THE BESTSELLING book Roots, Alex Haley's historical reconstruction of how his family came from relative freedom in Africa to certain slavery in America, and then from slavery to relative freedom today, has spurred many black Americans to think about and search out their own roots.
A few years ago most blacks were either ashamed or afraid to tell the story of their struggle for survival against enormous odds.Their reticence derived in part from the frequent ugliness of their stories.
On these four pages are the ture stories of eight Washingtonians who not only survived exploitation but went on to achieve prominence in a world dominated by whites.
Edith Barksdale Sloan, chairman of the D.C. Consumer Protection Agency, is an attractive, down-to-earth woman in her late thirties who was born and raised in New York.
Both of her parents were born in Laurens, South Carolina, about eighty miles northeast of Columbia!
Edith's great-great-grandfather on her mother's side was a full-blooded African, born a slave. He married an Indian woman from the Catawba tribe. In 1866, they had their only child, Adoline Watts, who apparently was very beautiful and is the heroine of the Barksdale clan.
By the time Adoline was 15, she was working in Laurens as a cook for Joseph Sullivan, a rich man by local standards. Sullivan raped her shortly after she went to work for him. According to Edith Sloan's mother, Adoline fought and hated him. She moved out of her stepmother's house because the stepmother's beat her for refusing Sullivan's advances.
Despite her hatred, Adoline was forced to have two children by Sullivan. But when she was 20 she boldly broke off the relationship and started what soon became a very successful catering service in Laurens. Edith Sloan recalls, "She only cooked for the wealthiest families and she also made the wine and unleavened bread for the high Episcopal Church. She was successful because she made them [the whites] pay her in cash - not in food or clothes the way they paid the other blacks. She even hired her own help."
Sloan recalls that Joseph Sullivan readily admitted his paternity. Her mother remembers that on at least one occasion when she went with her grandmother Adoline to help serve a catering job at the Sullivan's, Joseph pointed her out as his grandchild to all the white guests.
"Adoline never forgave Joseph Sullivan," says Sloan, "and she used to say that if any white man touched her daughter or granddaughter she would murder him."
Edith Sloan's father's line is as mixed as her mother's. Her father's mother was a full-blooded Indian, and her father's father the illegitimate son of a wealthy white land-owner and a black woman. Family history says that her grandfather, Walter Barksdale, bought a grocery store with money given to him by his white father. The Barksdales, because of their white connections, always felt they were protected from violence by the white community when members of the family acted "uppity."
Sloan's father moved to New York in 1927 where he go a job in the Post Office, one of the few agencies then open to blacks - even in the North. He sent all four of his daughters to Hunter College.