My Family Tree: In Black and White

The descendant of a master-slave union faces an unexpected challenge: how to relate to the people whose ancestors once owned hers

by Dionne Ford
Tempy Burton photo
The author's great-great-grandmother, Tempy Burton (center), with her former enslavers, Col. W.R. and Elizabeth Stuart. The girls may be two of the children Burton had with the colonel. Photo courtesy of the Renee Smith Collection, McCain Archives, University of Southern Mississippi

“I’ve always wondered whether those two girls were children of Colonel Stuart and Tempy Burton,” wrote Joel Brink, an art historian from New Mexico, in his first e-mail to me. Joel’s wife, Joan, is a descendant of Elizabeth’s maternal grandparents, Hill and Judith Jones, the first people we know of to have enslaved Tempy (she came into the family when Elizabeth was a child and probably helped raise her; her previous life remains a mystery). Joel found the picture the same way I did, on the Internet, and reproduced it in a book about his wife’s lineage. I didn’t consider our complicated connection when I contacted Joel. I just hoped his book might provide new clues about Tempy. In establishing contact with him, I gained a passionate travel companion on my quest to reclaim my ancestors—not exactly a family member, but someone the genealogy community would term a “good as cousin,” meaning a person linked through history but not necessarily through blood.

Soon after we got to know each other online, my good as cousin sent me photos of portraits of the colonel and Elizabeth, which were painted by G.P.A. Healy, a renowned artist of the time. (Healy’s painting of Abraham Lincoln hangs in the White House.) Joel also sent me both a will in which Tempy was bequeathed as property to an heir and an appraisal of her cash value—a bone-chilling document that listed “Tempy a woman & child, year old” for $1,600. The child was Josephine’s big brother (and Monique’s ancestor), Alfred. Monique and I helped my good as cousin, too, sending Joel obituaries we’d found about Elizabeth’s family. Together we were reclaiming our kin. Then he found the thing I most wanted: my great-grandmother Josephine’s funeral notice.

All Grandpa had ever told me about his mom was her name, Josephine, which he passed on to my dad, Joseph. Other than that, we knew nothing about her. But information in the funeral notice enabled me to obtain Josephine’s death certificate, which told me how she’d died (from tuberculosis) and in what year (1922). It also contained a rare thing for African Americans with slavery in their family history: documentation of her white parentage. The certificate listed the colonel as Josephine’s father. Thanks to my good as cousin, I had now resolved the greatest mystery of my family’s past and uncovered a piece of myself in the process. So when Joel said he was coming to visit his brother, who lived only 20 minutes from Monique, I knew we had to meet.

It was a misty spring afternoon; when Monique and I arrived, Joel was standing at the top of his brother’s long driveway, his white hair pulled back in a ponytail and his arms spread wide to greet us. No sooner had we hugged like lost family reunited than my good as cousin got down to ancestry business: Had we heard the rumor that one of Tempy’s sons had been lynched?

“I didn’t know if I should tell you before lunch,” he said as we drove toward a restaurant in town.

It felt as if someone had sunk a hook into my chest and was pulling on it. At the quaint country inn, I stuffed my face with crab cakes and tried to distract myself by guessing what tangled family histories might connect the other diners there to one another. Still, I couldn’t help thinking about the son Tempy had lost so violently and the improbability that she had ever sat down at a table while someone served her food the way I was being served. I’d read how some people went to lynchings as if they were the circus, gathering their children, packing a picnic lunch and heading off to see the spectacle. Thinking about it, I could barely speak, but Joel kept the conversation going. We heard how he’d met his wife while they were both in college, how they had lived in Italy while he earned his master’s degree, how his children are artists like their mom. Monique had Italian connections, too. Her white maternal grandmother had immigrated to America from Bari. 

Then my good as cousin turned the subject to land, asking if I had ever turned up the colonel’s will.

Just a few weeks before, I’d called the Ocean Springs probate office for that very thing. The kind woman on the phone tried to find it, even though she wasn’t supposed to, but no luck.

First published in the September 2013 issue

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