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

Friday, December 30, 2005

Family Tree Of Former Slaves Coming Together In Durham

POSTED: 2:20 pm EST December 29, 2005 DURHAM, N.C. -- The family ties of nearly 1,000 slaves from a once-sprawling North Carolina plantation are being pieced together with the help of their owners' records and their descendants. Jennifer Farley, director of the Stagville state historic site, a plantation that once spanned about 47.5 square miles across parts of Durham, Orange, Wake and Granville counties, restarted the project two years ago. "We've just scratched the surface, I feel," Farley said. "But if we don't have this, then these people will be forgotten. That is the worst thing you could do." So far, Farley has uncovered the names of 973 slaves who once helped clear the land, harvest the tobacco and design the buildings of Stagville. She has pulled information from tax records, bills of sale and personal letters of Stagville owners Duncan Cameron and Richard Bennehan. She's also had help from several descendants who still live in Durham. The first phase of the work started in the 1980s at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A student who interned at Stagville sifted through all the Cameron-Bennehan papers on campus and documented the name of every enslaved black he came across. The thick binder filled with pages of names such as Orange, Toast, Mittie, Solomon, Moses and Little Lot sat unused until Farley arrived. "I thought it was amazing that nothing was being done about it," she said. The work is difficult, hindered by a lack of birth certificates, which often were not issued for slaves. When a birth record existed, it usually did not include the father's name, said Tony Burroughs, a genealogist whose company specializes in tracing the roots of black Americans. "Plantation owners did not keep records on enslaved blacks for genealogical purposes," Burroughs said. "The records owners kept were for business purposes, either as profits or sale or taxes. Each (slave) had a value on them based on a property value." Farley has had an easier time than other plantation researchers because Cameron and Bennehan -- early trustees at UNC-Chapel Hill -- kept meticulous records of the plantation. Farley also has benefited from the proximity of Stagville's black descendants, many of whom live within 10 miles of the site. Ricky Hart of Durham is one of them. His father and other family members lived on the Stagville plantation as sharecroppers until the 1950s. Hart grew up a few miles away on land that had once been part of Stagville. Hart had heard rumors that his family worked on the plantation, and after his father died in 1986, Hart said he felt drawn to learn more about his family. "One thing that got me is, is it real?" he said. "Is it true what they are talking about that there is a slave plantation in Durham?" During a visit to Stagville later that year, he found the cabin that he later learned his family had lived in from 1812 until the 1950s. His Stagville roots go back to the 1780s with the sale of his great-great-grandfather to the plantation. Hart worked to piece together his family tree. When he got stuck, he approached Farley hoping to trade information. Other ancestors now come to Farley with photographs, names to add to the links, oral histories and information about other people who may help fill in blanks. She shares with them what she knows. But there are hundreds of names in the binder that she has not yet connected to the web of family members and there are probably others she will never know about. Farley hopes her work will personalize the plight of slaves, as is evident when she picks up a black and white photograph of a somber woman. Her name was Amy Shaw and she was born into slavery at Stagville. "If this were my grandmother and I knew someone treated her that way, I would ache," Farley said. "I want people to understand the sheer number of people who were owned by these two families. I want it to hit them in the face." Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Slaveholder's farm unearthed


