The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation reviewed in Nashville City Paper by Todd Dills. Click here to see review.
Posts Tagged ‘family history’
I just returned from a very exciting event—The first International Black Genealogy Summit held in Ft. Wayne, Indiana on October 29-31, 2009. Several hundred people participated. Throughout the conference I shared my research experience with genealogists. It was wonderful to speak with many people who had already read my book. The give and take of ideas illustrates that we are just at the beginning of a long and interesting journey to learn about our roots.
At the Meet the Authors event everyone could talk to the authors of books related to African American genealogy. The authors posed together for this photo. (L-R) Tony Burroughs who wrote Black Roots: A Beginners Guide To Tracing the African American Family Tree; myself; Tim Pinnick, author of Finding and Using African American Newspapers; and (Seated) Frazine Taylor, with her book Researching African American Genealogy in Alabama.
Slave owners kept detailed records of their slaves’ births, and deaths, and purchases; although many of them have not survived. They often recorded these events in their family bibles along with information on their own families.
The 1715 Blow family bible records the births of slaves owned by the Blows of Sussex, and Southampton counties in Virginia. Nineteen births of four mothers are recorded from 1737 to 1763 spanning three generations. This is a goldmine of information for African American research. Descendants of these slaves can be found searching other records in the Blow Family Papers in the Swem Library in Virginia.
Today divorce is very common, but in 1800s and early 1900s it was rarely heard of, especially among African Americans. In my research I found this extraordinary divorce case of two former slaves in Robertson County, Tennessee which detailed the history of their family.
Alford Pitt 1830-1900 and his wife Arry Fort Pitt 1836-1918 were married during slavery and had eleven children. Alford was a carpenter and later accumulated more than 500 acres of land. He had African American and white sharecroppers working his land.
In 1900, Arry filed for divorce from Alford stating that he had an affair with two black women and one white one. She stated that she had worked hard to help him amass everything they owned and she was entitled to half. Alford claimed that she had not helped him accumulate his wealth and felt since they married during slavery and never married after they were emancipated that she was not legally his wife and therefore not entitled to any of his property.
The divorce case put a great strain on the Pitt family, their friends and neighbors. Arry had more than fifty witnesses to prove her claims and Alford had nearly as many to support his. Half the children sided with their mother and the others their father.
Arry was represented in court by a family member of her former owners. In 1866, a law was passed in Tennessee which made all former slave marriages legal if the couple continued to live as man and wife.
The courts ordered Alford to give Arry 100 acres of land, $1,000, a horse and buggy and other livestock. Shortly after the verdict Alford died from complications of a cold that he caught from walking to court in bad weather.
Some of the Pitt property is still owned by their direct descendants. A street that runs through the property bears the family name.
In more than thirty years of researching my ancestry and the lives of African Americans enslaved on Wessyngton Plantation, I have had the honor of interviewing more than twenty individuals whose parents or grandparents lived on the plantation. These individuals ranged in age from eighty to 107 years old.
Although I found hundreds of documents about my ancestors from plantation records written by the owners of Wessyngton, I learned many personal things about my ancestors from conducting interviews with elder family members.
In 1994, I visited my cousin Joseph Washington 1895-2002 (pictured above) at his home in Mansfield, Ohio on his one hundred second birthday. As a child Joseph lived next door to my great-great-grandparents Emanuel and Henny Washington who were born at Wessyngton in the early 1800s. He related many stories about them to me including ghost stories that my great-great-grandfather used to tell all the children on the plantation and songs he used to sing. Joseph told me what life was like on the plantation when he grew up there and how many people on the plantation were related to one another.
Oral history is a vital key to tracing African American genealogy and provides many details about our ancestors that can’t be found in records.
My presentation at the Missouri History Museum was followed by a book signing, which was well attended. I enjoyed meeting the members of the St. Louis African American History and Genealogy Society who sponsored the event.
On May 23rd I gave a presentation about my book The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation: Stories of My Family’s Journey to Freedom to the St. Louis African American History and Genealogy Society at the Missouri History Museum. I made many new friends among avid genealogical researchers. I had a great time in St. Louis and look forward to visiting again.
One of the most exciting things about genealogical research is meeting new family members. In conducting research for more than thirty years I’ve found hundreds of relatives. I created this tree which spans ten generations and includes more than 600 names of descendants from my great-great-grandparents Emanuel and Henny Washington. I have genealogical information on all the families that came from Wessyngton including: Washington, Blow, Gardner, Terry, White, Williams, Lewis, Scott, Green and many others.
My half-hour television interview with John Seigenthaler Sr, A Word on Words, is available as a free downloadable Podcast.
Mr. Seigenthaler asked me many in-depth thought-provoking questions. At the end, he said, “I learned more from your book than I learned from reading my friend Alex Haley’s book called Roots.” I hope you enjoy the interview. Leave a comment with your reaction.
On April 21st, author John F. Baker Jr. delivered a presentation on his new book The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation: Stories of My Family’s Journey to Freedom to the Greenbrier Historical Society. The program was well received and attended by nearly 40 historical society members and friends.