland in 1888. I have several of her diplomas, including this one from Armstrong Manual Training School in Washington D.C. in 1910:
armstrong

The Armstrong school itself tells part of the story of black life in and around Washington D.C. at the turn of the century. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places and graduated luminaries like Duke Ellington and Billy Eckstein.

My great-grandmother Beatrice was an educator, and also later a nurse and a beautician. I have a paper she wrote on “Negroes of Interest Born in the State of Maryland”:

Paper

Paper

Beatrice even wrote her own obituary (and yes, it was used):

Obituary

Obituary

In Tennessee, my maternal grandfather Luther Holt was a proud Union member and leader. I have his lifetime membership card from Local 801 International Union of Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers, and my mom told me he was thrilled when Richard Nixon wrote him a letter congratulating him on his role in a crucial Union vote. I was excited recently to find a collection of the records of this local union at Wright State University along with a very concise introduction to its history. My grandfather was a retired Frigidaire worker, and when he retired he got more involved with the work of the union. I thought about granddaddy alot  during the recent Presidential elections and the debates about collective bargaining and the “battleground” states of Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Luther Holt

Luther Holt

Union Card

Union Card

Letter

Letter

My granddaddy also was an accomplished carpenter and woodworker who could build or fix anything. He made treasured handcarved gifts for his 3 daughters and his only granddaughter at the time (that would be me;)). This is a photo of the beautiful sewing box he made for my mom:

Sewing Box

Sewing Box

A cousin in Tennessee had some of the most amazing artifacts that his father, George W. Holt, had saved from his father and grandfather. These include receipts for paying the poll tax, one of the most pervasive tools in the Southern States used to disenfranchise black people and poor white people:

Poll Tax Receipt

Poll Tax Receipt

He also had a copy of his membership card in the Prince Hall Grand Lodge, popular in the black community especially in the 20th century:

Lodge Card

Lodge Card

There was also a receipt indicating payment of tuition for his 5 children in 1923 (although I wish the school was named):

Tuition Receipt

Tuition Receipt

George Holt’s records also contained a letter from “The Inter-Racial League of Tennessee,” addressed to Prof. Joe White from R.E. Clay illustrating the political prowess used to get a new school built in the community for black folks in the 1920’s. Interestingly enough, R.E. Clay was Robert E. Clay who led the Rosenwald School Fund in Tennessee, which is the very last topic I blogged about.:

League Letter

League Letter

 

 

 

All of these records speak to a family (the Holts) that was well-educated, landowning and upwardly mobile to say the least. That isn’t the case for all my lines; every one is different of course.

When I got the idea for this post, I didn’t realize how many terrific artifacts I’ve collected over the years regarding my family, so I’ll close now and leave more for ‘Part 2′. In the meantime, tell me about what artifacts you’ve found and what did they tell you about your family’s life?

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OK, I confess that blog title is a little sensationalized. Truth be told, much of this information becomes well-known to researchers within a few years of their African-American genealogical journey. Family research turns many of us into walking, talking, beacons of black history. It certainly turned my life around; probably 90% of what I read now is non-fiction and slave/slavery/black history related. It is an endlessly fascinating subject, epic, tragic and but often inspiring.

Nevertheless, here are a few tidbits to keep in mind as you do your research.

1.       Slavery was vastly different at different times, in different places. A slave’s life in 1780 in Virginia would likely not look much like a Georgia slave’s life in 1850. A city slave’s experience was vastly different than a rural or country slave’s experience. Different crops had different labor demands (cotton, rice, tobacco, indigo, sugar). Learn what crop your ancestor worked.

2.       South America (mainly Brazil) and the West Indian Caribbean islands took in the lion’s share of slaves from Africa. Of those who came to the North American colonies, most were imported here by 1795. That means many of us have very long histories in this country.

3.       Most slaves had surnames that were known amongst themselves, even though the white planters did not record those surnames. Check out the WPA narratives, civil war pensions, and freedman’s bank as three types of records where you’ll find slaves mentioning their parent’s entire names.

4.       There will be many instances where the enslaved father is owned by someone other than the owner of his wife and child. Don’t expect to always find entire family units owned by one owner. Check those neighbors; many slaves found mates on neighboring farms. Young children (under 10), however, were often allowed to stay with their mothers.