NICHOLASVILLE - Preparations for a new four-lane road in Jessamine County led to an archaeological dig that is shedding new light on a pre-Civil War slaveholder. AMEC Earth and Environmental, a contractor with offices in Louisville and Lexington, hopes to finish work this week at the site off U.S. 68. Since August, a crew for the firm has dug up the remains of a small plantation house, two slave houses, and two brick-making kilns that probably date back to the late 1830s and early 1840s. The dig is west of Nicholasville on the Henry Knight farm about a mile south of the Ky. 169 intersection with U.S. 68. A new four-lane U.S. 68 is scheduled to be built through the site between 2007 and 2009. The site in a large cow pasture is significant because it has been relatively undisturbed, said Wayna Roach, an archaeologist with the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet. "It's one in a million, really," Roach said. "We don't get this type of history often. Most of Kentucky has been plowed, and a plow would take this kind of stuff right out, and so the preservation is beautiful. "I actually hate to see it go. I wish we could pick it up and put it somewhere else and let folks come see it." Instead, AMEC Earth and Environmental has a $250,000 contract to dig up the site, collect whatever artifacts it can find, and photograph and record data for future use. Those actions serve as the mitigation allowed by the federal law for historic properties. The two-room house was owned by Mason Barkley, a hemp farmer who owned about 25 slaves, said Susan Andrews, project manager for AMEC Earth and Environmental. The dig has peeled back earth to find evidence of a stone hearth where there was once a chimney. Bigger stones are pier stones where wood members were laid. Another structure revealed by the dig is a detached kitchen and slave house from the 1840s. There is evidence of a stone cellar, and you can still see the stone steps that went down into the cellar. Around the time of the Civil War, the shed was demolished and the cellar was filled, and a kitchen with a chimney was built onto the main house, Andrews said. The site also has the remains of two kilns where clay bricks were made. Bricks were found in straight, neat rows. Clay and water would be mixed and then the bricks would be formed by hand, Andrews said. They were thoroughly dried, stacked and then covered by a clay chamber. Then they would be burned for three days, and after the fire died down, the bricks were allowed to cool. "A lot of big farms would make their own bricks," Andrews said. She is aware of only two similar kilns being dug up in the state. Household artifacts have been found at the Jessamine site as well. "We've found beads and jewelry, some of the things that have fallen through the floor," Andrews said. "We found pierced brass disks, which is something found a lot near houses occupied by slaves. We found hand-formed pipes, smoking pipes, lots of smoking pipes, actually. "We've found broken dishes and glasses and bottles and buttons. In that cellar we found a huge part of a bone that might have been an ox. They must have had oxen up here and slaughtered one." The site might add more information about slaves in Kentucky, Andrews said. "There's not much known about how slaves actually lived, especially in the Upland south of Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia, because they lived differently than down South, where they had hundreds of slaves living on a plantation. Slaves didn't write, and most of the history was written by well-to-do white men, and you get a certain bias with well-to-do white men." The Jessamine site had been known since the 1990s, but state officials didn't know what it would reveal until an environmental evaluation this past summer. "We sent crews out here to survey it," said Phil Logsdon, environmental coordinator for the state Department of Highway's District 7 Office in Lexington. "They do shovel tests every 20 meters, and when they did that, they started finding these historic artifacts, so they knew something was here. We realized it had a lot of intact deposits, ... and that it had a enough integrity to tell a story about the past." Despite the artifacts gleaned from the site, the new road will still come through the property, state officials said. A new $20 million four-lane road will be built from just south of Southland Christian Church to just north of the Y intersection of U.S. 68 and Ky. 29 near Wilmore. Project Manager Keith Caudill said the District 7 Office is