As I walked the dusty trails of the Whitney Plantation, the crunching of the gravel under my feet served as the soundtrack to the storm of thoughts and emotions bombarding me.
It was a perfect 77 degrees. The wind was working in concert with the sun to pull me into a silent reverence of sorts.
As I stood here, I couldn’t help but to think about my unofficial status as the “Historian / Ancestor Whisperer” of my family.
Admittedly, remembering what I was told at the outset of my effort always incensed me…
“You won’t get that far.”
“Other people have tried and came up empty.”
“Who do you think you are?”
Earlier this year – I had a family member openly question my intelligence, telling me that I was a fool. Pointing out that “this genealogy shit doesn’t matter” it was their contention that everything that I learned came out of a book, my education and degrees didn’t mean shit because I knew nothing about the world.
Nonplussed, I took note of their observation and continued on.
But what they said echoed.
Over the course of the past three years and some change since my efforts in tracing the winding roots of my family tree have ramped up.
I’ve wondered silently and said nothing.
What is the end game?
Does this shit matter?
Am I wasting my time?
Am I the fool “they” branded me as?
It was then that I realized. That the doubts that I had about the value of my efforts haunted and followed me to this place.
And I did what I often do. I pushed the doubts to the margins of my mind and I walked.
This place, a venue of sobering beauty where other human beings were “owned” by other human beings seemed to be frozen in time.
Our tour guide’s reference to the enslaved people being worked to death wasn’t hyperbole he said – a fact that was not new information to me. However, it was his sidebar about the studies of the exhumed bodies of slaves bearing evidence that most of the adult skeletons had lesions on their arms, legs and shoulder bones, where the muscles were torn away from the tendons from overwork… this detail only added to inhumanity of it all.
“The average lifespan of an enslaved person on a sugar plantation was 10 years at the maximum.”
I swallowed hard and felt my jaw tighten up and it stayed that way for the rest of the tour. Truth be told, I would be remiss if I didn’t include this in the pantheon of the most powerful 90 minutes ever spent in my life.
This tour helped to remind and reinforce that the evils of slavery – America’s original sin has been something glossed over as ancient history, but nothing could be further from truth.
These ripples still shake our foundations.
The institution of American slavery procured its power from the dissolution of the family unit. In Louisiana and most parts of the South, children younger than 10 years old had to be sold with the mother as part of a package deal. However, children older than 10, were regarded as adults and could be sold individually…
In 2018, I am 5 generations removed from slavery.
My 3rd Great Grandfather, Church Tipton was born into slavery in Alabama on Valentine’s Day 1840.
When he secured his freedom, he joined the Union Army in the waning days of the American Civil War, where he rose to the rank of Corporal (his name is engraved on the base of the African American Civil War Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C along with that of my 4th Great Grandfather, Peter Branch.
For the sake of perspective – he is the Great Grandfather of my maternal Grandmother, her father (my Great Grandfather) was named after him and like his Grandfather, he joined the Army during World War I.
The bond of family is something that I never took for granted…
Accordingly, this fealty to family is something that has been handed down through the generations.
It was on this path where I bowed my head in acknowledgement with an understanding.
I owe a debt – to my ancestors.
It began to sink in that IF my efforts could serve as a testament to their love of family triumphing over what inhumanity COULD NOT rip asunder.
Then maybe. I could begin to be worthy to stand on their shoulders.
Because legacy matters and we have power in numbers.
That my efforts do matter – because history repeats, especially in families.
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