Tuesday, January 22, 2019
First, the Backstory
Picture me, a kazillion years ago. I won't say how many, of course; I prefer to remain timeless. But I will provide one clue: it was probably about the time I awoke to the possibility that families have histories. For me, that was some time around the third grade.
I remember the third grade, because that was about the time this not-so-intrepid eight year old had read every fairy tale housed in the children's library of my hometown. I wanted something more to read, and somehow it struck my fancy that I wanted to learn about how to research my family history. The only problem was, I didn't even know the term genealogy. Nevertheless, the kindly librarian was able to correctly interpret my inquiry, and directed me beyond the doors of my safe haven to the main library. Gasp. The place where grown-ups went to read.
This was about the same time I started pestering my parents for stories about our family history. I've already mentioned that epic fail in an earlier post, but perhaps in reconsidering her stance, my mother later offered me a consolation prize.
It was a story about my great-great...et cetera...grandfather. I don't remember how many greats were included in that recounting because, hey, I was a kid, and besides, nobody had yet come up with that handy shorthand, "second great grandfather." So I didn't really know how the man was connected to me. All I knew is that, when the story took place, he, too, was a kid.
I knew one more detail: unmistakably, positively, this was a story about my McClellan family, and that it took place on their big, fabled plantation in Wellborn, Florida. As reticent as my mother might have been about sharing her family's stories, to her credit, she did share some tidbits about that McClellan family throughout my childhood. This was one of them.
According to the story, when great-whatever-grandfather McClellan was a youngster, it was before the Civil War. Like almost everyone among his neighbors—forget that, not only in his state, but in the entire region—his family had no qualms about the buying or selling of people, and apparently owned some slaves, themselves.
One of those enslaved people was a woman, possibly the one who was mother of a young boy the same age as my McClellan ancestor. This woman was tasked, among other household duties, with watching over this ancestor, and because she had a child roughly the same age, she was permitted to watch after the two children together.
Over the years, according to my mother's story, these two boys developed as much of a circumspect friendship as was possible in the culture of the time.
Then came the Civil War. Afterwards, those who once were slaves were now free to go...wherever. Eventually, this former slave child left his home. Whenever he was "passing by" the area, though, he would find a way to stop by for a visit with my family.
During one visit, this now-grown man told my ancestor that he had written the story of his life, and left a copy of the book with his childhood buddy—at least, according to my mother, that was so.
My eyes bugged open, I realized that book was my way to reach out and touch the past of my family. It would be like reading a diary of an eye-witness to momentous changes, not only in my family's history, but our country, as well.
"Can I see the book? Does anyone still have it?"
My mother assured me a copy was still held by my grandmother. Lest you think that would make a wonderful happy ending to a child's brief story, think first about reading between the lines. Remember, I heard this story in New York, far removed from my southern roots. Further, my mother, very much a northerner, was raised by parents who, though born in the south, had made the choice, as adults, to leave that region for better economic opportunities up north and out west. Bottom line: disabuse yourself of a warm and doting grandmother whose frequent visits came with spoiling hugs and treats.
After hearing that story, it was probably years before I visited my grandmother. But I never forgot about the "book." When I finally got to see my grandparents, the first question out of my mouth was likely, "Can I see the book?"
When I finally asked, I had to explain what I meant. After relaying my mother's story, my grandmother screwed up her mouth in her characteristic style, gave a little nervous laugh, and put me off with something nebulous about the book being "in storage." She'd get to it someday, but not right now.
My visit with my grandparents was over too soon. I left without ever seeing that book. Though my grandparents came once, after that, to visit us in New York, I never got the chance to prod her again with my request.
After her death, I attempted that quest once more, this time with my aunt, who was responsible for settling my grandparents' affairs. She, too, however, was off-putting, with a vague, "Oh, I'm sure it's in her trunk." But there was never any offer to go and see what we could find.
Several years later—by now the parent of a college student—I had one more opportunity to look for that book. It was when my aunt, herself, passed away. This time, my sister and I were responsible for taking care of what had been left behind.
When it came time to sort through her effects, I was the first to get to my aunt's home. I knew exactly what that "trunk" would signify. By now in the basement of my aunt's home, it had always been the old-fashioned steamer trunk where my grandmother—and then my aunt, after her—had kept her personal papers. There were old documents, photograph albums, letters, newspaper clippings, and other gems of such value to family historians.
There was, however, one item missing: the book.
That book: was there even such an item? Could my mother have gotten the story wrong? Would my grandmother—still very much a creation of her childhood's southern culture—have discarded the thing, based simply on a prejudice?
I sifted through every paper saved in that trunk. It was incredible what merited inclusion in those old slips of paper. Torn receipts which should have been discarded were tossed in among undated newspaper clippings, programs from old high school events, photographs of business accomplishments and connections. But no book.
It's been five years since I got my final answer about the book. Since then, I can't help but think of that book. A lot. If there even was such a thing, it would have been an invaluable eye-witness account of life among people in my family I never had the chance to meet.
But then, the doubt settles in. How could there be such a book? After all, wasn't it true that slaves were not permitted to learn how to read? How, then, could such a man have written his story?
This man, I keep thinking—almost as if in an argument with myself—must have been somewhat special. He had a privileged spot in the household arrangements, even as a child. Could someone have taught him to write? Or could he have gone away to school, after emancipation?
Knowing the destitute conditions of some freedmen in the 1870s, the debate in my head kept crashing back to the other side, telling me that was impossible. Whatever the circumstances, the "book" indicated someone who, at some point, learned to write, someone who had the inner drive to tell that story, and someone who was at liberty to travel through an area time after time.
An evangelist? A traveling salesman? Who could this person be?
I didn't have so much as a name for this man, but I wanted to be able to uncover his story. Over the years, I've asked researchers, archivists, librarians, and genealogists for their advice on how to track this man with no name. I've gotten a lot of good advice, some of which I'll share with you this week. But I realize a search like this will entail a lot of monotony, as well—most of which I'll spare you, I promise.
However, keeping in mind LaBrenda Garrett-Nelson's admonition to see our research as a "force for social change," and remembering how many people may be wishing they could find the very details I'll be sifting through in this search, part of the reason behind my posting about my research progress will be the hope that it will be of help to someone else, as well.
With that, tomorrow, let's take a look at the facts behind the backstory.