in the process of getting an appraiser to evaluate properties along the intended route for the new four-lane road. "We're hoping by the spring of 2006 to start the right-of-way acquisition process," Caudill said. The appraiser will meet with each affected property owner. Later the district will send out buyers to make offers on the properties. Plans also are being made for relocation of utilities. Bids will be let in May 2007 and completion is anticipated for 2009, weather permitting. Parts of the existing two-lane U.S. 68 will remain as a service road and a bike path. The artifacts collected from the site will probably be kept by the University of Kentucky, Andrews said, and some artifacts might even go on display in the future.

Reach Greg Kocher in the Nicholasville bureau at (859) 885-5775 or

Recalling the record of black education

Some stories have to be written, even cry out to be written, and are best told by those with up-close, first-hand experiences with the subject. "Recalling the Record: A Documentary History of the African-American Experience Within the Louisville Public School System of Kentucky (1870-1975)" is one of those stories. Author Ruby Wilkins Doyle, a product of Louisville schools and a retired high school English teacher, tells the story quite well through the compilation of 317 documents pertaining to the struggle for public education for African Americans. Her desire is to make sure the record is correct, and her deep appreciation for those who preceded her in the struggle to make education available to "Negro" children resulted in extensive research to produce "Recalling the Record." Doyle could have taken several approaches in her work from writing about her own journey through the system, to interviewing some of her predecessors, as well as those who followed her. Instead, she chose to let the record speak for itself through the vast assemblage of documents, which, when put together, tells an incredible story of strength. African Americans in Louisville struggled, organized, petitioned local and state government and used their savvy and personal resources to obtain an education for themselves and their children. The author deftly weaves together documents that "are revealing of the occurrences relating to the quest for an equitable public education" for black children before, during and immediately following the Civil War, during the periods of World War I and II … to the Civil Rights Era "and the integration, desegregation, merger, and busing epochs." Doyle writes, "Before and during the Civil War period, some freedmen and even some slaves were getting the rudiments of an education in Louisville." Having a little learning available for the few wasn't enough, and through the efforts of some blacks and with the help of a few influential whites, education efforts grew. Tiny private schools were held in churches, beginning with the Adams School in December 1841. Other schools were held at Fifth Street Baptist Church, Quinn Chapel A.M.E. Church and Center Street Church (now Brown Memorial C.M.E. Church). Blacks were taxed, but not a penny of their tax dollars was used to educate their children. Instead, it was used for the care of paupers. Over time, small victories built hope. Doyle pays tribute to many educators and local leaders of the day who had to accept meager doles from the coffers but never gave up their quest to create an education system for blacks eager to learn. The names and efforts of many early educators are noted because it is they who were in the best position to lead the fight for education. Some ring familiar to Louisville's black community even today: Joseph S. Cotter, Charles H. Parrish, A. E. Meyzeek, William H. Perry, Clyde Liggin, Maude Brown Porter, Atwood S. Wilson, Lyman Johnson. From the struggle to obtain elementary and junior high schools, to a protracted campaign for a "colored" high school and a normal school, African Americans persevered until they reached many of their goals. Doyle proudly writes, "neither the black community leaders, educators, nor parents ever wavered in their determination to get a quality education for their children." This well-written reference guide and story of resilience, perseverance and determination is appropriate for homes, public and school libraries and institutions of higher learning. The reviewer is a writer and critic who lives in Louisville; she was a longtime teacher in local schools.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Denver cemetery's data "very valuable" to state

