William Plummer
November 16, 1998 12:00 PM

Interest in slavery’s legacy seems never to have been more vividly public: Hard on the heels of Oprah Winfrey’s movie version of Toni Morrison’s Beloved and the acclaimed PBS series Africans in America comes DNA evidence supporting the likelihood that Thomas Jefferson fathered children by his slave Sally Hemings. Yet many African-Americans have for years been tracing their ancestors’ tortuous journey and celebrating the strength that let their forebears survive it. “There is something liberating about knowing one’s history,” says Charles Johnson, author of Middle Passage. The searchers whose stories are told below would agree.


A Texan recalls the enduring lessons of his beloved Aunt Shug

There is a graveyard in the deep piney woods of East Texas, near the town of Jasper, where slaves and their descendants are buried. It is a peaceful, holy place, but it was defiled last June when three white men killed James Byrd Jr., dragged him behind a pickup and left his headless body there. “They threw my cousin on the slave side of the graveyard,” says Bob Lee, 50, who was outraged by the killing, an inescapable reminder of slavery’s horrors. Yet, as Tee points out, there is another, countervailing legacy from those days, a strength of character and purity of purpose made vivid by such survivors of the survivors as his indomitable Aunt Shug. Raised among former slaves, she died at age 101 in 1991. Here, in Lee’s words, are his memories of a remarkable woman.

Aunt Shug was tall and graceful. Her skin was velvety brown, her hair soft and white. But on occasion she would put on her Kmart wig, which looked like a raccoon cap. She had a wonderful, loving smile. In short, she was prettier than a red-winged blackbird.

Aunt Shug lived in a two-room cabin built with wide boards cut from the original trees of the virgin forest. Visiting her was walking back in time. Hanging on her wall near her wood-burning heater were pictures of the saints: John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Jesus Christ. “All I know,” she told me, “is working in the fields, quilting, preserving, midwifing, funerals, religion, hauling wood, raising children sunup to sundown.”

Every spring, Aunt Shug and Aunt Cricket would walk through the forest looking for mullein, St.-John’s, gypsy-weed, lion’s-ear and snakeroot. They’d chip bark from trees to boil for medicines. Back in those trees is the timber wolf, the wild boar, the big cat. But my Uncle DeWitt told me as a child the most dangerous animals in the forest are a gang of drunken white men with guns.

Junior Byrd’s murder traumatized my family and the whole community. When, afterward, the Klan announced they were coming to Jasper County, people were terrified. Rural America hasn’t changed much. Everywhere in our history are murders and lynchings.

I decided, after Junior’s killing, to give white supremacy a face. You don’t hate all whites because of these actions. Do you hate the guy who worked beside you in the fields for 15 years? No, you reach out, and you cool your anger. I did research on the Klan. I printed hundreds of flyers and handed them out. The Black Panthers came down from Dallas. This was the first time a lot of people had seen anyone stand up to the Klan.

So what is our hope? Aunt Shug said that you save your own soul. You work at it every day, and you teach your children to work at it.

My parents didn’t teach us fear. They had a nightclub on the waterfront when we were growing up. We mixed with people from all over the world. My mother used to tell us, “Be kind to human beings, because an angel will come to you without wings. God wouldn’t send an angel with wings—that would be too strange, and you’d kill him. No, God sends angels without wings. And they come in all colors, so be careful how you treat people.”

Aunt Shug would agree with her sister on that.


In a family archive, a Colorado woman reclaims her heritage

Katie Brown Bennett began her search with the 1910 census. She found her parents, just 3 years old at the time, and great-aunts and uncles she had never heard of. Then she started peeling back the census, turning up marriage records for her grandparents and great-grandparents. “The more I found, the more excited I was,” she says. But then all mention of her forebears stopped. “It hit me I shouldn’t be looking in the census anymore,” says Bennett, 58, a retired IBM employee. “I had to look in the county courthouse for the Office of Deeds and Property. Because, until the Civil War ended, slaves were considered possessions, not people. It was a slap of reality.”

That same day, at the Family History Center in Colorado Springs, Bennett found an 1843 bill of sale for her great-great-grandfather Squire Cheshire. “He was 27, which meant he probably had a wife and children—and he was just sold away from them,” she says. “There I was, sobbing soundlessly. Some of the people around me saw me, came over and started crying too.”

The sympathetic genealogists shared Bennett’s pain, but they were also weeping tears of joy. For they knew she had broken through to the other side of the Civil War. In time, Bennett traced her heritage back to her great-great-great-great-grandmother Emmaline, who had been sold in 1792. “I felt sadness, anger, joy,” she says. “All these years I thought I was a Cheshire. I realized, later than Malcolm X, that my heritage is not my last name.”

