Sunday, December 15, 2013

Why I, a Young Woman of Color, Joined the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR)

Late in October I received a phone call from a strange number. Now I usually don't answer calls from numbers I don't recognize, but for some reason I answered. I am so happy I did. It was Wilhelmina Kelly, founding regent of the Increase Carpenter Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
She is so classy
We had been exchanging emails off and on since June when I finally applied for DAR. I had always told myself that if I applied to the DAR I wanted to join her chapter since there are several other black members. I figured that if I was going to join a historically white and, well remembered for being racist organization, then I should make it a little easier on myself by joining a chapter with at least one other black member. I guessed that the women in this chapter might be open and supportive of my application. They may also be more helpful with my struggle to get in since they had already gotten over their own historical and racial hurdles.  Increase Carpenter has four black members that I know of.

As I had hoped Ms. Kelly was very excited about my application and quickly set to work trying to help me negotiate the paperwork process and find all of the proof I needed. Then magically 5 months later DAR's membership committee approved my ancestry! I was in! I couldn't believe it. It takes some women years to find just the right ancestral line. I got in on my first try using a family line I had not even known had actually existed a few months earlier.

I used my Fortson line:
ME - My mother Rachel - grandmother Willie Mae Hall Strickland - great grandfather Johnny "Fox" Hall - great great grandmother Martha Fortson Hall - great great great grandfather William Easton Fortson (white former slave owner who lived with his former slave Mertis Thomas and fathered all 16 of her children) - great great great great grandmother Nancy Ham - great great great great great grandfather John Ham - great great great great great great (6x) grandfather Stephen Ham. Nancy's mother also connects me to another soldier Richard Gatewood.
To find out more about William Fortson, Mertis Thomas and their families please see this blog post Love Across the Battle Lines

Why would a black woman want to join the Daughters of the American Revolution after they publicly excluded black women for almost 70 years?

I get that question a lot, mostly from people of color and others who know about DAR's checkered past.

My answer? Because I have done the research and traced my line to multiple Revolutionary War soldiers. Therefore they have no reason to exclude me. I'm no James Meredith and there were no blue haired old ladies with nooses and colonial era ball gowns trying to chase me away from the archives. DAR has changed quite a bit in the last decade or so. Thanks in great part to some of its earliest black members and their many white allies - women like Wilhelmina Kelly and Olivia Cousins and many others who are passionate and dedicated to OUR shared history as Americans.

For Daughters of the American Revolution, a New Chapter

 I personally like the idea of joining and hopefully helping to change an organization that I am qualified to be a member of, and that is even though they may have in the past rejected me because of my color. Why apply for Harvard or work at the Smithsonian? Just because they did not want us in the past does not mean we should not try to make change and then use the organization/institution/company to make our lives and the lives of others better.

For me DAR is also about the network. A strong genealogy network! It's like getting into a sorority only I don't have to worry about an elderly lady paddling me or making me eat dry oatmeal and walk in a triangle. My initiation ceremony involved hours spent squinting at some 19th century clerks awful handwriting or staring bleary-eyed at 4am at my laptop screen reading document after document until I had my answers…or were they just more questions? (oh crap I just lost another 3 hours I should have been putting toward my archaeology course's reading assignment).

I will be making my re-entry into the full time work world in the next 5 months and I know from experience that it is not what you know but who you know. Being a DAR member, especially as a woman of color, may give me a few bonus points when I apply to genealogy and research jobs. I like to think that this connection helps prove how passionate and dedicated I am to genealogy. When I went back to my internship at the New England Historic Genealogical Society and told the lunch room regulars that I had finally made it in, their jaws dropped. There were a few young white women who had been trying to get in and failing for months. They seemed both surprised and in awe. I figure, if I can get in, then so can they, and so can many women of color looking for a means of reifying their family's long history in this country. Now that DNA is acceptable as evidence we all have an even easier pathway in to this historic organization.

Yesterday, I got up at 5 am after getting home from a salsa concert at 2 am to get on a bus to New York. In one of those random YOLO moments. I figured I might as well make the trek back to my favorite city to attend my first DAR meeting. Some how magically despite my printer not working and the bus being over loaded, oh and then there was the part about it snowing, I made it to Queens.

We met at a restaurant called Brooks 1890. As a pretty much life-time member of the National Alumnae Association of Spelman College - Columbia, MD Chapter, I knew how this whole thing would go. We read minutes, said a few prayers, did the pledge of allegiance to the flag (mmmh I've protested that since middle school so I was hesitating on that) and then jumped into business. There was a history moment and then the ladies were invited to share photos and quick stories about the veterans in their lives/histories. Since I have all my research online I was able to share photos of my great uncle Alphonsa "Fuz" Cook who served during the Korean war as a cook in the Navy. I also spoke on my Confederate veteran ancestor and the many questions I wish I could ask him.