Genealogists unearth roots of 5,000 blacks By Sheba R. Wheeler , Denver Post Staff Denver's oldest cemetery has yielded a historical gold mine for genealogists who now have access to important information about the early history of African-Americans in Colorado. More than 5,000 previously unresearched burial records of blacks who lived and died in the area in the late 1800s have been cataloged by a local genealogy group. Researchers hope the data will paint a more complete picture of the black community at the time, as well as provide clues of lineage for blacks nationwide. The Riverside Cemetery burial cards might be the only vital records widely available for blacks who lived in Colorado at that time, the only recorded proof that a person existed, says Tony Burroughs, an adjunct professor of genealogy at Chicago State University and author of "Black Roots: A Beginner's Guide to Tracing the African-American Family Tree." "You hear too often that no records exist on blacks," Burroughs said. "This is a prime example of a great body of records that does. The fact that they have now been made available is one of the reasons why this is so significant." It took a year for a half-dozen members of the Black Genealogy Search Group of Denver to review more than 86,000 burial cards dating from 1876 and kept in file cabinets in the cemetery's administrative office in Denver. Information from index cards identifying individuals as "Colored, Negro, Black or African-American" - including name, age, residence, employment and next of kin - was converted to a single database. A printed version is available for research in the Denver Public Library's genealogy department. The group also is working with the Fairmount Heritage Foundation to make the information available online. "It's a very valuable record because there really aren't any good overviews of blacks in Colorado, or even of blacks in Denver," says local historian Tom Noel. "There are selected studies of Five Points ... but nothing that spans the breadth of the entire community." Basic identifying documents are kept at cemeteries and funeral homes across the nation. Vital records such as birth, marriage and death certificates are available, too, but such documents are sometimes hard to research because they aren't transcribed, complete or readily accessible. City's oldest cemetery Members of the Denver genealogy search group took it upon themselves to see what clues the city's oldest cemetery had to offer. Constructed on what was then prime property on the east bank of the South Platte River, Riverside was the city's first well-organized cemetery, a picturesque beauty that served the community as a park as well as a resting place for the dead. Previously, residents were buried at Denver City Cemetery, now Cheesman Park, but when the area became an eyesore because of neglect, Riverside was founded. Its landscaped lawns, flowers, trees and curved lanes were patterned after Mount Auburn Cemetery, near Boston. In the 1890s, Riverside was swallowed by developments, including the Burlington Railroad line, which led to the industrial district that sprang up around the cemetery. During the group's research, names of recognized pioneering legends resurfaced, including Barney Ford, an escaped slave who became a wealthy entrepreneur and civil rights leader noted for securing the black man's right to vote in Colorado. Another was Lewis Price, a slave who fought in the Civil War before coming West, and who founded and published the Denver Star, the first black newspaper west of the Missouri River. "Aunt" Clara Brown, a freed slave who grubstaked miners, established the first laundry in Central City and helped relocate newly freed slaves to the state. Elizabeth Piper Ensley, who taught at Howard University in Washington, D.C., with her husband before moving to Colorado about 1890, became Denver's leading African-American suffragist, club leader and political activist. But perhaps the greatest find concerns the attention to detail given to everyday African-Americans whose experiences weren't noted in history books. The railroad workers and bricklayers. The homeless and destitute. The doctors and ministers of an active middle class. Freed blacks, largely migrants from Queens, N.Y., and New Bedford, Mass., sought out fresh starts on the untested Western frontier. It's these little-known ancestors that members of the Denver genealogy group want descendants nationwide to know about. "It's always fun to read about the famous people, but it's the school masters, bricklayers, seamstresses and the like whose stories are more common to all of us," says Diane O'Connor, executive director of the National Genealogical Society, based in Virginia. "It shows how everyone contributes to this great story of American history." "Colorblind Colorado" The information from the cards also sheds lights on Colorado's attitude toward minorities at the turn of the century. "It's amazing how colorblind Colorado was at that time," says genealogical specialist James K. Jeffrey of the Denver Public Library. "That reality is reflected in how people lived and how they were buried." In other regions during the late 1800s, African-Americans were often seen as housekeepers or farmers. But blacks in Colorado were part of a solid, professional middle-class. Cemeteries often segregated the dead. At Fairmount Cemetery, established in 1890, ethnic groups were buried in specified sections, while some Crown Hill cemeteries had racial covenants that did not allow persons of color to be buried there until after passage of the Civil Rights Act. But at Riverside, blacks were buried beside whites, a display of equality that continued until the Ku Klux Klan rose to power during the 1920s. "It's important for the entire community to recognize that something was (experienced) for a few generations that we have been fighting for ever since the 1960s," Jeffrey says. "We are still trying to rekindle that whole community spirit of a colorblind culture." Denver genealogy group member Monyett Ellington, 70, wants others to feel the same pride she felt when she discovered an ancestor had contributed to Denver society. Her family's oral history included the tale of "Uncle Fonz," a bricklayer said to have accompanied a related cousin to and from school. Ellington sifted out kernels of truth from the memories of family members, cemetery staff and burial records to discover that Alphonso Choice, who died in 1938 at age 65, was Ellington's great- aunt's uncle. Choice was a hod carrier who transported loads of bricks and mortar to build Cole Middle School and the Rossonian Hotel. "It is true what one genealogist once told me about ancestral history research. He said you'll find some in-laws and some outlaws. But he also guaranteed me that I would find pride," Ellington says. Looking for more clues In January, the group intends to find more clues about people like Choice when they index names pulled from copies of insurance policies and mortgage documents from the American Woodmen insurance company. The company served turn-of-the-century black communities in Colorado, Kansas and other states west of the Mississippi. "There's an African proverb that says, 'Until the lion learns to write, his story will not be told,"' says Ellington, who came up with the research idea. "I'm afraid that unless we do something, much of our African-American history won't be recorded either." To contact the Western History/ Genealogy Department at the Denver Public Library, call 720-865-1821. To contact the Fairmount Heritage Foundation, call 303-322-3895. Staff writer Sheba R. Wheeler can be reached at 303-820-1283 or

