African American News and Genealogy

This site was developed to provide you with news that relates to African American Genealogy, History and News. Please feel free to forward this link to others. I hope you enjoy this site and good luck with your research! Cheers, Kenyatta D. Berry Managing Director

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Faded Sketch Propels Families Across a Racial Divide

An elderly black woman drove up to the sand-colored mansion of a frail old white man in Prince George's County. She parked and walked slowly to the back entrance, as if by instinct. Under one arm, she carried a framed, faded sketch. Under the other, a roll of genealogy charts. The sketch was of her great-great-grandparents, Basil and Lizzie Wood. They were long dead when Anna Holmes was born, but she had come to know them like her shadow. Oden Bowie had met Basil and Lizzie. They worked for his family and may have been his ancestors' slaves. But until that chilly day in February 2002, Holmes had resisted asking for Bowie's help in writing this chapter of her family's history. For much of her life, reaching out to the white world meant crossing into a forbidding realm. She came of age in an era forged by discrimination, when white people erected far more barriers than they lifted. Long after forced segregation ended, she still felt confined by a sense of otherness. For three-quarters of the past century, the two families lived a few miles apart along Church Road, a thin, rural streak through central Prince George's County. The children never played together. The adults rarely even crossed paths. Bowie's grandfather and namesake was governor of Maryland from 1869 to 1872; Holmes is the descendant of slaves and the daughter of a truck driver and a maid. Yet like many families on opposite sides of the county's racial divide, their pasts crisscrossed beneath the surface like honeycombs. "White people didn't want to talk about slavery. They wanted to push that back and bury it," said Holmes, who has a round face, gray-speckled hair and brown eyes that focus like a sprinter seeing the finish line. "Black people, too. They say it's too painful. A lot of history won't get written down because people don't want to talk about it." So in the winter of her life, she decided it was time to confront her fears. Holmes went to Bowie's door, seeking the last living link to Basil and Lizzie. She was 76 years old. He was 87. But would Bowie let history get in the way? Would Holmes? "Her window of opportunity was like this," said Ambler Bowie Slabe, Bowie's daughter, closing her fingers as if she was pinching salt. "She made contact with the only person on Earth who could show her the graves." The graves. That's how Holmes's quest began.A Child's Curiosity "Grandma, who are these old people up there?" Anna Holmes asked when she was a little girl in the 1930s, pointing to the sketch of her great-great-grandparents. It hung in the living room in a gold-colored frame, looking as if Norman Rockwell had channeled Harriet Beecher Stowe. The man in the picture wore suspenders and a bushy mustache and had a sparkle in his eyes. The woman had on a large apron and a bandanna framing her round face. "Well, that is my grandmother and grandfather," Fannie Johnson replied to the girl who always spent summers on Church Road, where tobacco fields once stretched to the horizon. "That is Lizzie and Basil Wood. "They are buried on the Bowie plantation." At 12, Anna was curious but wary. She knew that the Bowie family estate was just down the road, but the black and white children on Church Road rarely mixed. "I felt like there was an invisible wall," she would recall many years later. So her grandmother's words sank into her mind, like pennies in a fountain. The girl grew up and went on to confront the immense challenges of her own life. Holmes, whose mother dropped out of the fourth grade to help feed her siblings, became the first in the family to graduate from college, now Bowie State University. She then wanted a master's degree in education, but the University of Maryland didn't accept blacks in 1948, so she enrolled part time at New York University and traveled all night by bus to attend weekend classes. Eight years later, she had her degree. She made her home in Southeast Washington because blacks couldn't buy property in many parts of Maryland. She taught at a blacks-only school in Prince George's until the educational system began to desegregate in the 1960s. When she rose to reading supervisor, some white subordinates used racial slurs behind her back. And despite the promotion, Holmes was always referred to as "the helping teacher" or "the