I spent most of the meeting chatting with a young woman named Charlene. We connected instantly since we are both studying some of the most heartbreaking and difficult segments of Black America's history. I'm studying slavery and she is focusing on the American prison system, convict leasing and the rampant lynching of black military veterans in uniform. Whew! Talk about commiseration! I'm not sure anyone else wanted to join our conversation. It was wonderful though! It is always great to find a kindred spirit. We connected through email and Linked In, traded book titles, authors, scholars and info. She is even interested in joining the African American Genealogy Book Club I am co leading on LinkedIn! Very happy to have finally gotten a chance to meet her and the rest of the members who came out despite the snow. We had a wonderful time. Cannot wait for the next meeting in February.

Ok ladies! I'm ready. Pin me!

Any thoughts on whether I should attempt to join the United Daughters of the Confederacy? Colonial Dames?

Sunday, November 17, 2013

12 Years a Slave & 8 Years a Student of Slavery

I just realized that my almost constant studying of slavery may have made me too numb to truly feel the impact of 12 Years a Slave. I mean I cried harder while watching the Best Man Holiday. Of course I think that was because that movie made me miss some of my friends from back home and from college.

12 Years a Slave was good. It was really really really good. It was accurate and provocative and immersed me at times into a visual world my imagination sometimes refuses to enter. *Spoiler Alert* There is a scene that involves a hanging that lasts an uncomfortably long time. I abhor lynching imagery and thats even though I find it to be horribly necessary. Americans need to see the many many photos that exist of men, women and children who were lynched. Why? Because they are the truth! Because someone for one reason or another thought they were worth documenting. Because we can see the parents, grandparents and great grands of currently living Americans in the background laughing, smiling, watching, baring witness. Those images force Americans to look in the mirror and see what we have done to each other. And I hate them. The images I mean. My eyes are automatically drawn to the victims twisted faces, limp appendages and stretched necks. Then the real victim's face is momentarily erased and I see my father, my brother, my friends dangling there. Something inside me aches and rages and helplessly I look away.

But watching 12 Years a Slave I could not look away during the lynching scene. I watched as a character dangled from the noose, his toes prancing painfully back and forth in the mud below; desperately attempting to relieve the pressure on his neck. Heard the strained breathing as his body pulled him downward. And the seconds ticked by. Louder and LOUDER. Enslaved men and women wondered out of their cabins in the background. They barely took note of their slowly strangling compatriot. Alas he wasn't one of them anyway and perhaps the relatively consistent horror and violence of their lives had dulled their senses to just one more negro life in peril.

Then something happened. Not on screen. Something inside of me, something uncontrollable started to happen. I began to giggle. Yeah. I tried to stifle it but I couldn't. The absurdity of the dying man's dance had begun to tickle me. The pity pat pity patter of his toes in the muck hit something in me and I laughed. My friend turned to me with a confused look on his face. I couldn't stop. The scene continued. Pat pat pat squoosh pity pat plunk. Seconds ticked by slowly and still he swung and danced. It was excruciating.

I eventually realized that the scene some how reminded me of a presentation I had just seen at Brown on toys that perpetuated negative stereotypes about black people. These were toys that were incredibly popular back in the 1910's to 1930's. In fact they were the top sellers at Christmas time at their peak. The presentation was given by PhD candidate Christopher Dingwall of Univ of Chicago.

“Reanimating Slavery: Memory, Automation, and the Alabama Coon Jigger” Abstract: One of the most popular toys during the 1915 Christmas season was a mechanical black dancer: Tombo, the Alabama Coon Jigger. Approaching Tombo as both a nostalgic reference to the “old plantation” and a product of an emerging machine culture, I argue that the toy did cultural work by replacing anxiety about mechanization with racialized “fun” between human and machine.

Dingwall explained during his presentation that some witnesses to lynchings compared the victims struggling last desperate gasps for life to the movements of these jigging coon dolls. Maybe while watching 12 Years I suddenly believed that Dingwall was right. Or maybe the moment was just so painful the only reaction I could manage was an uncomfortable laugh. No lynching image had ever made me react that way before.

So I started this post confessing to the feeling that my research has made me numb or a bit desensitized to the violence of slavery. I laughed during a lynching scene and while everyone else yelped and twitched during the whipping I just watched. Nothing really shocked me. It should have. I wanted it to. I ached for the main character's loss of his family and I shed a few tears during the final scene but I've seen it all before. Not on the big screen but in my minds eye while reading Marcus Rediker's The Slave Ship and The Amistad Rebellion or watching the historically inaccurate film or watching Roots or reading the Works Progress Administration's (WPA) Slave Narratives.

Actually it was researching my enslaved female ancestors Babe Magby and Mertis Thomas while also reading  The National Humanities Center's "Slaveholders' Sexual Abuse of Slaves" report and then thinking I was taking a mental break by watching Beloved that sent me into a terrifying three day period during which I had nightmares every night, ignored the calls of the very sweet white man I had been dating and went off into random rants about slavery at the slightest provocation.