Monday, December 19, 2005

Report Calls 1898 N.C. Riot an Insurrection

The events of November 10, 1898, in Wilmington constitute a turning point in North Carolina history. By force, a white mob seized the reins of government in the port city and, in so doing, destroyed the local black-owned newspaper office and terrorized the African American community. In the months thereafter, political upheaval resulted across the state and legal restrictions were placed on the right of blacks to vote. The era of "Jim Crow," one of legal segregation not to end until the 1960s, had begun. In 2000, the General Assembly established the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission to develop a historical record of the event and to assess the economic impact of the riot on African Americans locally and across the region and state. Sponsoring the enabling legislation were two Wilmington legislators, Senator Luther H. Jordan, who died in April 2002, and Representative Thomas E. Wright, presently the group's chair. Rep. Wright addressed the work of the commission and its importance: "The events of November 10, 1898, were an important part of North Carolina's and America's history. The significance of this time period needs to be accurately and historically documented. The charge to the commission by the North Carolina General Assembly will accomplish this goal and allow for vital dialogue."

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Long Time Evansville Educator Dies

Newswatch has learned that Dr. Carl C. Lyles Sr., the great-great grandson of Lyles Station founder Joshua Lyles, and a long time educator for the Evansville Vanderburgh County School Corporation, has died. Dr. Lyles' son Harry says his father died at St. Mary's Medical Center on Monday. A wake is scheduled from 4-8pm CST Friday at the Alexander AME church on Walnut Street in Evansville. The funeral is scheduled for 1pm CST Saturday at the church. Information about Lyles Station on lists Dr. Lyles as a descendant of the founder of that community of freed slaves. Two brothers, Joshua and Sanford Lyles, started the town around 1840 along the Wabash River in what is now Gibson County. In Evansville, Dr. Lyles taught at the then all-black Lincoln High School beginning in 1949, moving to Reitz in 1962. He became principal of Central Evening School in 1967, and was later named assistant principal of Central High School. He was also an adjunct faculty at both the University of Evansville and the University of Southern Indiana. He was appointed and later elected to the Evansville-Vanderburgh School Board from 1978-1983, and also served on the Human Relations Commision.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Mr. East Akron was local crusader

Community activist was volunteer, tireless advocate for civil and labor rights By Marilyn Miller Beacon Journal staff writer He was known as Mr. East Akron. Art Minson, a longtime community activist who lived a lifetime of leadership in civil rights, labor and community issues, died Wednesday. He was 90 years old. Always full of energy, Mr. Minson fought injustices from neighborhood streets to the steps of the U.S. Capitol. The Akron resident stressed the importance of having structure in a community. ``If you organize your community, you can make a difference,'' he said in a 2002 interview with the Akron Beacon Journal. He believed volunteer work was his way of helping the underdog. ``People in the neighborhood used to also call him `the mayor of the east side,''' said granddaughter Pam Richardson of Michigan. ``He was laid back, he didn't let things worry him. But he didn't bite his tongue either. He learned he could fight verbally to get his point across.'' Mr. Minson had been a volunteer with the East Akron Community House since 1931. Grady Appleton, the agency's assistant executive director, said he was so helpful that he was considered an extra staff member. He was instrumental in starting neighborhood block clubs, addressing social issues and heading a political action committee that raised awareness about issues and candidates. He was also a housing and economic activist who helped lay the foundation for the East Akron Neighborhood Development Corporation to channel money back into the community. He loaned the corporation its first $25 and the corporation now has a net worth of $7 million. Minson Apartments on Talbot Avenue as well as a street, Minson Way, are named for him. City Councilman Jim Shealey, D-5, who represents Mr. Minson's neighborhood, described him as a ``good, gentle person.'' A keeper of records on the history of the East Akron community, he worked for a variety of causes, such as the Millennium Fund for area children. ``He meant a lot to the community,'' said City Council President Marco Sommerville. ``He loved the community and he loved being involved. He made many trips to Washington, D.C., pushing neighborhood concerns.'' Sommerville said Mr. Minson always taught the younger generation to understand the struggles of African-Americans -- ``where we were and where we are going.'' ``I knew him all my life; we were neighbors,'' said Dorothy Jackson, former deputy mayor of Akron. ``He was a man who loved life and loved people.'' Mr. Minson was an active member of St. John Christian Methodist Episcopal Church on South Hawkins Avenue for more than 40 years. ``His strongest message was his social ministry,'' said the Rev. Arthur Green. ``He started the feeding, clothing and food giveaway at the church. That was his passion, helping others.'' A volunteer in the community for more than 50 years, Mr. Minson received many awards, including the Howard M. Metzenbaum Ohio Citizen Award, Cliff Skeen Lifetime Achievement Award and Volunteer of the Year award for Coming Together. He also initiated many programs, such as a credit union for rubber workers at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. to help minorities get loans. But Mr. Minson didn't do it for the recognition. ``When people tried to get him to name his achievements and honors, he said: `It's all a matter of record,' '' said his son, Charles Minson. ``He said he wanted to be remembered most for his church participation and his lifetime membership with the NAACP.'' Mr. Minson was 5 years old when he arrived in Akron in 1920 during the migration of blacks from the rural South to the industrial North. The graduate of East High School married Eula Belle in 1940. Mr. Minson, widowed since 1995, retired from Goodyear after 40 years. At one time, three generations of Minsons worked for Goodyear in the same department: Mr. Minson, his father and his son. Mr. Minson was also a musician -- a trumpet player who tried to make a living with his music. In the 1930s he had his own jazz group, the Art Minson Band. He also did stints with jazz legends Count Basie and Duke Ellington. ``Art Minson was a tremendous and outstanding individual. He was so dedicated to seeing that everyone was treated equally. He had the ability to bring out the best in persons,'' said attorney Edwin Parms. ``I knew him as Mr. East Akron. Although he was known throughout the community, the east side was the side of town that he had a major, major impact.'' Marilyn Miller can be reached at 330-996-3098 or 800-777-7232 or

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Former slaves from Kentucky help found historic Kansas town

