Slavery, Ancestry & the Importance of Finding Family History

“The Underground Railroad “by Colson Whitehead has me more excited than I have been in awhile for a book. It was published earlier this month and has already racked up quite a buzz. I heard about this book reading the most recent edition of “O” magazine during my lunch break at work this week. What snagged my interest was Whitehead’s mention that he used a literal underground railroad (tracks and all) in his story. For some reason that little bit of magic  made me want to crack the spine and see what was what. I have no legit commentary about the book since I’m only two chapters in but I can tell you I’m already hooked. More on that when I finish!

Lately my late Grandmother Thelma, my Dad’s mom, has been heavy on my heart. This year I turned 40 and realized I want to know the woman my grandmother was before she was a wife and a mother. My hunger to read “The Underground Railroad” is in part because my ancestry has been as heavy on my heart as Grandmother Thelma. I lost her right after graduating from college back in 1998 and have felt a void sense. But all of a sudden this summer my black woman history has been so very important to me. My mother is the family storyteller, even for my father ‘s family. Unlike me she said she always listened in on the elders and was interested in their conversations. I thought the tales of yesteryear were a bore; I would have rather been watching MTV, but oh how I wish I would have paid attention. My mother always says, “She [Grandmother Thelma]  was a feminist before it was popular.” Now I want to know why. How did she defy the normative roles of womanhood back in her youth or was this something she came to later in life? I can ask my Mom to tell me what she knows. My Dad’s no longer here to give his point-of-view. Many of her peers and friends are gone or I don’t know where to find them. This is that frustration with history that digging and researching and trying to form a person from data and recollections.

Now, at a time in my life when I’m questioning what I’m here to contribute to the world, ancestry has been very important. Two weeks ago my cousin Angelique posted a link on FB to the Havre de Grace Colored School Foundation . She shouted out our maternal grandmother, Mom-Mom, who attended that school with her cousins. So I gave it a like and cruised on until I had a chance to really look it over and when I did, I saw her! Not Mom-Mom, but Grandmother Thelma, there  in a graduation picture on the cover page, third from the right in the second row. I looked at her—chin up, cap at an angle—and wondered who were you on that day in 1949? I also wondered what battles she had to fight as a black woman.

After reviewing the foundation’s site, I realized that only in 1930 were black folks (then called colored) in Harford County, MD where I grew up, allowed to attend school past the eighth grade. By 1950, the year after Grandmother Thelma graduated, black folks were allowed to attend high school through grade 12 rather than grade 11. The foundation’s site chronicles how local community leaders had to fight to get a colored PTA started and tfor the right of black youth to have an education. Those were the times Grandmother Thelma and Mom-Mom lived through.

As I read “The Underground Railraod and look at Grandmother Thelma’s graduation picture, I wonder about the history of my people and wonder what African country(ies) we originated from. My father’s side was notorious for keeping family history hush-hush, so I don’t know much about my grandmother beyond my childhood/young adult memories. It’s interesting that all these pieces: the book, the graduation picture, feminism, and race are merging at this time in my life. I’m so ready to explore.

  • Did you, like me, squander conversations with the elders when you were a kid?
  • Who’s the storyteller or keeper of the history in your family?
  • What piece of family history makes you most proud?