As someone whose family members date back to the early formation of America, and not always looking like, worshipping like, living like and fitting neatly into what history books would commonly refer to as the early American experience, I have to depend upon my own ancestral accounts to help me understand what America was like for people representing minority racial, religious, and ethnic history. In my case, I am thankful to have many primary documents and heirlooms that recount my American story, and unfortunately, from a perspective that far too many history books have omitted.
Women have made significant contributions to the advancement of our early American culture, not as conquers of land and people, founders of governments and champions of industry, but in many cases the primary source of sustenance for family, home and community. These accomplishments are all the more important when recognizing that throughout most of history, women had fewer legal rights and livelihood choices than men.
Virginia State Capitol c. 1830 by William Goodacre/Richard Forrester c. 1865
From 1800 to 1860, Virginia had more slaves than any other state. African enslavement formed the very basis of Virginia’s successful plantation based economy of raising tobacco, and the more infamous cultivation and selling of slaves to states further south for use on rice and cotton plantations.
But during the late summer of 1831, Virginia’s notion of idyllic ante-bellum life came to a bloody halt with the Nat Turner Slave Rebellion. Nat Turner and his collaborators would start a slave uprising in Southampton, Virginia that contributed to more deaths than any other slave Continue reading
Mr. & Mrs. James Carr – Easton’s Beach c. 1917 Stokes Family Collection
Recently I posted an image on Facebook of my great aunt and uncle at Easton’s Beach in Newport, RI around 1917. I noted my aunt, Lillie Forrester Carr was an early African American graduate of Julliard and went on to become an accomplished music teacher in New York. Her husband, James Dickerson Carr would become the first African American graduate of Rutgers University and later earn a law degree at Columbia University. Continue reading
Arriving in Jamaica, met by Culture Minister Honorable Olivia Grange, June 2016
For me, my African heritage ancestor’s trials of enslavement is not a distant historical occurrence, but something that shaped my family life then and to this very day. I have studied the subject extensively, lectured in many historic cities and countries, and I have been fortunate to preserve many family heirlooms dating back to the early days of slavery. This past June I had the very emotional experience of walking the grounds of the Pen (Livestock Plantation) in Jamaica where my maternal African-Jamaican ancestor was born into slavery during the late 18th century. What made the experience even more significant was to have the descendant of our family’s enslaver join me to retrace the events of 221 years ago that led to one of the most notable mass slave emancipations in history. So here I am walking down a solitary dirt road in Unity Valley within St Ann’s Parish of rural Jamaica, an African heritage man from America walking with a European heritage man from England with the shared family name of Barclay, and historical connections to the founders of Barclays Bank. Continue reading
Over the next few months, I’ll be embarking on a journey to the places of my ancestral history – first stop – Jamaica, West Indies. This trip will be highlighted with me, as the direct descendant of an enslaved Jamaican, meeting with the direct descendant of my ancestor’s European enslaver at the very plantation for the first time in 221 years.
As we have done with other branches of my family tree, we have traced the generations of my maternal grandfather, George Nicholas Barclay, back from his adult life in Newport, Rhode Island, his childhood in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on through his father’s life in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and found my great, great grandfather, Robert Barclay. In doing so, we have uncovered a story that reveals the journey from enslavement to freedom; a story so unique – yet so very American.
Cemeteries are largely seen as final resting places – an end, but for those interested in historical and genealogical research, cemeteries can provide a wealth of information regarding people, places and events of the past.
Tobe Brightman (died 1721)
Click photo for more information
Here in Newport, Rhode Island we have within the Common Burying Ground, one of America’s earliest public cemeteries, a section that dates back to at least 1705 that includes the final resting place of Colonial Era enslaved and free Africans. Over the years, historians have described the one-acre area, which the African American community would later call “God’s Little Acre” as the segregated section of a public cemetery reserved for non-whites. This logical conclusion arises from the many examples of historic “Negro” burial grounds throughout early America that were almost always sited far apart from the final resting places of the white community. Continue reading
Harriet Jacobs was born into slavery in North Carolina. Her single work, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” published in 1861 under the pseudonym Linda Brent, and edited by famed Abolitionist Lydia Maria Child, was one of the first autobiographical narratives about the struggle for freedom by an African American woman. Today, her book is compared with the “Diary of Anne Frank” as being two of the most important autobiographies depicting the resiliency of young women during times of great struggle. During the years leading up to the Civil War, she became an abolitionist and national speaker to end slavery. Continue reading
1636 Providence settlement is established
1639 Newport settlement is established on southern end of Aquidneck Island.
1640 Dr. John Clarke grants land to the Town of Newport to establish a Common Burying Ground for all residents regardless of race, creed and class.
1652 Colony of Rhode Island adopts a law abolishing African slavery, where “black mankinde” cannot be indentured more than ten years. The law is largely unenforced.
1660 Charles II, King of England orders the Council of Foreign Plantations to devise strategies for converting slaves and servants to Christianity. Continue reading
For better or worse, far too many historical interpretations of the European Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and the enslavement of Africans in the Western Hemisphere have overshadowed the narratives of the Africans themselves, rendering their past lives and accomplishments nearly invisible to the present-day audience. Award-winning African heritage author, Ralph Ellison vividly depicted this dilemma in his epic novel, Invisible Man highlighting the profoundly ironic condition of African heritage people in America then and even to this day stating, “I am an invisible man. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids, and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand me, simply because people refuse to see me.” Continue reading
What stands out with the enslavement of African heritage people as the labor force of choice during the settlement of the Western Hemisphere as compared to slavery throughout world history is the unique concept of confining slavery to a single race and that children of slave mothers were born into slavery to serve for the remainder of their lives. This brutal system of inheritable servitude would impact the lives of tens of millions of Africans for four centuries and dramatically shaped the settlement and formation of the Americas. It is important to note that while slavery also long existed in the Continue reading