5.     Slaves were employed in every conceivable occupation: they worked in shipyards and wharves, railroads and steamboats, coal mines, iron works, gristmills and sawmills; as maids, seamstresses, tailors, masons, butchers, barbers, and so on. Especially for urban slaves, think of all the ways other than farming they worked.

6.       Understand the dynamics of the interstate slave trade. The rise of cotton in the early 1800’s and waning need for year-round slaves in the North caused hundreds of thousands of slaves to be sold into the deep south and expanding southwest. This had a devastating impact on black families. Note the prevalence of the birthplace of “Virginia” or “Maryland” in the 1870 southern states. Consider that your southern slave ancestor may have been sold south at some point.

7.       Slaves were often sold or bought through slave traders or others who had businesses in slaves. Many of these auction –style purchases will not have any existing records or receipts, as these were private organizations. There are a few localities, however, which have records of former slave traders.

8.       Researching slavery will expand your vision of what it meant to be a slave. Many slaves in cities were allowed to live as virtual freedmen, work for pay and give their owners a monthly fee; others were allowed to earn wages to buy themselves or family members. Some planters worked their slaves on the “task” system, which meant they were responsible for a certain amount of work every day & when they finished they were free to do other things, like work their own garden plot or hunt for more food.

9. Looking at original sources will broaden your mind as to how the local whites interacted with their enslaved population. Criminal court records are replete with people being charged with playing cards with slaves and selling them things. This really surprised me. Slaves were plied with liquor by their masters and others. I have a court record detailing the local practice of allowing the slaves to work for pay on their holiday off-days. All these things expanded my view of slave life.

10. It took me awhile to agree with this idea, but slavery was still a negotiated relationship. Yes, the masters had the final and violent upper hand, but you’ll be amazed at how many times the master’s actions were altered by a slave’s threatening to run away, refusing to do work, refusing to be sold to someone, etc. These are shown in numerous entries in planter’s diaries and other documents:
“Salley won’t go without her husband so I’ll have to sell him too.”
“Joe if you come back home, you may have your choice of master.”
“I had to whip Bill today because he would not go with me.”

Our ancestors used every tool at their disposal and sometimes were able to influence the master’s decisions.

Tell me, what things have you learned during your research about slavery that surprised you?

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I just finished reading a wonderful article on slave housing in Montgomery County, Maryland, where one of my branches is from. A small part of the article is posted here.

Boone Cty, SC

Boone Cty, SC

I’ve been pondering alot lately how we need to reconsider how our enslaved ancestors lived; the physical dimensions of that space and what it said about their lives. Not long ago I posted a recommendation for a book called “Back of the Big House”, and that book got me thinking about the topic much more deeply. It pains me that so many slave houses are no longer standing.

My mind, like so many others, had been imprinted with the more common images attached to the slave experience: large plantations, fields of slaves, whippings and slave cabins. My genealogy research has shown me that slavery was a dynamic institution, ever-changing, and different from farm to master to crop. There were enslaved people doing mining, and barbering, working on ships, in factories, and in stores. There were slaves hiring themselves out, and making their own money. The nature of rice farming was very different from tobacco which was different than cotton. Though whipping was common, there were other forms of punishment. We have to challenge all our assumptions about the institution. I know I did.

The slave’s physical housing could speak to how much privacy (or lack thereof) they were allowed. Were 2 large families sharing a space or given separate ones? It could speak to the largess of the owner; was the housing minimal but not decrepit? How far were they spaced from the overseer’s house? Many small farms housed slaves in the master’s same house, in the loft space above the kitchen or other outbuildings. What did that mean for how much control the master had over their lives? Was the master boastful, setting out rows of slave cabins out front for all to see, or hiding them in back, out of immediate view of visitors?

Mt. Vernon I remember taking this picture of a slave “dormitory” at Mt. Vernon (George Washington’s plantation). It had never occurred to me that slaves ever lived in anything like this.

I was equally surprised when I found pictures of stone and brick housing, duplex housing, and the myriad other forms that remove that “log cabin–field slave” image out of my mind. Yes, there were certainly log cabins, but many other types as well.

How did Malinda and her children live down in rural west Tennessee? What kind of housing did the slaveowner Nathan Cook provide in Maryland? How did they live in that space, and how did that affect the slave experience for them?

