Thank God for Google

I love history. My history, your history, all history. You could say I spend too much time looking over my shoulder, at what was, and what might have been. I admit that I ascribe the the Old South habit of near ancestor-worship. My grandmother taught me to love history by telling me stories about her past, our family’s past. After she died, I inherited much of her furniture, some that dates back to the 1850’s. Until I remarried a few years ago, my entire house looked like a diorama of an early 1900’s home. My new husband is the one who brought it to my attention and that he did not want to live in a museum. I had not realized that I was trying to actually live in the past. Now I try to keep only one foot there.

Recently, I was poring over old genealogical charts, imagining peoples’ lives through their birth, marriage, and death dates and locations. I can see the progression of these settlers across the frontier,  from Virginia and North Carolina, over the Smoky Mountains, to western Tennessee. While looking at the chart I noticed that a grandfather named Nathaniel, born in 1796, had a son by a slave woman. The names of his descendants were listed on my chart. The last name in that line was Willie (Bunnie) and had Nathaniel’s surname. The last name is unusual, and French. I suddenly thought, it is not impossible that with such an unusual name I might locate this person.

I googled her. I could not believe it when I found two hits. One a very old woman in New Jersey and the other a 61 year old woman in Chicago. Of course, I face-booked her, and I followed links to her career in radio, on the FM dial as well as satellite XM. I had her phone number, so before I lost my nerve I called. I got an answering machine and left a message. “I think we might be related…..”.

That was in September, and after no response for a few weeks, I sort of forgot about it. Probably I was wrong about the family connection, or even more likely, maybe we were related, but she chose not to revisit thoughts of her ancestor being at best coerced, but most likely raped by this white man, Nathaniel. I had apologized in my message to her for invading her privacy and  that I understood if she did not wish to respond.

Then last Friday out of the blue I saw a missed call on my phone and heard a voice-mail from Bonnie, asking me to call her. I called her back immediately.

Yes, we are indeed related, she said. She was interested in history and genealogy as well and had researched beyond Nathaniel to the seventeenth century.  I felt like Henry Louis Gates, Jr., would appear any second, that I was on the television show “Who Do You Think You Are”. She proceeded to tell me how a community of French families had settled in Arcadia, Nova Scotia in the 1600s and were later pushed out by the English in the 1700’s. A part of this contingent resettled in North Carolina, where Nathaniel was born.

Bonnie very graciously told me about her great-grandfather Anderson, Sr., who was the child of Nathaniel and the enslaved woman.  He grew up in North Carolina and had a wife and children there. Around the 1840’s, Nathaniel asked Anderson if he would help him move his family from North Carolina to a new homestead in McLemoresville, TN. In return for this help, Nathaniel would give Anderson a parcel of his homestead acreage. Anderson agreed, helped his father to move, then  returned to North Carolina to retrieve his own family. Bonnie said that her grandfather Anderson, Jr. told her that his father’s family was no longer there. They had disappeared. Bonnie reflected on that, concluding that they were most likely sold while he was away.

Anderson, Sr. returned to his new homestead and eventually married a woman named Mary. Together they had many children, among them Anderson, Jr. The family and their descendants continued to live on that parcel of land as farmers. Bonnie’s grandfather told her that “although the two families lived on adjoining land they did not associate with each other, but that when they saw each other they always treated each other kindly”.

In 1936 Bonnie’s father Manley left that rural town on a bus bound for Chicago at the young age of 17. He joined the Great Migration, trying to escape the repressive Jim Crow south. He served his country proudly in WWII and like other Americans across the country he came home after the war and started a family. Bonnie related to me that throughout her childhood she returned every summer to the old home-place in tiny McLemoresville, and experienced Jim Crow herself, in the 1950s and ’60s.

The old home that Anderson, Sr. built is still there, but now its boarded up and covered with vines. Family members still live on the land, and occasionally they gather for family reunions. I do not know if the “other” family still inhabits the nearby parcel, but I do know that while Bonnie’s people always knew about this conjoined history, in my family it was hidden. This encounter with Bonnie has served to reinforce to me how very interconnected we all are, blacks and whites, in America. Bonnie and I are just as much family as all the other people and names on my genealogical charts. Although imagining these ‘new’ relatives lives from birth, marriage, and death dates and locations is uncomfortable, it is important for me to recognize and acknowledge their pain and endurance in the face of such racism and inequality as well as their rich participation in the settling, building, and defense of this country.

