Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Unpuzzling Our Family History and Our Past

Antoinette Harrell conducting research in the
St. Helena Parish, Louisiana
A genealogist is one who studies the family history, events, places and records. Often times we spend a great deal of time researching family’s vital records and documents, preserving our history, family photographs and collecting oral history. Thinking of genealogy with a twist--one may ask the question what that means? Well, the question that I often ask is, “What have we learned from the past? How are we applying what we learned? Have we strived for success, or have we regressed?”

I have talked with many people who don’t think that family history isn't important. I am the third generation from slavery. My third maternal great-grandfather Thomas Richardson was a slave born on the Benjamin and Celia Bankston plantation in St. Helena Parish, Louisiana. Thomas and his mother Carrie appraised for $1,100 dollars in 1853. Not much is known about Carrie and her son Thomas after they were sold to the Kemp Family. However, I know that after the freedom bell rung in 1863, Thomas married Amanda Breland of Livingston Parish. They had five children; Thomas, John, Sophia, Annie and Golene.

Gordon Family
Thomas, my great-great-grandfather married Emma Vining.  During their union, they gave birth to four children; Rosabell, Alma, Josephine and Alexander .  My mother shared the oral history that she   She said that he spent most of his life in East Louisiana State Hospital in Jackson, LA for mental illness.

 I interviewed several people that knew him.  They knew him as Mr. Moss or Uncle Moss. One thing they all pointed out during the interview was that Moss was a very intelligent and handsome man. He passed away in 1958 in Amite, Louisiana.  My mother was the only person in the family who would talk about him and the illness he suffered and share the information she knew about him.

We can learn so much from our family history if we chose to study it. The oral history passed down to me about my grandfather Thomas are very helpful to me, and I hope that others family members find this information helpful for medical information.

Thomas's descendants went on to become successful people,  many have earned college degrees and  hold the occupations as engineers, lawyers, doctors, educators, entrepreneurs, ministers, dentists, entertainers, television talk show hosts, authors, law enforcement officials and other careers. Yet, I can’t help but wonder if these people who have become successful in their careers ever think about their ancestors and were forced into slavery and who shoulders they stand on.

I wonder if they ever think about paying tribute to those who endured the long, hot days in the cotton fields working for the slave masters, being sold on the auction block and never to see their dear loved ones again. What was life like for Carrie and her child Thomas? Did Carrie have other children? If so, where are they and who are they? Perhaps I am looking at her offspring every day, not realizing that I am actually seeing a relative.

Why we've chosen to forget our history is a puzzling mystery! What impact would it have on the youth if we told them about their history? Why aren't we telling them about slavery and Jim Crow? Perhaps we think that we're saving them from something without realizing that we’re hurting them by keeping the truth from them.

Some people are ashamed of their history and avoid the topic of slavery and its widespread effects. I wanted to know about my ancestors, where they came from, if they were free people of color, or if they were slaves. If they were slaves, who owned them? What kind of plantation did they live on?

What happened to them after the freedom bell rung? What did they do and where did they go? I may never have all the answers, but at least I can pay tribute to them for all that they endured for me. We’re are talking about people who had little or no formal education, but nonetheless purchased land and build their own homes with no mortgages. They fed themselves from the food they grew and kept themselves warm with the wood from the land they owned. They understood what freedom meant. Today, we define ourselves by material things, we have lost sight of the things that should be most
important to us, and we pass those same senseless values down to the next generations.

What ever happened to the respect for the community and ourselves? The elders in the community would come together to solve problems; they would share food with one another, help take care of those who were ill and certainly took in children who needed homes and families. I often wonder if this was just a dream. At times, I even wish I lived in a world were we took care of our community.  It is the past that shapes the present, and the present that shapes the future? Where is our future headed if we don’t take responsibility for it?

We can learn valuable lessons by studying our own family history. I am grateful for the lessons I learned while researching my family history.  I found land ownership, home ownership, business owners, family members who were debt-free, and family members who cared about each other. Now I can pass these lessons down to my grandchildren.