reading specialist," never their superior. "They're like scars that you don't get rid of," she said. "No matter what you do or how good you are, you are still inferior in some people's eyes. That's what happened with discrimination. You get programmed. You know you have a place, and you know what your place is." Now and then, the picture of Lizzie and Basil turned up at family reunions, rekindling her curiosity. But with a husband and three children, there was little time to chase family ghosts. Retirement allowed her to change her priorities. When Holmes saw the blank looks from hundreds of younger relatives who viewed the portrait at a 1986 gathering, she decided that it was time to learn more about the family's story and share it. She spent hundreds of hours poring over census reports, dusty court documents and online databases. For all her efforts, she didn't uncover much. She learned that Basil and Lizzie had 14 children. She knew roughly when they were born and when they died. Everything else remained a mystery. Meanwhile, the picture kept changing hands. After Fannie Johnson died, her daughter Clara Brown became its keeper. When she died, she gave it to a young man whom she had raised. When he died, his girlfriend called Holmes one day, 12 years ago, and offered her the picture. It was at once an honor and a curse. "It kept haunting me," Holmes said.Finding a Shared History The man who could quiet her mind was as mild-mannered as a summer breeze, with sun-leathered skin and a regal bearing. Oden Bowie had spent a lifetime surrounded by his history. There's a Governor Oden Bowie Drive in Upper Marlboro. There's Bowie, one of the largest cities in Maryland. As a young man, he entered politics, working as secretary of the Maryland State Senate for more than 30 years. He also ran the family's 360-acre farm, where he raised cattle and bred racehorses. Bowie earned a reputation for treating "everyone precisely the same," said his nephew, Eugene Roberts. Basil and Lizzie worked for Bowie's father, Lizzie in the house, Basil in the fields. When Basil died, Bowie was 5. When Lizzie died, he was 11. They lived in his memory the way you remember a childhood friend. He could still see Lizzie, in her big apron, helping his mother in the kitchen. He could hear Basil talking about everything and nothing as they sat on the stoop on long, hot afternoons. "I'd go and talk with him," recalled Bowie, who is tall and slim, his back hunched with age. "I was a child back then. We'd talk about whatever he wanted to talk about. "They were two fine people. They must have lived here their whole life." In 2000, Holmes, by then a well-known preservationist, joined the board of the Prince George's County Historical Society, which Bowie helped found. There, she met Roberts and his wife, Lynn. They discovered their shared history and urged her to call Bowie. Still, she resisted. "I was not accustomed to dropping in on the people who owned the manor houses," Holmes recalled. She met Bowie briefly at a society gathering and found him approachable. Yet she still didn't ask for help. Two years later, after another friend encouraged her, she finally picked up the phone. Inside a faded, 33-year-old book titled "The American Slave: A Complete Autobiography," Holmes would have discovered a hint of where Bowie came from. On page 75, Parson Resin Williams, born a freeman in 1822 at Fairview, the Bowie family estate, wrote that he was riding his donkey, Dazy, one day when a white gang searching for runaways stopped him. "Dey wuz gwine to give me a coat of tar and feathers when de boss rode up and ordered my release. He told dem dreaded white patrollers dat I was a freeman . . . " The boss was Bowie's great-grandfather. But Holmes hadn't seen this. The weekend before their first meeting, she was a jumble of nerves. A familiar fear emerged. "How's this person going to accept me?" she recalled.Memories but Few Answers She knocked on the door. Bowie, smiling, invited her in. They chatted in his sitting room, about his wife, Laura, their families, their lives. Then Bowie returned to his childhood. He remembered Lizzie as a strapping woman who baked wonderful cookies and helped his mother can vegetables. "I'll never forget your great-great-grandmother, because she would always turn the apron around backwards inside out when she went home," Bowie told her. "Was that because it was soiled and she didn't want to leave with a soiled apron?" she asked. "Oh, no," he replied with a laugh. "She always had something in her pockets." Holmes offered an explanation: "Oh, with 14 children, I guess she had to take some food home to make sure everybody ate," she said. She asked