You see Babe was most likely raped by her master's son and possibly by two other white men. I know this because she had two mulatto children born during slavery, one of which is my ancestor. Mertis was purchased by a young white man when she was about 19 and proceeded to give him 16 children. They lived like husband and wife long after Emancipation so I would like to believe that she wasn't raped but who knows. The balance of power would have been incredibly difficult to overcome both before and after slavery. Maybe she was forced in the beginning then felt trapped. Where was she going to go with that many children? It makes me feel better to think that she loved him and that they loved each other but I'll never know. I ended up writing an extensive posting here about this couple called "Can You Love the Man Who Owns You" These two women haunted me for days. Everytime I closed my weary eyes they appeared to me or I appeared some how transported into what I imagine was there world. I questioned every move they made and they ignored me. I was invisible to them. I sometimes imagine I am like Dana in Octavia Butler's brilliantly written Kindred. I am transported briefly back in time to meet my ancestors and watch helplessly as they go about their lives. All the while I know that if I change anything, like stop a rape from occurring, that I and all my living relatives will cease to exist.

Its after doing that type of research that the pain so many others feel while watching 12 Years seems dulled. But just when I start to wonder if I am becoming like the enslaved men and women in the background of the lynching scene, Sarah Palin decides to start a sentence with "now this isn't racist but…" and then compares the national debt to slavery. Thats when my rage, my anger, my hurt kick in. I know that I know more than the average person about slavery in the Western Hemisphere and the historical origins of slavery and race in the Old World, but this type of simple ignorance gets me every time! Next thing I know I'm tweeting or posting or writing angry but well cited comments. So maybe its not that I am desensitized to images of slavery it is that I am too sensitive to modern ignorance of American history. So sensitive that I spent the last few hours working on this post instead of reading up on post-Emancipation African American burial practices in the Deep South. That is the topic for my final paper in my Graveyards and Burial Grounds class. Ugh and that class is a whole 'nother
topic! My teacher is so nice but his understanding and research on the topic of slave burials and slave names was so dated (he assigned articles on black burial practices that were written in the 1970's) I had to force myself not to face-palm or roll my eyes every few minutes. All the while I was also trying desperately to not become the one black person in class who is also the only one talking about black issues.

Good night!

Oh yes and as I was searching for the Alabama Coon Jigger video I ran across this video :( Gotta love "Black Americana Art" though thats not what most Black folks would call this stuff.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

More Examples of How NOT to Teach Children About Slavery and two Positive Examples for Teens and Up

I was awakened rather early this morning by multiple text messages and phone calls from my sister and emails from friends about the episode below of the Melissa Harris Perry Show. I love this show. She is so good at publicizing the stories other news programs for one reason or another ignore.

Today's episode briefly discussed to recent incidents of what I like to call "when teaching about slavery goes wrong". In the coming weeks I hope to spend more time talking about good examples of teachers or programs that teach slavery intelligently. Today we will do two bad examples and one good.


MHP discusses an assignment her daughter received.

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The curriculum her daughter used The Underground Railroad: Escape from Slavery by Scholastic.
What do you think of this curriculum and what it teaches?

African American Connecticut 10 year old was made to take part in a slavery reenactment that included being called the N-Word, being told that she is not a person but property and... "dumb dark skinned negro person how dare you look at me". This program was called Natures Classroom. The purpose is to create experiential learning experiences for kids.

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More about Nature's Classroom's past incidents. The article below is from the Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance cite. It poses several very interesting questions about experiential learning. For instance, are they really necessary in order to encourage a child to relate to a traumatic historical event? Could this type of learning traumatize or even re-traumatize young students who may not feel comfortable enough to say no to an authority figure?

"Classroom Simulations: Proceed With Caution"

"When Maya Saakvitne's parents sent her for a three-day school field trip two years ago at Nature's Classroom, a camp in western Massachusetts, they didn't expect her to come home with a tale of her feet falling asleep after counselors asked her to kneel in the hold of a make-believe slave ship. And keep her head down even though some of the other 5th-grade classmates from Jefferson Street Elementary School were crying. Nor that the same class later would sneak through the woods at night in a simulation of an escape along the Underground Railroad...

According to the curriculum for the Underground Railroad activity, the goal is 'to encourage students to think and act in ways that Africans trying to escape slavery thought and acted,' and to 'create a physically and emotionally safe, yet challenging experience.' This included a pursuit to freedom, where students encountered a bounty hunter to 'reinforce feelings of helplessness and frustration,'...

Some educators claim simulations have unparalleled power in sensitizing young people to oppression. But others, including prominent diversity education groups, say it's time to stop. Simulations, they say, are both dangerous and unnecessary."


