Who Do You Think You Are?: Ancestry Is Black History [Part One]
You may have unsung heroes of black history in your own family.
In two parts, a personal exploration of what it means to remember the unsung black heroes in our own families.
I almost missed actor Blair Underwood’s episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?” last week. Getting anywhere fast during rush hour in New York City is nearly always a crapshoot.
With minutes to spare, I shoved dinner groceries onto my girlfriend’s kitchen counter, grabbed the TV remote and tuned in for Underwood’s awe-inspiring discovery.
Members of his family were free, land-owning blacks, even as the cruelty of slavery blemished America’s founding promise. I sat watching, speechless, as though I were vicariously sharing in Underwood’s journey.
Through rather elaborate fact-finding missions, Underwood learned of the impossible odds against which his family survived. A DNA test traced his ancestry to the West African nation of Cameroon, which he visited and met with distant relatives.
Coincidentally, the well-produced TV program helped resurface a thought I had leading in to Black History Month this year. During our annually shortest month, why is it that we aren’t encouraged to remember the unsung black heroes in our own families?
Throughout my education in predominantly white public schools, I would more often celebrate mainstream figures of the Civil Rights Movement. That, coupled with year-round study of European-centric history, suggests my learning to value a deeper knowledge of my ancestry would not have come from my teachers. At least, that’s the way I’ve come to see it.
While I’d never seek to diminish the importance of its legacy, I’ve long believed the annual re-airing of the “I Have A Dream” speech has overtime made it too ordinary and, at the same time, foreign to the generations who did not walk arm-in-arm with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
My 90-year-old grandfather didn’t trade sermon notes with Dr. King. My late grandmother didn’t ride a Montgomery bus with Rosa Parks. Neither of them led explicitly public or high profile lives, to better the conditions of black Americans.
Instead, my grandparents raised my exceptional mother and her thirteen equally exceptional siblings in Oakland, Calif. They built their family on an unmatchable foundation, anchored in faith, strong bonds, and a dogged work ethic. Indeed, both the patriarch and matriarch of my large family lived through the pivotal markers of black history: the Great Migration, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s, and the beginnings of a (supposed) post-racial America.
My maternal grandparents are a success story, but I won’t (yet) find that in any book or PBS documentary. Moreover, none of it would have happened, was it not for my grandfather’s grandfather, Charlie Murray. (He’s the handsomely aged man, pictured above.)
“Grandpa Charlie,” as I’ll refer to him from here on, was born in 1849 rural Mississippi. That’s almost two decades before the abolition of slavery, and scores before Americans would elect the first African American president, Barack Obama.
My mother’s cousin, Melvie Murray-Herring, is considered one of a few family historians. Now in her 70’s, “Cousin Melvie” committed to memory details of Grandpa Charlie’s life. However, she is unclear whether her great uncle was born free or gained his freedom from slavery by some other means.
Grandpa Charlie, as it’s told, owned a 40-acre plantation with his wife, Viola. As a small child, Cousin Melvie remembers visiting his land and filling her pockets with pecans, apples and peaches from several rows of trees. There were muscadine grapevines on the land, a black grape variety rural Mississippians called “scuffalongs.” There were ponds for fishing, and cattle and at least one horse grazing on the land.
Grandpa Charlie also owned a Ford Model T, a possession not common among blacks in the south. He was a blacksmith. He wove straw baskets by hand and built wooden rocking chairs.
The story of how Grandpa Charlie attained his land is also unclear. As acclaimed book author and former school teacher Mildred Pitts Walter wrote in “Mississippi Challenge,” of the southern slave states, Mississippi had the least amount of public acreage. The Freedmen’s Bureau, in charge of land distribution to free blacks, overpromised and under delivered “forty acres and a mule” to former slaves who wanted the chance to make a life outside of “Old Master’s” plantation.
It’s entirely possible that Grandpa Charlie, as Pitts Walter suggests in her book, took advantage of cheap land, and could have become one of a small number of blacks who acquired his plantation through purchase. The size of his plot (40 acres), as Cousin Melvie remembers it, suggests the former.
Grandpa Charlie died in 1946, at the age of 97, one year after my maternal grandparents were married. But the details of Grandpa Charlie’s life explain many aspects of my grandfather’s character. These details, though few in number and somewhat vague, speak to a steadfastness that I’d like to believe has rubbed off on … me.
Knowing even a small piece my direct ancestry is as critical to my identity as a black man in America as anything I might have learned in the academic years of my life. When one considers the extraordinary odds African people were faced with as America grew into a world superpower, it’s impossible to imagine how much more there is to Grandpa Charlie's story.
The more I know, the more I realize I don’t. Granted, I know a lot more about my mother’s side of the family than I do my father’s side. And there are reasons for that. I never met my paternal grandfather. Years ago, when I began to inquire; a resounding rebuff of my questions suggests there is a lot of pain tied to the answers.
Later this week, I’ll explore the next generation of the Murrays and how knowing too little about the Morrisons has an equally profound effect.
That pain, too, has rubbed off.