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

Maybe it was this talk of wills that caused Joel to mention one of his wife’s ancestors, William Hill Howcott. Will was a cousin of Elizabeth, the colonel’s childless widow. As Joel notes in his book, Will acquired land from Elizabeth in 1913 and was named executor of her estate when she died in 1925.

I quietly simmered. Could this be property that had once belonged to the colonel? Without access to his will, I would never know. But this discussion of his estate reminded me that I’d never found evidence that any of his land had passed down to Tempy and her children. And that didn’t seem right.

It was time to go. But before saying good-bye, Joel gave me a gift: an antique silver child’s cup that had belonged to Elizabeth’s sister. “We want to pass this on to you as a family memento. It is to remind us of the connection that once existed and that has been renewed,” his wife had written to me on a card she’d made by hand.

The cup fit perfectly in my palm; I balanced it there, trying to imagine Tempy holding it. I could see her face in its shiny surface, stoic and calm. In relief on the front of the cup was a child’s face surrounded by flowers. It reminded me of the silver cup a wealthy client of my husband’s had given us when our first daughter was born.

Kissing the cup on the side where there was no decoration, I silently thanked Tempy for being so strong, for carrying on and courageously bringing children into a world that refused to promise them even basic humanity. I knew this gift of an heirloom was well intended, a symbol of long history between us. But it felt like a burden.

I didn’t want to have to thank Joel and his wife for something my great-great-grandmother may have polished while living in unpaid bondage to their family. I didn’t want to comb through any more of their family’s wills and deeds, documents in which Tempy was passed down through the generations along with cattle and farm equipment. It seemed a double indignity to have to be so intimately connected to them in the present to learn about my past.

My anger scared me. I feared that if I gave it an inch, it would open like a crater in my soul and swallow me whole. It’s an emotion that I consider a luxury belonging to others—people, like my freckle-faced husband, who don’t have to fear being stereotyped as an angry black person. I tried to meditate my fury away, outrun it on the elliptical machine. But the second I thought I had it licked, Joel would do something innocent like
e-mail a picture of his wife, her sister and their mom with the subject line your cousins, and I would go into a rage.

As uncomfortable as I felt, however, I didn’t want to close the door on this journey. Still, I needed a road map for how to proceed—or at least a chance to hear from others in the same situation, such as the descendants of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Perhaps we could start a support group, another AA: Ancestry Anonymous.

It’s two and a half years later now, and I’ve gotten an e-mail from my good as cousins inviting me to a family gathering. My feelings about them, the information they’ve shared and what I should do with it, have been as varied as the palette of skin tones in my family tree. In those first weeks after that lunch at the inn, I’d vacillated between two plans: hiring a lawyer to see if we had any claims on the colonel’s estate and going back into therapy and forgetting all about this family-history business. Last night, when I saw Joel’s name in my inbox, I just smiled.

First published in the September 2013 issue.

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