Pulling Names, And Pain, Out of the Past

Descendants of Montpelier slaves gathered in 2001 at the Virginia estate of President James Madison. Alfred Mills and daughter Debra, right, share photos with Rebecca Gilmore Coleman.
Descendants of Montpelier slaves gathered in 2001 at the Virginia estate of President James Madison. Alfred Mills and daughter Debra, right, share photos with Rebecca Gilmore Coleman. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By Lynne Duke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 28, 2007

It is a strange and bittersweet victory, to finally know the names of one's slave ancestors and precisely who enslaved them. It is what Carolyn C. Rowe calls the "victorious feeling" that comes from documenting a family history once lost in silence and shame.

A former president of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, Rowe remembers well the excitement of her first discovery, back in 1990. In Burke County, N.C., she found a will that listed a young slave boy named Jack. The age -- 8 years old in 1827 -- fit what she already knew about her ancestry. The location fit, too. And when she cross-referenced the 1870 census -- the first in which former slaves were listed as people with names, not just chattel -- she found her confirmation: Andrew Jackson Corpening, her great-great-grandfather, a slave freed from anonymity.

It was the first of many such breakthroughs, each leading to a fuller picture of the ancestral shoulders on which Rowe stood. She has been in contact with three white families with slaveholding ancestors and visited plantation sites. It is difficult work, unleashing emotions from anger to resignation. But she is re-creating the family tree once shrouded by time. And the slaves, she believes, would be happy.

"I feel that my ancestors want me to know the story," says Rowe, 62, of Fort Washington. "You kind of feel their spirit there and they are rejoicing that we have finally found them."

But as civil rights activist Al Sharpton discovered last weekend, the move from an anonymous slave past to a specific one is a shock. Especially so in his case, as he learned that the ancestors of the late senator Strom Thurmond, once a staunch segregationist, had owned his great-grandfather Coleman Sharpton -- a preacher, just like his descendant.

Stripped of the anonymity of history, the slave masters of the Rev. Al Sharpton's ancestors now have entered his life, reminding him of their existence even when he signs his name.

"So now, you have to, every time you write your name, think about the only reason you have that name is somebody owned your forefathers," Sharpton said Monday on CNN.

Sharpton has joined a small subset of African Americans who know the identity of a slave ancestor and the identity of that person's owner. Such knowledge is relatively rare (though genealogists say it need not be) and it runs counter to the traditional reticence with which African Americans have treated slavery. Yes, the broad narrative is known: that during roughly 250 years of slavery, a new people was born from the blending of Africa and America. But often, little more than that is clear, but for family legends and oral traditions.

Increasingly, though, African Americans are seeking and finding the names and places that add flesh and bone to what has been a history of anonymity. Those who have found their slave ancestors speak of the pain of that discovery, the anger and discomfort of it. But they also speak of the reward, the fulfillment, the sense of empowerment from knowing they come from people strong enough to survive even slavery.

There is, they say, a kind of spiritual connection that occurs.

"To actually walk in the cabin, I just feel their presence," says Rebecca Gilmore Coleman of Orange County, Va. She is speaking of the cabin of her great-grandfather George Gilmore, a slave at Montpelier, the estate of President James Madison.

"And when I would go over to the mansion, the home of James Madison, standing on the portico overlooking the Blue Ridge, I thought, my ancestors stood here, and they were looking at the same Blue Ridge that I'm looking at and they are living through me. . . . I'm their descendant, so part of them is still alive today."

The folks who have come to know their ancestors have had to untangle the knots of history. They have had to scratch and dig for every bit of information to add humanity onto the history of people stripped of their identity by slavery.

Slaves had no full names -- just first names. They were recorded in census records only by age, color and gender. Slave marriages were not legally recognized, so there are no marriage records.

Instead, genealogical researchers wade through records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, which opened just after the Civil War to assist the roughly 4 million slaves suddenly set adrift in freedom. There are records of the rations they received; of the marriages performed to legalize slave-era unions; of labor and apprenticeship contracts that, in many cases, amounted to a slavery of a different kind.

Researchers also can turn to the private papers of slave owners, who often recorded the purchase and sale of slaves, and their provisions of rations and clothing.

In the case of Marcus J. Butler, it was an April 11, 1771, edition of a Virginia newspaper that led him to the slave who was the original Claiborne in a long line of slave men of that name. This 18-year-old Claiborne had run away and his owner wanted him back. The ad listed the slave's height, the darkness of his color, the thickness of his lips and said: "He is an African." Butler does not yet know where he came from in Africa or his original name. But he has claimed this man as his great-great-great-great-grandfather.

And from that ad, Butler, who lives in a Cleveland suburb, was able to pinpoint Claiborne's son as his great-great-great-grandfather, who was a slave to Col. Thomas Tinsley of Hanover County, Va.

Butler has visited the Tinsley home, called Totomoi, and imagined what life must have been like there.

"For me, it brought out a sense of being grounded, from very generally knowing you are a descendant of slaves . . . to know that here I am walking on the property that these ancestors walked on. It put flesh on those dead bones. I began to realize at that point that I was a piece of a puzzle."

The discovery enhanced his sense of identity, "the fact of being empowered," he says, because he is connected to what he feels is the heroic survival narrative of his ancestors.

"To survive that passage -- it took three months on a ship, with excrement and rats and unsanitary conditions that we can't even imagine, and a lot of people died. But my ancestor, this original Claiborne, he made it. It's a miracle that he made it. So it's a miracle that all the descendants made it."

In 2004, Butler contacted Maria Rippe, a white Tinsley descendant. Both said separately that they were nervous in a conversation so fraught with historic baggage. But each realizes they have opened a dialogue about slavery and memory 142 years after slavery's end.

Rippe and a cousin had a family Bible. In it was a section apparently written by Tinsley, her great-great-great-grandfather, listing the births of slaves. The first entry was from 1791. And among the three pages was the name "Claiborne."

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