“The Times, They Are A’Changin” (Dylan)

Looking back on my life, I am amazed at the changes I have seen in the interactions between races in the generations before and after mine.

I grew up hearing stories from my maternal grandmother about her grandmother, who “died of pneumonia from tending the ex-slaves who were sick” You see, these ex-slaves were so content with their lot after ‘the whoa-ah” ended that they wanted to stay on, as just one big happy family. I never believed that propaganda; my mother taught me the truth. While my grandmother had more of an Old South view on racial interactions, my mother’s view was more one of compassion. She saw many of the indignities that black people endured in her small southern town, and felt sad about how African Americans were treated in her generation.

I began school on the first wave of integration in public schools. I do not recall my parents ever using the “n” word, or speaking disparagingly of black people. But I do remember my older brother making racist remarks often as we grew up. I probably bought into some of his views in my youth. Then I watched the miniseries Roots on television at age twelve. It made a big impact as it gave me a painful glimpse of the violence and sufferings of African Americans during slavery.

As an adult, the PBS documentary Africans in America sparked a yearning to know more about the African American experience in this country. I bought the book, read it, and sought out other books on many different topics regarding race in America. It took many years for me to get a better understanding of African American culture and history. In my schools growing up, the only black history taught were snippets about George Washington Carver, Harriet Tubman, and Booker T. Washington. I had no idea that African Americans built this country in large part, fought with valor in all of our wars, and bravely spearheaded their own fight for freedom and equality.

When my daughter Jamie started school, she became best friends with Somer, an African American child at her preschool. They were inseparable from preschool through high school. The friendship that I developed with Somer’s parents was a good experience for me. They were both more educated than me, had better jobs than me, made more money than I did, lived in a nicer house than Jamie and I did, and frankly they were better parents than I was in many ways. It was good for me to personally see and know this successful African American couple, and so many others just like them at Jamie’s school. It helped to reinforce the lessons I was learning from my readings.

I will never forget one night when I drove Jamie and five of her friends to a middle school dance. We were all crammed in my Honda CRV, listening to music on the radio, and I looked in my rear view mirror and saw all these happy kids: Jordan, half-Arab, half Caucasian; Reggie, African American but raised by a Caucasian adoptive single mother; Nam, Asian; Jamie’s boyfriend Justin, half black and half Caucasian; Somer, and Jamie. We had our own little Rainbow Coalition right there in my car.

That image has stayed with me because it felt as though I was looking directly at America’s future. It was a seminal moment in my life, seeing those kids laughing and having fun, each one on an equal social footing with the others, and seeing no skin color. It gave me a sense of hope, a promise that America was changing, with each successive generation, on the way to becoming a more integrated, cohesive country, one Rainbow Coalition at a time.


They (Almost) Paved Paradise


If the city of Memphis had its way, my house would literally be an exit ramp right now. I have seen the map of the proposed path of I-40 through Midtown. Luckily that tragedy was averted, albeit narrowly. Instead, my house sits on a tree-shaded street in the part of the Evergreen district that was saved from a concrete destiny as part of our national highway system. As Wanda Rushing explained in her book Memphis and the Paradox of Place, a gaggle of ‘little old ladies in tennis shoes’ saved this jewel that is Midtown from becoming another exit on a cross-country interstate. The lot my house sits on was one of the hundreds near Overton Park that were cleared via the use of eminent domain back in the late 1960s for the proposed highway that would have bisected the park. Ironically, as I read Rushing’s chapter detailing this near-miss, I was sitting on my front porch swing enjoying the sights and sounds of my unique Midtown neighborhood.

When I moved to Memphis in 1987 I was confused by the large swath of empty lots just west of the park. When it was explained to me that an expressway had been expected to be erected there I thought Memphians must truly be crazy. In all five cities I had lived in prior to Memphis, no city had such a beautiful park as Overton, such pretty architecture as the homes that surrounded it, nor the eclectic flavor of an urban area such as Midtown has.  I still find it astounding that Memphians at that time thought that destroying Overton Park and its environs would be a good thing for Memphis.

