Black History Month: Living American History Through My Family Tree
Like many, I grew up hearing stories about my family's history. I have a few ancestors whose stories live in history books and who are studied by scholars to this day. There are institutions and organizations named for them. These family stories provide a perfect example of how African American history is American history and another reason why Black History Month still matters.
My great-great-great grandparents, William and Ellen Craft made one of the most daring and inventive escapes from slavery in American history. Ellen, the daughter of a slave and slave owner, was fair skinned. So light, in fact, she could pass for white. She and her husband, William, devised a plan where Ellen would dress as a white man and purchase train tickets for herself and her "slave" (William) to travel north to freedom. Ellen further enhanced her disguise with a sling and face wrap as though she had a toothache so that she would not have to reveal that she could not sign her name (neither Ellen nor William could read or write) or reveal her woman's voice.
When the Fugitive Slave Act passed, their former owners sent slave catchers to Boston to recapture and return them to slavery. Aided by abolitionists, William and Ellen eluded capture, causing the hunters to give up and return home. William and Ellen then went north to Nova Scotia and sailed to England where they lived until slavery was abolished and they returned to the United States. After failing to recapture William and Ellen, their owners petitioned President Millard Fillmore to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act and asked for his assistance in returning them to slavery. Fillmore promised (despite the fact that his faith led him to personally abhor slavery) that he would do everything in his power to enforce the law and even use the military if necessary.
Another President factors into my family history. Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner and Sally Hemmings is the slave most Americans have heard of because of their relationship. One of the descendants of Sally Hemmings' sister, Mary, was activist William Monroe Trotter. Along with W.E.B. Du Bois, Trotter helped establish the Niagara Movement which was a precursor to the NAACP. William Monroe Trotter's sister, Bessie, is my great-grandmother. William Monroe Trotter, the founder of the Boston Guardian newspaper, the first black Phi Beta Kappa at Harvard, was simply my grandmother's "Uncle Monroe."
My grandmother has been interviewed by researchers from Monticello as they acknowledge and incorporate the stories and history of the slaves who lived there and my aunt, uncle and cousins have attended "family reunions" at Jefferson's home. William Monroe Trotter had his own history with presidents in his day. He challenged Theodore Roosevelt and later Woodrow Wilson about the treatment of African Americans. His protests were so forceful that President Wilson banned him from the White House.
As Kim Pearson pointed out in her post on Black History Month and the American Civil War, personal stories connect the past and present and illuminate history in the process. Kim shares the story of Adrien Wing, the great-great granddaughter of Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard. When she visited Beauregard's home in New Orleans, Ms. Wing spoke up when the tour guide failed to mention the whole story:
I will also never forget the guide's face when I told the group that those women on the wall were not the general's only family. He had Black descendants as well, and I was one of them. She blanched and said that she knew that the general was like the other southern gentlemen of his time, but she was not allowed to talk about that. Then she hurried us on to look at the cookbooks.
I'm glad that the caretakers of Monticello and Jefferson's legacy have researched, and now acknowledge and discuss the lives of the slaves who lived alongside Jefferson. History is not created in a vacuum, by individuals acting alone. It happens through our interactions and at the crossroads. Unfortunately, though, in this country, history and accomplishments are too often only made visible or seen when it's through the eyes of white people or embodied in white skin. Black history month gives us the chance to give voice to the too often invisible.
The role of being the first African American to accomplish something notable did not stop with Uncle Monroe. My father was the first African American to earn both a JD and a CPA in California. My grandfather was the first black city councilman in Oakland. My aunt was the first black woman to edit the editorial page of a major American newspaper.
That's three U.S. presidents that my family's lives directly impacted. Three doors my family opened. My family quite literally helped to shape the course of American history. While understandably their stories loom large in my family's hearts and minds, they are just strands in the tapestry that is American history. As long as Black History Month and other events like it help us better understand and add to that tapestry, the stronger and richer it will be.