Bennett was born and raised in East St. Louis, Ill., the daughter of a housekeeper and a factory worker. She worked for IBM for 27 years and reared two daughters—Rejena, 38, an artist, and Gail, 30, a financial consultant. It was in 1991, when she retired to Colorado Springs, that she began to look into the past. It proved to be a tricky business, since before she could find her slave ancestors, she says, “I first had to find their owners.”

She traced them, she explains in her self-published Soaking the Yule Log, using bills of sale. She also placed ads in genealogical magazines and searched through early tax records and estate settlements. She was able to find descendants of families that had owned her ancestors—at which point, she says, she didn’t just ring them up and say, “Hey, I’m black and I think we have some family connections.” Rather, she would ease into it, saying, ” ‘I’m researching the family.’ I’d emphasize that I wasn’t asking for reasons of revenge. I wanted information.”

Bennett got plenty of it, judging from documents and photographs that line the walls of her split-level home. At one end of her study is the 1792 bill of sale for Emmaline; at the other hangs daughter Gail’s 1993 Harvard MBA degree.

Bennett is hardly one to overlook slavery’s pain and consequences. But she says her search has “humanized” the white slave owners for her. Slaves were passed down through the white families and, in effect, became part of them. “I’ve read so many letters,” she says, “where white family members are writing each other, and the people they’re asking after first are slaves—’How is Penny? How is Grace?’ Now when I think ‘white,’ it’s less confused for me. I’m less angry. I chose to learn from my search about the bonds that existed between these families.”


A Maryland mother feels the emotional tug of her past

Kneeling beside a tombstone in an old graveyard near Annapolis, Md., Bernadette Pulley-Pruitt rubs chalk across the timeworn letters until the inscription emerges: “Timothy Harris. Born March 31, 1834. Died March 1905. With the upright man thou shalt show thyself upright.” Her eyes glisten as she reads the tribute to her great-great-grandfather, who was born a slave and died a free man. “It’s really unexplainable,” says Pulley-Pruitt, 42. “I feel like I’m on sacred ground.”

Her companion at graveside, Orlando Ridout IV, understands. The cemetery is filled with his ancestors, who first came here in the 1600s and carved out a vast farm. In fact, Ridout’s forebears once owned Timothy Harris, the only ex-slave buried in their family plot. Ridout, 76, views their intertwined histories with equanimity. “That’s just rural life here in Maryland,” he says.

Pulley-Pruitt (who, ironically, now works for Ridout’s son Orlando Ridout V as an administrative assistant at the Maryland Historic Trust) first looked into her family’s shrouded past 10 years ago, after hearing a lecture by Roots author Alex Haley. She started spending Saturdays at the Maryland State Archives, poring over birth and marriage records and death certificates. “I was always trying to figure out who I was and where I came from,” says Pulley-Pruitt, who lost her mother, Amelia Estella Harris, when she was 16 months old and was raised by the extended Harris family. “I never knew my mother,” she says, “and I know that a lot of my ancestors never knew theirs.”

Pruitt-Pulley first discussed genealogy with Ridout when he would call his son’s office and she would answer the phone. Then, a year or so ago, she mentioned that her mother was a Harris. He seemed surprised and said there was a Timothy Harris buried with his relatives. At home that night she found Timothy’s name in her records and called Ridout to tell him. “I wanted him to know there was a very close connection,” she says.

Today, on a perfect fall afternoon, Pruitt-Pulley and Ridout wander through that cemetery where their ancestors lie. They pause before a soaring marble cross erected to the memory of Samuel Ridout, a physician and minister who officiated at the funeral of Timothy Harris’s son Frank, on Aug. 20, 1871.

“I heard that all the slaves got remarried after the Civil War,” says Pulley-Pruitt. “I think Reverend Ridout might have remarried Timothy and his wife, Mary.”

“Really?” says Ridout with delight. “That would be something, wouldn’t it?”

It is clear that Pulley-Pruitt and Ridout, who first walked this ground together six weeks ago, are fond of each other. But the centuries-old legacy of slavery may have created a certain reticence, even between people of good will. Pulley-Pruitt admits that she and Ridout have not yet sat down and discussed the relationship between the two families. “Some things take time,” she says. “There is a season for everything.”

For now she is happy to have found her great-great-grandfather and to feel tangibly reconnected to family and history. “My ancestors were survivors, and I see myself as a survivor,” says Pulley-Pruitt. “I admire their consistency, their unwillingness to give up.” It is a persistence she has clearly inherited.

William Plummer

Reported by: Karen Grigsby Bates in Colorado Springs, Gabrielle Cosgriff in Houston and Rochelle Jones in Annapolis

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