I cant wait to spend a bit more time digging into this. I have heard some great reviews so far. "The First Step to Freedom" the Schomberg's Emancipation Proclamation Curriculum "" 

Ask A Slave!!!
So this is my new favorite webseries and one of the best things I have ever seen come out of historical interpretation. Azie Mira Dungey created and stars is this hilariously smart show about Lizzie Mae a young woman who is enslaved to George and Martha Washington. Dungey was a historical interpreter at Mount Vernon before moving to California and starting this webseries. The show is based off of her experience as an interpreter and the incredibly ignorant questions she was asked by visitors to Washington's historic home in Virginia.

Just watch!! First Episode

New episodes are up each Sunday. To watch more click the link above.

This show makes me laugh out loud every time. 

Especially this moment when she brings in a new guest on the show. He is an abolitionist who works for Prez Washington and has clearly never interacted with a black person before. After finishing his tea and deciding that she is some how both intelligent and well spoken, he asks to touch her hair. Now that I have gone natural I feel as though I have sat through this exact scene far too many times. See that look on her face? Yeeeeeah 

Friday, September 6, 2013

The Summer is Over!

Sadly, the summer is over and I have returned to Rhode Island and my last year of graduate school.
African Burial Ground in New York. I happened upon
it while walking back from the Trayvonn Martin Rally.

Well, I suppose I should say happily I have returned for my last year of graduate school.

When I Actually Make a Account
And See All My Matches
I am working hard to take that desperate need to start working, find a place to live a more permanent life and settle down into a nice box, duck tape it closed and shove it in my closet. It is for my own good.

It is time to prepare for that life but it is not time for it to be just yet. First I have to use my next two semesters to make sure I have the skills knowledge and connections that will ensure that I have job offers before graduation.

So, I have picked some new classes.
-Gravestones and Burying Grounds- Sounds like high excitement doesn't it? But it'll look good on my genealogy resume
- Shrine, House or Home: Rethinking the Historic House Museum - Confederate Daughters will love this when I shock them by not only applying to become a member but also find a job where I force them to reinterpret the many historic houses they run throughout the south
- Independent Project - I will talk more about this soon
- Practicum - Hmm still not sure where I want to do this. Work with an exhibition designer, the New England Genealogical and Historical Society or Ark Media again. Still thinking.

Oooh time to be very Rhode Islandy and run off to a boat party with the rest of the Public Humans.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Magby Family History Timeline.

Can you believe it? An entire family's history all in one place! Photos, videos and stories, all in chronological order. I really love making these timelines. They allow me to take family history and put it into context with national, local and cultural events that would have effected the lives of our ancestors.

Just remember this timeline is a work in progress.

Do you have an event you would like added? Just leave a comment with the exact date and I will place it.

Friday, July 19, 2013

My great great uncle was Trayvon Martin: A historical unsolved murder

The post below was inspired by both the Trayvon Martin case and a question posed on a genealogy group I am a part of. The prompt from the group is below

Someone asks you to help them find family info, you give them the basics (census records, etc), they share this with their family. You get threatened by a family member and are asked to stop searching.

What do you do????

While doing my own genealogical research a few years back, I found out about a murder that everyone of a certain generation knew about but would not discuss. When I tried to ask about it I was always hushed and told not to ask any more questions or share the story. One relative suddenly acted like my asking about the murder would bring violent reprisals on the family. Right after I first heard the story, the local newspaper in my great grandparents hometown ran a 100th anniversary issue that discussed whatever the front page news was for that day 100 years before. The family murder story suddenly became front-page news...again.

Unfortunately, the modern day reporter was able to gather as few facts about the case from the record and descendants of those involved as the original reporter. In other words practically nothing. It seems like since it was a white man killing a black boy, none of the white people in town would discuss the matter and the black witnesses were neither quoted nor named. In fact there was only relative of the victim who would even speak to the modern reporter about it. You know, that cousin who is so old she has long since stopped caring about what other people think. I of course went to her too in search of answers. That’s when I finally heard the whole story. When I started to share what I had learned with my cousins, my only living great aunt jumped up and hushed me. She said we can’t talk about that because the murderer's family will come after us. She looked terrified. I got a similar reaction from other relatives her age. But who was going to come after us? The murderer died back in the 50’s.

Maybe its na├»ve but I share the story anyway… it is below without names.

The story: My great grandmother had 9 siblings. Her second oldest brother and her third oldest brother were picking beans for a white farmer in a tiny town in east Alabama in 1905. The younger brother who was about 12 at the time had been maliciously picked on a few times by the white overseer's son who was about the same age. That day the boy was picking on the younger brother again and this time he couldn't take it any more.  The younger brother spit on the overseer's son. The son started punching the younger brother. That’s when the older brother grabbed the overseer's son, pulled him off his little brother and punched him. When the boy fell out and started crying and yelling the two brothers took off running home.

Once they got home and told their mother what happened, she told the older brother to jump on the family mule and find the boys' father who was working on another farm a few miles away. All of the boys' younger siblings gathered on the porch with their mother to watch him leave on the mule. Suddenly the overseer rides up on his horse and shoots the older brother right off the mule with his shotgun. Then the overseer rides off out of town. The boys' mother runs to her son and he dies in her arms. This was all over a fight between two kids.

