I feel like posting this on September 11 is important. The internet is blanketed with pictures saying, “Never Forget.” I don’t think we should ever forget history. I certainly won’t forget where I was or what was happening 13 years ago, but what about the history with a few more years on it? Aren’t those just as worthy of remembrance? I live in a place with a lot of history. The most obvious history here is the Civil War. I mean, there was a Battle of Lynchburg, for goodness sake, and there are Civil War Trail hiking paths everywhere around me. But what about what happens after that? How do people move forward without forgetting the truth of what happened?
I’ve talked before a little bit about my family’s background and how few generations I am away from slavery. What I haven’t really talked about is my parents’ perspectives on that. My dad is super intelligent, but he views history through the lens of world events. He’d rather talk about the big picture and keep it as impersonal as possible. Mom is the opposite. She’s not real big on dates of battles, but on the people in those battles. My dad likes broad strokes, while my mom likes individual stories. Imagine growing up in that family!
Anyway, my mom’s love of personal stories took her down the path of working on our family’s genealogy. For my mom’s side of the family, this is relatively easy. She loved digging through archives and finding more and more branches of the family tree. Genealogy.com is a goldmine for people like my mom. It doesn’t hurt that 1 generation behind her is the Hopkins family (yes, that Hopkins family). When you’re family is written into US history books, finding out who married who isn’t a huge challenge. After years of reading birth records and visiting sites through out the northeastern section of North America, my mom has managed to trace the family back and forth over the Atlantic and through a few different name spellings on both her mother’s and father’s sides of the family tree.
Then she turned to my dad’s side of the family. This presented a bigger challenge to her, but I’m not sure she really knew what she was getting herself into. You see, with her family, there are hospital birth records or baptism records going back forever. That’s not really the case with a black family from the South. You have to physically find people and ask questions. So, she asked my grandmother Drumright. But personal history is incredibly painful to a black woman raised by freed slaves. What do you ask without being completely insensitive? “So, do you know the name of the plantation your uncle was sold to?” Yeah…no. My grandmother hated talking about all that. It was painful. I mean, how do you reflect and reminiscence about a time when your family was sold like property? My mom did manage to squeeze a few details out over years of conversations, but not any conclusive dialogue. She learned that the middle name my dad knew of for his mom was wrong and that she’d been born to a very young mother who had never raised her. My mom also got some vague names and locations. Things like “small town outside Danville” and the name “Black Walnut.”
Okay, a jumping off point. My mom started looking for a small former village near Danville, Virginia called Black Walnut. Here’s the part where the painful history of the American South comes into focus: Google “Black Walnut, Virginia” and you get this. It’s not a town. It’s a “Historic Plantation House.” Yeah, the town my grandmother knew was the home of the last family that owned them. Go read that WikiPedia article about the place and pay attention. Looks like a really complete history of the area, right? It even has the inheritances of each family member along the way. What an awesome history of the family! But wait…my family isn’t the Sims family. That’s not my family tree.
That’s my family. Actually, I don’t know if that’s my family. You see, my family is the human cattle bought and sold between the plantations of the South. Do you think plantation owners kept track of who the genetic family members of their cows were when they sold them? Do you think they kept written records and tracked them? Nope, because they were just merchandise. When you go back 140 years, my family becomes that cattle. For all intents and purposes, my family tree ends with my Great Great Grandparents. The ones who were freed from slavery. The ones who raised my grandmother. That’s it.
Now go back and read that article again. This time, don’t look at the Sims family. Look at the “Negros,” bought and sold and passed from generation to generation the way you’d inherit a watch. That’s my family. Think about the deep wounds that leaves behind. Think about the fear that breeds. After the Civil War, most of those freed blacks didn’t know where to go. They became indentured servants to the family that owned them. They kept living in those slave quarters, though now they were paid a small stipend and expected to pay rent. They lived with other freed slaves, who were still just as afraid of those white people as before. “Freedom” didn’t really mean anything because the people didn’t change.
At the end of this month, I’m going to the last place my family called home before fleeing the South. My grandmother moved to New York City and didn’t even want to be buried in the South. The fact that I married a boy from Lynchburg, Virginia when she’d fought to get away from this state wasn’t ironic to her. It was terrifying. She’d probably be upset with me for going to this plantation. For her, there would be no historical value to that place. It holds nothing but fear and pain and shame for generations of my family. But I’m going. I’m taking my children and walking that land with my head held high. I’ll take photographs and search the archives. I’ll wander through any cemetery I can find, looking for familiar names. And I will tell my children the truth of why we’re there.
And I’ll probably cry.