him if Basil and Lizzie had been slaves. Bowie said no. She kept pressing. Do you have their freedom papers? No. Holmes felt that Bowie didn't know the full truth. "At the moment, I felt like I had to dig more, to go to other sources," she recalled. Then Bowie stood up. He took Holmes to the family's small, square-shaped cemetery, nestled on an emerald knoll at the side of the house. On his wife's tombstone is also his birth date. November 21, 1914 -- He passed the grave of his grandfather and stopped at a tidy, unmarked patch at the right-hand corner of the cemetery. "Your great-great-grandparents are buried here, side by side," Bowie told her. Holmes stepped forward, alone with her thoughts. She remembers a long silence passing. She imagined Basil and Lizzie. She felt a powerful force, as if they had risen to greet her. "It was the connection I was looking for," she recalled.A Proper Memorial Using Bowie's birth date and his memories, she tracked down Basil's and Lizzie's dates of birth and death, solving some of the mystery. Then she withdrew $600 from her retirement savings and bought a tombstone. Four months later, Holmes visited Bowie again. She brought two cousins, also descendants of Basil and Lizzie. Ambler Bowie Slabe prepared a lunch of salad, fruits, vegetables, cold drinks and desserts. Then they walked to the cemetery and placed the pretty tombstone etched with images of clasped hands and roses. Wood , it read. Basil - June 5, 1824 - June 11, 1920. Elizabeth T. - July 10, 1834 - Nov. 19, 1926 . Holmes then said a prayer only she, and the dead, could hear. She said she has no regrets about not meeting Bowie earlier, never wonders that if he were younger, he could have shared more memories of Basil and Lizzie. "God opens the doors when you're supposed to," she has always believed. It still moves her to see Basil's and Lizzie's graves in the Bowie family's cemetery. She didn't expect that. Then she remembered Bowie, staring solemnly at the graves, his eyes twinkling when he spoke about them. And she understood. "They were held in very high esteem and regard by the family," she said. "The fact they were buried there told me a lot about the Bowies' character." It also unearthed something within her that had been buried by decades of discrimination. "If you bonded with someone, you're going to be bonded whether they are black or white," she said. Bowie's memories sparked a genealogical chain reaction. Through others in his circle, Holmes found a photograph of Lizzie on a back page of an out-of-print book titled "The Chesapeake Bay Country." The caption describes Lizzie as "a noted character of Prince George's." Now Holmes is trying to figure out why. From Lizzie's death certificate, she found the name of her father -- Holmes's great-great-great-grandfather. His name is Henry Thomas, and now she's searching for his wife and parents, too. Her home has become a family museum, bursting with faded photos and yellowing documents. The picture of Basil and Lizzie hangs in her living room above a picture of Jesus tending a flock of sheep. "Having that picture carried me back to where a lot of people have not been able to go," she said the other day. It is also carrying her forward. She has returned from the West African nation of Senegal, where she believes her family originated. Holmes is convinced that Basil and Lizzie may have been slaves, so she is searching for their freedom papers. She hopes this will help shed light on the role African Americans played in building Prince George's and inspire more blacks and whites to find their connections to the past. Holmes is also slowly strengthening her links to the Bowie family. She visited again last month, carrying a freshly baked pound cake, just the kind he likes. He was resting, so she left her gift with his daughter. Then she made her way to the graves. All this is preparation, like Bowie's tombstone. For she, too, is aware of her own mortality. Her grandmother died at 80, her mother at 86. And Holmes is now 79. She is writing an autobiography to pass on to her descendants. She wants them "to know where they came from," she said, because "this is who they are." She will proudly tell them how they are now connected to one of Maryland's first families. She will tell them how Eugene Roberts now calls her "extended family." One day, she sat her grandchildren down and told them about the kind white man whose gift she unravels every day. "He could have just said, 'Oh, yeah, they are buried over here,' and that's the end of that," she told them. "He could have closed the door. "But he didn't choose to do that." © 2005 The Washington Post Company


Post a Comment

<< Home