The overseer was never prosecuted for murdering my great great uncle. He was killed in front of his family including 6 of his younger siblings. Many of their children seem to have absorbed the trauma of that event and continue to live in fear of speaking about the incident, including my great-aunt.
According to the 100th anniversary article, several other "negroes", who had been picking beans alongside the boys, were questioned by the police. Unfortunately, their testimony never made it to court because the murder was never put on trial.

The cousin who told the story was actually the daughter of the baby the mother was carrying at the time. I heard the trauma and her grief at watching her teenage son die was so great that she almost lost the baby. Some of the descendants of this branch of my family are still very distrustful of white people. It's sad but when you add up all of the many terrible things that happened to them their fear, anger and frustration are understandable. Being a 20-something northerner it took a lot of time, research and patience to understand why my cousins continue to react the way they do to this story, and to their white neighbors. When you spend your life being pushed around and afraid to fight back; when all the adults tell you to turn the other cheek or you'll be killed; when you have to live down the street from and occasionally interact with the man who killed your brother/uncle/child and his relatives... then maybe that fear is justifiable.

I tell the story because distance and time give me the power to do so. If this was 1913 instead of 2013 or if the overseer's grandson was known to be just as ruthless as his grandfather, I would not be saying a word.

I write this little story not only in memory of my great great uncle Joe but also in memory of Trayvon Martin. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Hot Times, Summer in the City: Their Child moves to New York and takes on 2 genealogy internships

I am now half way through my second week in New York... Oh, wait! I didn't tell you?

Marine archaeologists at work on the
slave ship Troubador's wreck site.
So, as a MA student in Brown University's Public Humanities program, I am required to take on a summer internship. Before coming to Brown my master plan had originally been to quit my job at the Smithsonian, quickly fly through my MA at Brown, and immediately return to the Smithsonian where I would jump into a job that would eventually funnel me into a curator position. So, I originally planned to do my summer internship back at my old museum job. I had grown interested in slave ship wrecks and fantasized about spending the summer months hunting through the archives of Capetown, South Africa, occasionally taking day trips to an actual shipwreck site to, if I was lucky, throw on a wet suit and dive.

But then... this past semester a series of unfortunate, but later turned out to be fortunate, events occurred that sent me spiraling headlong into some sort of pre-mid-life crises. Once I pulled myself together and reevaluated my goals, strengths, skills and passions I realized that I had a lot of incredible options I had been ignoring out of sheer faithfulness to my original goal. So instead of taking the safe route of returning to my old job and jumping into what would have been a perfectly interesting research internship in the curatorial department (which I had already done previously), I decided to stretch myself. found an ad on Craigslist for an unpaid internship at a documentary film company. They wanted someone interested in working on Henry Louis Gates' upcoming black history mini series called Many Rivers to Cross. I jumped at the chance and immediately sent in my resume and cover letter even though the ad was 20 days old. When no one responded I started brainstorming new ways to get the internship anyway. Backup plan: Stalk Henry Louis Gates. I found an old friend from high school on facebook who was working in Brooklyn as a film editor and asked if he had any contacts at the company. Coincidentally he did and he sent my resume over right away.

When a week went by without response, I went back to "da internets" and started looking for an internship related to genealogy. This would take me even further away from my old plans of becoming a curator, but I figured, why not see what happens? Besides I had told myself that I would be a certified genealogist by the time I finished my MA. I quickly found another NY internship. This time it was at the New York Genealogical & Biographical Society in Manhattan. The internship looked pretty amazing. Four days a week I would work on the society's genealogy related projects (tbd) then the fifth day I would work on a genealogy project based on my own family history. Pay-$100 a week :( but better than nothing.

I applied to the NYG&B then quickly emailed my friend in Brooklyn to ask if he had heard anything from his friend at Ark Media. Turns out there had been a little delay in turning in my resume. My friend sent his friend a reminder and by that afternoon they they had emailed me to do a phone interview! The interview went amazingly well. Even though they had already hired all the interns they needed on the original project they had a new project they thought may be a better fit. I was offered an internship to work on another Henry Louis Gates series for PBS, Finding Your Roots. I of course said yes! It was like a dream. I would be working on a genealogy television show! Then surprisingly the next day I had a very lovely phone call with a woman at the NYG&B and she asked me to intern with them too, even if only for one day a week. I was shocked. They wanted me to intern with them so badly even a few hours dedicated to their organization would be great. So of course I said yes! I could figure out the scheduling later.

So fast forward one month.....

I am half way through my second week in NY and I'm in love. Not with a handsome young man but with a city, and a life and two amazing opportunities. It has been a balancing act but I
am gonna make it.

More details to come!

Happy Loving Day!

As the descendent of at least two interracial couplings I have decided to celebrate Loving Day with a brief post. 

