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 true stories of eight Washingtonians who not only survived exploitation but went on to achieve prominence in world dominated by whites.
Walter Fauntroy, 43, a Baptist minister by vocation who has served since 1972 as Washington's representative in Congress, can trace his roots back to the Revolutionary War, thanks to the determination of his great-great-aunt, who took a $1000 mortgage on her property in 1927 to publish a family history entitled Out of the Depths or The Triumph of the Cross .
This is the story: Fauntroy's great-great-great-great-grandfather, Cupid Plummer, was a slave owned by John Hodge, a Prince George's County plantation owner. As was common in those days, Cupid fought in the Revolutionary War for seven years in his master's place. Had Cupid's family been able to prove his service to the U.S. government, they would have received a pension large enough to purchase their freedom. But the papers were lost and they remained slaves.
Cupid Plummer's son, Barney, married the daughter of a white indentured servant and an Indian-Negro mulatto slave in 1800. They had eight children and one of them, Adam Francis Plummer - Fauntroy's great-great-grandfather - grew up at "Goodwood," a plantation in Prince George's County owned by George Calvert, Lord Baltimore. In 1841, Adam married Emily Saunders, a slave from a nearby plantation, and for the next ten years he was permitted to walk the ten miles between the plantations each Saturday to visit his wife, and to stay until early Monday morning.
The couple plotted once, in 1845, to escape to the North, where they had been told their marriage certificate would qualify as "free papers." But one of Emily's relatives, learning of the plan, snatched the certificate and turned it over to "Miss Sallie," Emily's plantation mistress. So Adam and Emily stayed, continuing the once-a-week visits until Miss Sallie died in 1851.
At that point Emily, now without a mistress, was put up for public auction, along with the five children she had borne to Adam. The family history records the event:
"At last that awful day - the day of the sale came. As was customary Adam was allowed to seek a purchaser for his wife and children. After much trouble and anxiety he found a Colonel Thompson of Meridian Hill, Washington, D. C., who said he would buy them. (But) imagine if you can that woman who had been reared so carefully, who had seldom ever left that farm since her birth there, standing on the auction block with her baby boy . . . the four other children standing close to her while her heart and that of her husband who stood at a short distance was breaking. (And then) a slave trader named M - walked up and, snatching the bonnet from little Julia's head, said, 'This one will make a fine maid for my wife.' As Emily had often heard how hard and cruel the M - s were to their slaves, she couldn't stand to think of being separated from her four-year-old baby, and although forewarned by her husband to keep quiet, she burst into tears, exclaiming, 'For God's sake, don't let Mr. M - have my child!' (A bystander said to M - ), 'You wouldn't separate the mother from that baby, would you? Breathing out vile oaths, M - answered, 'Yes, by God! I am the one to make the nigger's heart ache. I care no more about that than I do about taking a lamb from a ewe, by God!'"
As punishment for her outburst to the slave trader, Emily's master refused to sell the oldest child Miranda (about 10) to Colonel Thompson. Miranda was separated from the family and finally ended up in Louisiana.
Thompson proved to be a hard master. Once in 1858 he brutally beat Emily's nine-year-old daughter Julia because she was late in answering a bell he had rung. When Emily protested the beating, Thompson called for the constable to give her a whipping. But when the two men arrived with rope and cowhide, Emily fought back with an upraised chair.
Mrs. Thompson finally stopped the fight, ordering both men to leave Emily alone, though vowing at the same time that she would sell the slave "to the most cruel master in the Southland."
But the Thompsons did not sell her, apparently because she was such a valuable house servant. After the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, Emily and her children escaped from the Thompsons and fled to Baltimore where they found work. Adam Plummer, still with the Calverts, was paid $10 a month after the proclamation (he received his first wages when he was 44 years old) and was given ten acres of land to farm himself. He died on his farm himself.He died on his farm on December 13, 1905, at the age of 86.
Julia Plummer's descendants stayed in the Washington area. One of them, Ethel Vine, eventually married William Fauntroy. One of the Fauntroys' eight children grew up to be the delegate from the District of Columbia.
Walter Fauntroy cannot trace his paternal ancestory back as far. He knows that his father's father came to Washington in the 1890s from Withville, Virginia (near the Tennessee border), and worked as a porter for the Burlington Hotel. later he worked as a government messenger, and finally became the chauffeur for Cordell Hull, Secretary of State under Franklin Roosevelt.