Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation

I took some time this Martin Luther King weekend to read  The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation,  a book about a family's life in slavery and as they moved to freedom.  I was particularly interested in this book because the plantation was located in Robertson County, Tennessee. My mother-in-law (Grandma Ginger) was born not far from this plantation.  Other family members lived in close proximity during and after the slavery period.

As a genealogist and a historian, I found myself turning to the end notes to check the author's sources.  I was very interested in his research style and source analysis.  The author was fortunate to have wonderful plantation records to work with. The Washington family records are housed at the Tennessee State Archives in Nashville.  One outstanding piece of research was his discovery that the slave schedule pages of the 1860 census were jumbled.  When he corrected the paging, the Washington family slaves were enumerated as he expected to find them. Slave schedules only list numbers and ages of slaves--no names. And, most slave schedules list slaves by owner and then chronological ages. This schedule grouped the slaves into families.  Only ages were listed, but the author knew the family groups and their ages and could reconstruct the families. I have found this same problem of missing pages with other families on the general population schedules.  One McBride child went unnoticed until Uncle Richard found "Dorky" was separated from the family when the pages were digitized.

Again, as a historian, I have to see slavery as a part of a troubled Southern history.  These are my people, not by birth, but by love and appreciation as I research and tell their stories.  The slaves, the masters, the freemen and women of color, the poor whites--they are all my people, literally and figuratively.  I cannot tell one story without the other.

Georgia Ann Collins ( A Hatfield cousin. Her parents and all four grandparents were listed as black, mulatto and white in different census records)

So, I see a white 2nd great aunt who married a mulatto man. She became mulatto along with him after the marriage.  Most of the family eventually passed to the "white side" after 30 years of moving and race changes in nearly every census.  I see a 4th great-grandfather selling little black children.  It was a  hard moment finding that record among all the wonderful heroic things he did in his life. Perhaps if my sins were written so clearly in black and white my posterity would find my story difficult to tell.  I see poor white great-grandparents living side-by-side with their black neighbors.  I have a feeling they knew how to get along and be neighbors.

This Martin Luther King Day has caused me a lot of reflection.  Because I believe that people continue to grow and change even after their death, my hope is that we can all sit down together in heaven--families of many colors united in love, appreciation and forgiveness.