Loving Day is an unofficial holiday that has gotten a lot of attention in recent years. It celebrates the 1967 Supreme Court case Loving vs. Virginia in which Richard and Mildred Loving and their attorneys battled to end anti-miscegenation laws across the country. Richard and Mildred grew up as neighbors in a tiny rural town in Virginia. It was a mixed race community which appeared to generally accept the couple. Unfortunately, a few days after they were married the police came to their home in the middle of the night and arrested them for violating a state statute called the Racial Integrity Act of 1924

The law not only seperated all people into classes, white and colored (meaning all non-whites), it also made it illegal for any non-"white" person to marry a "white" person. I use quotes in this case because the racial category was defined by the one drop rule but could also be contradicted by the person's appearance. If you couldn't prove someone was not white, by locating colored relatives or documentation stating otherwise and they looked white, then they were white. 

The Lovings refused to annul their marriage so the plead guilty. In order to avoid spending at least a year in jail each, they moved briefly to Washington, DC to legalize their marriage. For years, the only way they could return to their hometown was after dark. 

For more info on the case please see the below links.

For more information on Loving Day celebrations:

The Loving's story and the court case are important to my family because we are descended on my mothers side from William Fortson a white son of a planter and slave owner and his former slave and common law wife Mertis Thomas. William and Mertis began their relationship before Emancipation and it continued into the early 1900's. Their relationship was frowned upon before Emancipation but a white man having children by his black slave was not uncommon. What made their relationship illegal was that he only lived with her, never marrying a white woman, and they appeared to have carried on their relationship in the open. They never officially married which was probably a good idea. In the late 1800's the consequences for attempting to marry a person of another race ranged from jail time, to high fines to physical violence from members in the community.

In 1967 Loving v. Virginia changed all of that, though there have been modern cases where pastors or judges have refused to marry interracial couples. These cases are generally looked down upon by the vast majority of Americans, especially younger generations.

So thank you Richard and Mildred for struggling against an unfair racist law and allowing more Americans to marry the person they love. Next stop marriage equality!


Their Child :)

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Preparing for the Family Reunion

The Magby Family Reunion Committee and I are in the final stages of preparing for the reunion. There is so much to do, and decide, and pay for. This is going to be an epic reunion.  I hear the elders in the family are counting down the days. Well I think most of us are.

I ran across the below PBS documentary and thought it was worth sharing. It premiers June 24th. It is called Homegoings. It is about an African American funeral director in Harlem, NY. Watching the trailer got me thinking about this reunion and the themes of both burial and resurrection. We expect a little over 100 people to join us Fourth of July weekend in Chambers County, Alabama, to put an end to a long standing familial separation. We will bury our collective strangeness and isolation. Together we will resurrect our one family, become a new clan, united by the blood flowing through our veins and hundreds of years of history in America. July 4th-7th will not just be a reunion it will be a Homecoming!

Watch Homegoings - Trailer on PBS. See more from POV.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Love Across the Battle Lines Interactive Digital Story : PREMIERE!

Hi Everyone!

Thank you for visiting my blog!!

The Love Across the Battle Lines Interactive Digital Story is finally ALMOST complete. I still have some editing to do but it is just about ready. Tomorrow (May 13th) my Digital Storytelling class will host an exhibition of the best of the stories we have been working on all semester. The exhibition will take place in the Rockefeller Library's new Patrick Ma Digital Scholarship Lab. The interactive story below will be included along with two of my other projects. It was created using a online storytelling platform called Zeega. Zeega allows users to make interactive and nonlinear stories using images from Flikr, Youtube videos and sound files from Soundcloud.comAs I work on the final edits I would love to hear feedback. Do the links work? Was it relatively easy to navigate? Did the sound work? Critique me please! I want to make sure I fix all the glitches before the exhibition tomorrow afternoon. IF you want to wait to play with the story once it is complete then book mark my post and please return tomorrow afternoon. Thanks for your interest in my work!!

Feel free to leave comments below or tweet at me @their_child

Friday, May 10, 2013

Interactive Family Time Line Experiment

This past Monday my Digital Storytelling classmates and I presented our final projects to each other. My interactive Love Across Battle Lines is not complete just yet so I presented what I had so far. One of my classmates created an interactive timeline about Browntown which was affordable low cost housing for army veterans who had been accepted to Brown University back in the late 40's-50's. It was a very interesting piece. So, I was inspired to lose a few hours of sleep last night playing with the timeline platform he used. It is called Timeline Verite. Unfortunately it is still finals and I still have two projects to finish before May 13th so I wasn't able to create as comprehensive a timeline as I wanted, but making this timeline was fun and easier than expected. I plan to come back to this project after the 13th and add photos, audio and video clips and maybe change the background color.

Feel free to play with what I have done so far. It is a timeline that covers American history and my family history but it mainly highlights events related to slavery and Georgia history.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Love Across Battle Lines Digital Story Outlines

Exhausted after 4 hours of sleep, stress dreams, a long day of school and projects; I decided to get back to work on my LABL digital story before an early bedtime. So much for getting in bed early. It is after 1:30 am but I finally finished my storyboard. Hoping to use these two maps plus the storyboard to animate last months blog post. I am starting to wonder if the Zeega platform can handle it. I suppose we will see. It's due next Sunday night. Wish me luck.