An award-winning children's book about black pioneers in Kansas has a Kentucky connection. "Wagon Wheels is the true story of the Muldie family from Kentucky," said Angela Bates, a historian and writer in Nicodemus, Kan. Ex-slaves, a majority of them Kentuckians, settled historic Nicodemus in 1877. The town was named for the anti-slavery ballad "Wake Nicodemus!" Former slaves from the South and from border states like Kentucky founded several communities in Kansas after the Civil War. Fewer than 30 people live in Nicodemus. "But children from all over the country know about us from Wagon Wheels," Bates said. The little book is a story of tragedy and triumph. The mother dies. The father is forced to leave their three young sons in Nicodemus so he can search for better land far away. In the end, the boys, led by 11-year-old Johnny, the oldest, rejoin their father after trekking more than 150 miles across the prairie. "That's exactly the way it happened," Bates said. Nicodemus sprouted on a flat, treeless plain next to the shallow Solomon River. The first pioneers were almost 300 ex-slaves from the Lexington vicinity who arrived in September, 1877, according to the National Park Service, which operates the Nicodemus National Historic Site. The park service says approximately 175 more freed slaves, mainly from Georgetown, came in the spring of 1878. Apparently, the Muldies were among them. In the beginning, the settlers lived in "dugouts," holes they dug in the ground, Bates said. The homesteaders nearly starved one winter. "But like in the book, the Osage Indians brought them wild game," Bates said. In Wagon Wheels, too, the Muldie boys' father leaves Nicodemus seeking "land with trees and hills." Reluctantly, he orders the boys to stay. "You have shelter and friends here," Daddy says in the book. "...I will send for you when I find a place." "That's also how it happened," Bates said. "Johnny took care of his brothers." Willie was 8. The youngest child, age 3, is "Little Brother" in Wagon Wheels. "Sadly, we don't know the names of the father and mother or the smallest child, or what became of any of them," Bates said. "But the mother died in Topeka on the way to Nicodemus." Following a map their father mailed them, the boys walked 22 days to find him near Solomon City, Kan. Years later, Johnny remembered that they braved "several storms" and eluded "wild beasts in the woods." Wagon Wheels, written by Barbara Brenner and illustrated by Don Bolognese, is based on records kept by the late Lulu Sadler Craig, a Nicodemus teacher and the town's first historian. Craig was also Bates' cousin. Founder and executive director of the Nicodemus Historical Society, Bates and others helped get Nicodemus declared a National Historic Landmark and National Historic Site. ___ On the Net: Nicodemus National Historic Site: Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

DNA used to trace African lineage

PROFESSOR FINDS SHE IS AKAN FROM GHANABy Linda B. BlackfordHERALD-LEADER STAFF WRITER Lynda Brown-Wright's 50th birthday present to herself lay inside a pale brown folder, sealed with a ribbon of angular African design. She held the package tightly in front of her University of Kentucky graduate students in multicultural psychology. Brown-Wright nervously handed the packet to one of her students, who slipped off the ribbon, opened the flap and solemnly read: "This certifies that Lynda Brown-Wright shares maternal lines with the Akan people in Ghana." "Congratulations!" called one student. "It's so exciting to me," she said, holding a map of Africa with a star over the West African country of Ghana. "It's a country I know something about." Two years ago, her planned trip to Ghana was canceled because of an outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, which affected world travel. Eight weeks ago, Brown-Wright saw a TV show about African-Americans tracing their DNA back to Africa. Just a few days later, she swabbed the inside of her mouth with cotton and sent the samples off to a Washington, D.C., company called African Ancestry. For about $370, the company compared her DNA signature to a database of DNA samples gathered by researchers in Africa and this country. "I like telling people I'm from Louisiana, that's a part of me and who I am, and this is a piece of the puzzle," she said. Brown-Wright, who chairs the department of education and counseling psychology at UK, was determined to share the news first with her graduate students. "We talk about different issues related to race and ethnicity and history," she said. "So it seemed like the right thing to do." Her daughter, Haley, 24, showed up to hear the news, too. "I think it's great," she said. "I didn't know about it until a few days ago." Student Clarissa Roan agreed. "It's really exciting for African-Americans. A lot of times your history can't be traced," she said. "It's neat to be able to say 'I'm from here.'" More and more African-Americans are looking into the genealogy that was lost when they were brought to this country as slaves. According to African Ancestry president Gina Paige, 4,000 people have traced their DNA since the company opened in 2003, including such celebrities as Spike Lee and LeVar Burton. "This is definitely an area that's growing in interest for people," Paige said. "This is a compliment to traditional tools in genealogy." Women can trace maternal lines with mitochondrial DNA; men can trace both maternal and paternal lines through Y chromosome DNA. The company also tries to link DNA to different tribes or groups in those African countries. The Web site states that some lines trace to native Americans and about 30 percent of paternal traces show European heritage. In February, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. will host a PBS documentary on African genealogy using information from the same company, whose database contains more than 20,000 lineages from more than 389 indigenous African populations. Scientific breakthroughs such as DNA testing could change the fabric of U.S. and Southern history, historians say, just as Thomas Jefferson's biography has changed since DNA linked him to the children of one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. "This kind of scientific research will cause all of us to deal with our past, whether we want to or not," said UK historian Gerald Smith. Certainly, it's going to enlarge Brown-Wright's family lore. Now, Brown-Wright said, she has to decide whether she'll turn her birthday present into a Christmas gift for the rest of her family in Louisiana or call them with the news soon. "It's a missing link, being shipped here and not having that piece of your history," she said. "I always identified with Africa, but I never knew which country."