One of the lots on Overton Park Avenue once held a house that my grandmother grew up in around 1910.Two more houses she lived in during the early 1900s were also lost to ‘urban progress’! I-240 destroyed both of those houses, one on Waldran Avenue near Poplar, and the other on Minna Place, near Lamar. To think that every home her family lived in was destroyed by interstates is sad. The empty lots in Midtown were like scars on the landscape.

The lots near the park lay dormant for many years until they were finally released to developers in the 1990s. Now almost all have homes built on them, and families once more fill the lots with activity: children playing games in the front yards, husbands raking leaves, wives setting out Halloween pumpkins on the front porches. Thanks to a thoughtful person in the city’s zoning office, all new construction had to match the period architecture of the surrounding neighborhood. Newcomers to the area usually can not tell the difference between the original and the new homes, and thus the scar has healed.

From my living room I can hear the whistle from the kiddie train at the zoo, and if it is a clear day I can hear the monkeys screaming. My grandmother used to tell me she could hear the zoo’s lion roaring from her house on Overton Park Avenue, and although I often listen for him, I have not heard him yet. But thanks to those little old ladies in tennis shoes, I just may yet.


“Working the Streets” Downtown


At age 20, I moved from Jacksonville, FL to Houston, TX and then two years later to Memphis. Both of the prior cities were large and very bland, with no real character of their own. Most residents of both cities were not natives; in fact, in Jacksonville it was so rare that the few people who had been born there would sport stickers on their cars that said “Native”. Neither city felt truly Southern due to the large numbers of Northerners and Midwesterners that populated them. I found Memphis to be different; most residents were from here or from the surrounding rural areas.

Soon after my arrival, I became a bicycle currier in downtown Memphis for about a year. It was a very exciting job, riding my bike throughout the business district, up and down streets, through alleys, in the rain, heat, or snow. When it was cold, I loved feeling the warm steam coming up from the sidewalk grates as I pedaled over them. I have so many memories from that year downtown: the busy business people hurrying to and fro, street festivals on the Mid-America Mall, getting to know some of the homeless people I would see every day and hearing their stories, taking breaks in Court Square to feed the squirrels with nuts bought from the Kress store, famous for its “Whirly-Q Luncheonette”, and the smells and sounds of life in a vibrant business community.

I read the Commercial Appeal every day to get to know my new city. I had begun that habit in Houston, as it was a good way to feel an attachment to a place and less like an outsider. Soon, as I made my deliveries downtown I began seeing the actual subjects of the articles I was reading about in the newspaper. I might see Mayor Herenton in the lobby of City Hall, the County Commissioners in chambers, or find myself standing in line at a bank behind the Chief Public Defender (and future Mayor) AC Wharton. I would see colorful characters, some involved in scandals, around town such as Harold Ford, Sr., Ricky Peete, Riley Garner, and others. Each day could hold another chance encounter with the people I was reading about each morning. I rode elevators with Joe Birch as he chased stories downtown, and with the ‘alien from the planet Zambodia’, Prince Mongo, who was barefoot with rings on his toes. I often saw a young Leslie Ballin striding to Criminal Court to defend one of his many illustrious clients.

I fell in love with the architecture of downtown Memphis and its juxtaposition to the natural beauty of the river and the soybean fields stretching away behind it. It all felt so unique to me, and viewing farm fields from the city seemed symbolic of the urban/rural vibe of the city. It spurred in me a desire to know more about Memphis and its history. I began to read everything I could about it. I soon found myself giving historical driving tours of Memphis to my friends and family from out of town. We might go to Elmwood cemetery to see the memorial to the Yellow Fever victims, to the interstate underpass near the Convention Center where the city really began, to the Peabody Hotel which Prince Mongo tried to buy at auction in the 1970s, or to see the Lorraine Motel and the protester Jaqueline Smith.

I have seen a lot of changes in Memphis in the many years since my bicycle courier days, but my love of this unique place has never changed. Learning about the city gave me a love of history in general, and I am now here at the university to earn a degree in History. There is still a lot about Memphis for me to learn, and it is still exciting.