The strange, twisted vines below represent my family tree. That little berry down at the bottom is me. The vines stretch back through slavery to before the founding of this country. To my family members reading this - can you find your own twig?

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Today in History- April 9, 1865

Robert E Lee surrendered marking the end of the Civil War.

Photo credit

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Love Across the Battle Lines or Can You Love the Man Who Owns You?: An old family story finds new truths and questions in the archive

A few weeks ago I found out that an old story my mother had been telling me since I was a little girl was actually true!

The Story as told to my mother Rachel Strickland Cook by her Aunt Sugar

We are descended from an enslaved woman and her master's son. According to the story, the son fell in love with one of his family's slaves and refused to marry any one else. This was a disgrace to the family but they could not convince him to change his mind. So they built a little house for the couple to live in on the far edge of the family's property. In that home the couple had about 10 kids. Then the man got sick and died. His sisters came to the home and removed his body and refused to allow his wife and children to attend the funeral. The woman and her many children were then forced to leave their home and struggle on their own. Then she eventually married a black man who could help provide for her children. The children all took the second husband's name, so now it is impossible to find out who their original father was.
Johnny Columbus
Christian Hall -My
great grandfather

My mother and her elderly cousin thought this was the story of my great grandfather Johnny "Fox" Columbus Christian Hall's parents John Hall and Martha (her surname was unknown by my mother and I until only recently). Fox supposedly looked white enough to pass, so everyone assumed that his father was white (see photo). But the story did not match up with the documentation and the birth dates. I had come to believe that I might never find the answer to the puzzle until a few weeks ago when a leaf popped up over Martha's profile on and revealed her surname, Fortson. An hour later I had found the interracial couple from the story and realized that the end of the story still did not make sense even though the beginning fit perfectly. A new genealogical quest began.

The Story as told by the documents found on

In the 1860 Elbert County Slave Schedule section of the US Federal Census, a 27 year old white man named William E Fortson is listed with his two slaves, a 20 year old woman and a one year old boy. What the census does not say is that the unnamed woman is his common law wife Mertis Thomas and their oldest son William Jr. The 1860 Federal Census, which only lists free Americans, says that he lives with a 56 year old white woman named Sarah L Henry. Sarah had quite a bit of money and was a lot older (he is only 27 at the time). The documentation does not explain their relationship, but by 1870 she has disappeared.

1860 Slave Schedule. Elizabeth Ham at the top is
William's mother and Delancy at the bottom is his brother. 

The only known photo of Mertis Thomas

On January 19th, 1861 Georgia, the "Empire State of the South," secedes from the Union. 

On January 21, 1861, the ordinance of secession was publicly signed in a ceremony by
At the time of secession, Georgia had more slaves and slave holders
than any other state in the south (

On July 15th 1861, William Fortson and his 20 year old brother Elijah enlist in Company I, Georgia 15th Infantry Regiment of the Confederate army. Their three brothers eventually joined them in the war effort but in other companies. John B enlisted February 28, 1862 at 18 years old. Henry Allen age 16, enlisted on March 4, 1862Delancy age 25 enlisted on May 14,1862.

John B Fortson as an old man - He was the 3rd son born to the Nancy Ham
and Richard Fortson. He was also the thrid to enlist in the military.
Still searching for photos of William.

Example of how the Fortson brothers may have dressed in their Confederate uniforms. 
William like the man on the right was a Sergeant by the end of the war.
(Captain Charles A. and Sergeant John M. Hawkins, Company E, 38th Regiment,

Georgia Volunteer Infantry 1861–62)

The 15th fights in the battle of Gettysburg July 7th -5th 1863. Unless he was on leave or injured, William would have fought in and survived this historic battle which cost 51,000 lives. Forty percent of his regiment was lost in the battle. He was eventually promoted to 3rd Sargent by May of 1864 then mustered out on April 9th, of 1865 at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. That means he was close by when Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Grant. I have not found any records that show whether William Fortson fought in the battle that led up to the surrender, but it is likely that he did. If so, he may have come up against one of a few colored regiments who fought near Appomattox Court House the morning of the surrender. He would have at least heard that colored troops were nearby. I wonder what William Fortson, father to four little brown skinned boys, would have thought of all these free brown skinned men in blue Union uniforms. If his sons had been old enough would he have allowed them to fight? Which side would they have fought for? Would William still have fought for the Confederacy if his sons had been old enough to question his decision? How would he have explained his choice to them?

"Detail of the men in Company E, 4th U.S. Colored Infantry. 
Original image at Library of Congress" Interpretive Challenges blog.
One of the only known diaries written by a US Colored Troops soldier during
the Civil War. His name was Christian Fleetwood and he was part of
the 4th South Carolina colored regiment. It can be read in its entirety on the
Library of Congress website. *The good stuff starts on page 18.  Thanks to for the links.

