In the last post of 2012 and on this first day of Kwanza we encourage people to talk with elders, especially those in the family. What may be recorded and remembered will probably provide another historical viewpoint. For example, December 13th in the official US story is the day that George Washington died, first president of the republic and one of the founding fathers. For one family, however, it marks the day that wrenched them apart: husband from wife, parent from child, child from siblings.
George Washington stipulated in his will that one year after his death all his enslaved workers were to be emancipated. His wife Martha would not agree to set her people free. Over the years of their long marriage, the Washingtons identified their enslaved people in household accounts as “his” and “hers” — people who had built families, constructed friendships, shared traditions and customs, and made lives seldom anticipating an end of those relationships except by natural causes or escape. All of that changed on December 13, 1799.
Martha Washington realized that she lived on an isolated property with half the people on the brink of freedom and the others, often related, shackled for a lifetime, so she decided for her own safety to let her husband’s enslaved go free before the one year deadline and to disperse her enslaved to her grandchildren and great grandchildren immediately. They went to households in Alexandria, Arlington, and the District of Columbia. Since then, that nuclear family’s descendants have never been reunited. Recorded historical events are not abstract. To close observers, they describe reality.
For another family, July 4, 1863, was literally independence day, but by no means was it a typical national holiday. For on that day, the Confederate Army surrendered Vicksburg, Mississippi to General Ulysses Grant after a protracted battle. That was also the day that an ancestor prepared a meal for her “master” while the master berated other enslaved people for deserting him while Vicksburg was under attack. After preparing and serving the meal, this woman dropped a dozen of the biscuits she had made into her apron, and ran out the back door to freedom. She eventually married a man from Alabama and they founded a black farming community in Duncan, Mississippi called “New Africa.” By the way, the city of Vicksburg did not officially celebrate or observe July 4th as a national holiday again until 1945.
This project continuously focuses upon the stories of African people and their descendants in the Diaspora. Much of the reading and research for this weblog during the year covered groups and movements. Very few of our posts center upon individuals, yet we realize that each of us is part of a broad community and we want to reinforce that fact.
As we end this first full year of operation, having accomplished many of our goals, we urge each person to follow an African tradition and be involved in oral history. Talk with someone, perhaps an elder, during this holiday season about memories from the past. The opportunity to record the conversation, especially with a family member, could be a gift to the entire family. Starting the conversation with pictures is a great “ice breaker” and an easy complement to the narrative.
When we ask that you include and remember ancestors at this time, that is not a trite statement. We are encouraging people to understand lessons learned for better or worse. Elders have a role to play in our lives. They are our foundation. By the laws of nature, elders are on the brink of becoming ancestors themselves. Carve out a portion of your holiday and talk with someone about what it was like “back in the day.”
There are treasures to be discovered, and your effort to listen to older people and ask them questions conveys how much value you place upon the individual’s life. It can mean a lot for everyone. You also may be surprised by what you learn. These stories make history relevant and personal because the memories of individuals combine to make the history of a community.
The Directors of the Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project wish you a joyful holiday season and a happy new year. We hope this will also be a time to learn a little more about your own origins and those people who have helped make you who you are today.