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Clayton chapel has place in history

By Elizabeth Redden, Delaware State News CLAYTON — The bell tower has long been torn down and no peal rings through the sky to welcome old parishioners home. Inside, the light blue-green paint used to cover the trim has begun to peel in places, with scrapes of the church’s old wooden gut peeking out from its walls. The wood floor is covered by well-worn, off-white linoleum tile that wasn’t in place when the structure was built in 1896. The original stamped tin ceiling is hidden beneath layers of tile, the central altar is missing and wooden kitchen chairs are lined in rows where pews once sat. But for Phil Voshell of Smyrna, who grew up attending St. Joseph’s Church in Clayton, moving from baptized baby to altar boy to groom before the same altar, the stained-glass windows still sparkle the same way. Moving back to Smyrna last year after 38 years away, his first visit to the church he was married in 49 years ago filled him with memories and the sense that “it’s basically the same.” Mr. Voshell is serving as chair of a project to renovate the former St. Joseph’s Church, a site that holds a special role in the state’s religious and racial history. Formally inducted into the National Register of Historic Places in 2003, the church, now known as St. Katherine’s Chapel, was built by the Josephite Order as part of a boarding school for blacks from Boston to Baltimore who came to Clayton to learn industrial and agricultural trades. Robin Bodo, historian at the Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, said Josephite Father John DeRuyter developed the school on 400 acres purchased by the future saint, Katherine M. Drexel. Ms. Bodo said the Josephite Order was founded in the 1870s to evangelize to freed slaves. At the St. Joseph’s Industrial School, which opened in 1896 with 25 students and had a peak enrollment of 117 students in 1937, blacks received education and were first encouraged to enter the priesthood and then the brotherhood when the former goal became too controversial, Ms. Bodo said. Meanwhile, Smyrna’s St. Polycarp parish, formed in 1883, was without a home after it sold its building on Mount Vernon Street in 1916, said the Rev. Thomas A. Flowers, St. Polycarp’s priest. The plan was to build a new church in Clayton, but world wars and the Great Depression delayed those plans and for 52 years the Smyrna-Clayton Catholic community was welcomed to attend church at the school’s chapel. Mr. Voshell said there was not much interaction between the towns and the school’s black students. The students generally attended church services at different times than the 125 parishioners Mr. Voshell estimated comprised the St. Polycarp’s congregation in the middle of the century. Even in an era of segregation the presence of the school promised hints of a better time. The swimming hole on the back of the school’s property was the meeting place for all of the kids from the school and from the town, Mr. Voshell remembered. “Coldest water you’d ever want to swim in,” he said. The St. Polycarp parish, now comprised of 575 households, continued using the St. Joseph’s Church as its worship space until 1968, when the current church in Smyrna was built, Father Flowers said. The school closed in the 1970s and its buildings languished in relative disuse. The Josephites maintained the property through the rest of the century before St. Joseph’s at Providence Creek finalized its purchase of the land in 2003. St. Joseph’s at Providence Creek, a charitable organization that provides a venue for community service, is now leading a fund-raising drive for the church’s renovation, said Marc C. Ostroff, the group’s executive director. He couldn’t estimate how much the project would cost, saying the group is still in the beginning stages and has not gotten expert opinions on what work needs to be done. Mr. Ostroff said the church is structurally sound, with a new roof and boiler. The group, he said, hopes to restore the building to what it looked like during the first part of 20th century. The foundation has not raised any money for the project, but Mr. Ostroff is confident it will find financial backers. He said he’s not sure what the community would use the space for once renovated — perhaps a spot for weddings, certainly a tourist stop, maybe a place for appropriate lectures or musical presentations. One thing he said it wouldn’t be is a fully functional church. Students at Providence Creek Academy, the charter school based on St. Joseph’s land, have occasionally used the chapel. Their crayoned drawings are taped to its walls, brightly lit by the sunshine filtering through the patterns on the stained glass windows. For the rest of the community, the church has stood virtually unused, but not forgotten. Beneath a three-arched stone gateway etched with “St. Joseph’s Industrial School,” the chapel stands as a monument at the end of Clayton Road. Its sophisticated Italianate architecture makes it virtually one-of-a-kind in a state where smaller, more “vernacular” Methodist churches, as Ms. Bodo said, are found on many corners. “It’s a place of serenity,” said Lorraine Goodman, program director of Middletown Main Street Inc. and co-chair of the chapel renovation committee. The school and its church are, Mr. Voshell said, among the three most important things in the small town of Clayton’s history, joining the railroad, which led to the town’s founding, and the former Wheatley’s Cannery. The combined populations of Smyrna and Clayton climbed by 17.2 percent, from 6,952 to 8,147, from 2000 to 2004. As the two towns propel themselves into the future, the significance of the church without a bell takes on even greater meaning for some who have their roots there. “The way that the whole area is expanding and growing, any time that you can keep a little bit of the history and keep some of the sameness of the community, that’s a good thing,” said Joyce Webber, chair of the board of St. Joseph’s at Providence Creek. “I don’t think the people who’ve moved here understand what went on or how important it was to this town,” Mr. Voshell added.