From cestsuzanne.com

Have you searched for pictures of surviving slave housing in the area where your ancestors lived? I found only a few websites that included images of slave housing: The Missouri State Park, a dig at Monticello, and a school resource site in the UK. A promising site for Virginia doesn’t seem yet to be complete.

As we tell the story of our enslaved ancestors, let’s not forget the physical aspect of their day-to-day lives.

Consider this sobering description from Booker T. Washington’s “Up From Slavery:”

The cabin was not only our living-place, but was also used as the kitchen for the plantation. My mother was the plantation cook. The cabin was without glass windows; it had only openings in the side which let in the light, and also the cold, chilly air of winter. There was a door to the cabin — that is, something that was called a door — but the uncertain hinges by which it was hung, and the large cracks in it, to say nothing of the fact that it was too small, made the room a very uncomfortable one. In addition to these openings there was, in the lower right-hand corner of the room, the “cat-hole,” — a contrivance which almost every mansion or cabin in Virginia possessed during the ante-bellum period. The “cat-hole” was a square opening, about seven by eight inches, provided for the purpose of letting the cat pass in and out of the house at will during the night. In the case of our particular cabin I could never understand the necessity for this convenience, since there were at least a half-dozen other places in the cabin that would have accommodated the cats. There was no wooden floor in our cabin, the naked earth being used as a floor. In the centre of the earthen floor there was a large, deep opening covered with boards, which was used as a place in which to store sweet potatoes during the winter. An impression of this potato- hole is very distinctly engraved upon my memory, because I recall that during the process of putting the potatoes in or taking them out I would often come into possession of one or two, which I roasted and thoroughly enjoyed. There was no cooking-stove on our plantation, and all the cooking for the whites and slaves my mother had to do over an open fireplace, mostly in pots and “skillets.” While the poorly built cabin caused us to suffer with cold in the winter, the heat from the open fireplace in summer was equally trying.

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Changing Lives

I read a terrific article on the last page of Family Tree Maker magazine, June issue.

It made me think about some of my ancestors and how different my life experiences are in many ways, some good some bad. I often try to visualize what life was like in the 1920s, 1890s, 1850s, and so on–actual day-to-day life–and I read alot of materials trying to get a sense of that.

It goes without saying that as African-Americans, slavery, racism, discrimination, disenfranchisement, Jim Crow, and overall physical and emotional violence was ever-present and of course I stand in awe of all that we have come through. I am also thankful that women in general have made strides giving me a choices in my life that some of my ancestors could only dream about (educationally, career-wise, etc.). But I can genuinely think of a few things I think were absolutely better about some of the past times:

proximity of family. The nature of an agricultural-based life as well as earlier modes of transport made it more likely that people lived amongst their kin. Almost no one I know, including my friends, lives in close proximity, certainly not walking distance of family.

food. I think raising your own crops and livestock must have been in many ways better than all this processed, antibiotic- and pesticide- filled factory stuff we eat today. Yes, the thought of cutting off a chicken’s head and killing a hog scares me now, but I’m sure if I was brought up that way, it would’ve been some good eating! I think there’s something truly spiritual about really living off the land. My maternal grandmother would often say how you’d only have meat if you had a hog to kill, and that generally they did not eat much meat, but mostly vegetables and lots of home baking.

personal entertainment. There are certainly good things about Facebook and the internet and Twitter and all the new technology (after all, I couldn’t bring you this post without it). But I can’t help but to think when I listen to my elders discuss playing the piano and trumpet and singing with their family in the living room how wonderful it must have been to be so musical and really need that as a form of entertainment and socializing. Older family members often talk about how they would all break out singing in the living room and I think that must have been wonderful.

church and religious life. The mega churches of today seem like a different animal than the small, rural, steepletop,  frame churches and tent revivals I’ve heard and read about, and still experience when I visit my cousins in Tennessee. The fact that they still meet up in that back room after service, and have what appears to be Thanksgiving dinner every Sunday harkens back to a time when communities really were tied together.

minimalism. My paternal grandmother said that when she went to college, she had 3 dresses, 1 coat, 2 pair of shoes, 1 pair of pants and 2 blouses. Obviously we can live a good life without so many material things. I am embarrassed by all the “stuff” I have that I just don’t need. Part of it is the capitalism-filled consumerism and I’ve certainly guilty. It must have been nice to live in a time before that had taken a firm grip on America.

Can you think of any other ways life may have been better in the past?

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