It is not my intent to use this site to talk about current events, but when they keep cropping up with direct connections to African American genealogy; I feel compelled to post.
Dr. Henry Louis Gates (before his unfortunate episode with the police earlier this year) produced a fantastic series called African American Lives. The two part series was devoted to using a variety of genealogical methods to uncovering the ancestral pasts of several well-known blacks. Tom Joyner took part and learned of his family’s anguished encounter with “southern justice”….
Well, today CNN published a story on the follow-up Mr. Joyner has done since learning about these circumstances.
Nearly 100 years had passed since his great-uncles, Thomas Griffin and Meeks Griffin, were wrongfully executed in South Carolina. On Wednesday, a board voted 7-0 to pardon both men, clearing their names in the 1913 killing of a veteran of the Confederate Army.
It marks the first time in history that South Carolina has issued a posthumous pardon in a capital murder case.
I haven’t been doing this research very long, but I get the sense that these recent past meets the present stories are just the start of things to come.
For any true family historian, this week’s stories regarding Michelle Obama’s lineage must catch the eye. While you will likely never see political discourse on this site, Mr. Obama’s (and by their union, Mrs. Obama’s) ascension to the presidency was a water-shed moment for the United States. As seemingly has become the custom, genealogists from all over began the search to detail (and source) the ancestry of these two contemporary American figures.
The interesting item for me in the story of one of Mrs. Obama Caucasian ancestors. Her 3rd Great Grandmother, Melvinia Shields, was a teenage girl recently relocated from the only family and home she’d ever know in South Carolina and moved to Georgia.
It is difficult to say who might have impregnated Melvinia, who gave birth to Dolphus around 1859, when she was perhaps as young as 15. At the time, Henry Shields was in his late 40s and had four sons ages 19 to 24, but other men may have spent time on the farm.
“No one should be surprised anymore to hear about the number of rapes and the amount of sexual exploitation that took place under slavery; it was an everyday experience, “ said Jason A. Gillmer, a law professor at Texas Wesleyan University, who has researched liaisons between slave owners and slaves. “But we do find that some of these relationships can be very complex.”
One hundred and fifty years later, Melvinia’s sacrifices produced unique fruit; a strong African American First Lady of the United States. What would Melvinia think of that outcome? If she could know what might come of her descendants, would she feel that the ends, in any way, justify the means? Would my female ancestors think in a similar way given my life and the lives of my children (I’m not the president, but my life is reasonably comfortable)? Chris Rock tried to sum it up during one of his concerts a few years back.
“If you’re black, you gotta look at America a little bit different. You gotta look at America like the uncle who paid for you to go to college … but molested you.”
I’ve been fortunate to have had many wonderful elders in my life. My grandmother (maternal) is still alive and fiesty as ever nearing her 90th birthday. My paternal grandmother passed away long before I was born. If fact, she passed when my father was a child. As a result, I really know very little about her. What I do know is shrouded in grayness and leads to many high and wide brick walls in my research. Here’s the little I do know:
Bernice Lewis was born in Columbia County, FL in 1918 to Samuel Lewis and the former Edna Clark. Photos I have of her show she was a beautiful woman.
She married my grandfather (M.J.) against the wishes of her mother, Mama Edna. Nonetheless between 1939 and 1946, she had three sons and a daughter. She also had one son, Samuel, from a previous relationship.
In 1947, she died of cancer at the early age of 29. Mama Edna always blamed my grandfather for her passing, arguing that he simply did not support her taking care of herself. Fair or unfair, this colored familial relations for many years to come.
I’m determined to find out as much as I can about Bernice. Unfortunately, there aren’t many left that can provide more clues to her background and the circumstances of her life now. I’ve succeeded so far in re-creating her pedigree from census records and other vital record sources. This has given me a framework, but little “meat.” As always, much more to come…