William Fortson obviously returned home a few times during the Civil War. We know this because two of his sons were born between 1862 and the end of 1865. It is hard to determine when Mertis and her children were emancipated. Freedom came to Georgia slaves at different times depending on their location. Some were finding freedom as Bill was stepping into his new grey uniform for the very first time. Many freed themselves by the thousands during the war. Some fell in line with Sherman's army as it marched toward Atlanta, or took off in the confusion and found their way out west. A few wouldn't discover their new status until up to a year after the war had ended. 

William and Mertis continued to live together after the war, appearing in census after census, though both are listed as single every time. I wonder what he told her about his service. He fought for the losing side and at some point around 1865 he came home for good after four long years of war. What did he believe he had fought for? Had that changed by the time he returned home? How did she feel about her relationship with a Confederate soldier? Did it afford her any privileges or open her to further scorn from members of the black community? She and her children were William's only slaves. Their property sat between William's mother's land, which included 12 slaves in 1860, and his brother Delancy's which included only one enslaved 8 year old girl. I wonder if being a Confederate soldier's kept woman was isolating. I will need to do a lot more research and questioning since I am having a difficult time not seeing this story from a 21st century northern born black feminist perspective.

1870 US Census of Elbert, Georgia

1880 US Census of Elbert County, Georgia

By 1900 Mertis has died and the single William is living alone. Next door are two mulatto women (one widowed and the other single) living with a little girl. The women are named Simmy Fortson, a 23 year old teacher, and Fannie a 19 year old housekeeper. They are two of William and Mertis' youngest children. 

In 1910 William is living with daughter Simmie, her husband James Anderson, her daughter Bessie L Hill and her adopted son Henry Thornton. William eventually dies in his 80's. I am unsure if Simmy and her family are living on their father's family land at the time or not. If so they could have been forced to move by William's younger sisters. Also, being that he died in 1919 it is reasonable to believe that his white sisters were too embarrassed by their brother's black family to allow his many colored children and grandchildren to attend his funeral. Without a place to live and a young child to worry about, perhaps Simmy is the woman in the story who must suddenly remarry and change her name. I am still looking for more information about Simmie and William's final resting place.

John B. and Laura Fortson: Were they lovers, cousins or both?
The story of another Confederate veteran and his black families

William's brother John B also had a black partner. Her name was Laura Fortson and she was the only daughter of William and John B's first cousin John Easton Fortson. I heard from my cousin (known as "Brandy411" on that Laura was enslaved to the Fortson's but she may also have been a blood relative. I followed that note tonight and figured out that he was correct. It's a long story that is easier to explain via the hand drawn chart below. 

John Easton Fortson moved into his aunt Nancy Ham Fortson's home before the 1870 census. A little mulatto servant girl arrives with him. At the same time John B Fortson is living in the same district with another black "domestic servant", 18 year old Anna Hunt and young daughters, 3 year old Ella, and 1 year old Lucy. The girls are listed as black instead of mulatto but they could still be his children. Right? Why else would a young man hire a domestic servant with children so small she would spend so much time caring for them she would not be able to care solely for him.

In 1880 we find 19 year old Laura Fortson still listed as a servant in her great aunt's home. Curiously above her name we find John B Fortson, suddenly an unmarried Confederate veteran, living at home with his parents and younger sister at age 37. Anna, Lucy and Ella Hunt have disappeared from the records. I simply couldn't find mention of them anywhere. There of course is no 1890 census (stupid fire!!). So we skip to 1900 where Laura is the widowed head of a family of six daughters. Can we assume they are John B's children? Several family trees have connected them and list him as the father of Laura's children. Unfortunately, I cannot figure out who first made that connection. At first I thought my online cousins were making the correct assumption, then I noticed that she is listed as a widow. Later, I found John B alive and living not too far away with another black family. This time he is listed as the head of the household. He appears to be living with a young black couple (his servants, but who knows what that means when they always seem to be listed that way) in their mid 20's named Daughtery and Jenia Smith and their four children. Someone has gone in and corrected's records to say that the four children are John B's grandchildren. But how? Could Anna Hunt have given him one more daughter before she disappeared? Were the Hunt girls really his daughters?

The Fortson/Gains/Ham/Gatewood family
Please excuse the poor handwriting. This is how I untangled  the story and documentation.

I continue to have way more questions than answers but that is how genealogy research works. I am happy that most of my initial research questions now have answers. I found the identity of the couple from the story and used their lives to teach myself more about the Civil War and Confederate history in Georgia. 

Oh and since, as of today's research, I can officially apply to both the United Daughters of the Confederacy  and Daughters of the American Revolution, you should look out for future blog posts as I work my way through the application processes. I mean, why not right?

As a proud "grand daughter of Georgia," this is how I celebrate Confederate History Month.