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For black visionaries, site still place of promise

History, hope abound in Nicodemus, Kan. By MALCOLM GARCIA The Kansas City Star NICODEMUS, Kan. — The wind wails through the sage, carries voices from the old cemeteries across the flat brown plains through the rotted timbers of dilapidated buildings. Families from here know well the aged stories of their forebears, former slaves. Their tales, a living history bound by blood memory and handed down through generations, beckon to their descendants to resurrect Nicodemus. “Call me crazy if you want to, but I believe this town can come back,” says Twillia Wilson, 46. A health-care worker, she returned in June to look after her elderly mother. No stores remain. Sagging one-story houses and trailer homes stand out against vacant lots where stores had been, the noisy bustle of past commerce lost in a silent, paralyzed void filled only at a distance by the scratch of fallen leaves and the crunch of gravel beneath a lone car. Nicodemus, named after the hero of the abolitionist work song, “Wake Nicodemus,” was settled by 350 former slaves who moved to this northwest corner of Kansas from Kentucky in 1877, lured by land promoters who called the area “the golden belt of Kansas.” Families lived in dugouts “like prairie dogs,” one early settler complained, adding “the scenery was not at all inviting.” Today, Nicodemus is the oldest surviving town west of the Mississippi established by African-Americans after the Civil War. At its most prosperous, Nicodemus boasted 700 souls, two newspapers, three general stores, at least three churches, several hotels, one school, a literary society, a bank, a livery and scores of homes. To ensure growth and prosperity, the town needed a railroad. Despite efforts by town boosters, the closest a railroad came was south of the Solomon River. Nicodemus lay to the north. Businesses fled to the other side of the river and Nicodemus began a slow decline. Today, only 27 persons live here. The average age is about 80. Twillia was born in Nicodemus and was one of the last children to attend the one-room schoolhouse still standing on Fourth Street. She recalls sitting as a girl with the old people of her youth, grandchildren of former slaves, spellbound by their stories. “My roots are here. Now that the majority of people are gone, my goal is to be part of a rebirth.” Her childhood friends, now teachers, lawyers and doctors far flung across the country, visit from time to time and talk about returning, but it’s mostly talk. They look at the barren land much as their predecessors must have done and think, “What’s out here?” “It was difficult to adjust,” Twillia admits. “I like being more active.” Twillia’s 18-year-old son pleaded with her to stay in their Salina, Kan., home. He won’t remain here, she knows, when he graduates from high school in the nearby town of Bogue. No one he can relate to. He’ll probably move to Lawrence to be near his sister. Twillia, however, will stay. “I believe the wheels are turning and I’ll be part of a trend.” She listens to the sudden clamorous noise of hammers and saws at the nearby First Baptist Church, built in 1907 and long out of use. Twillia nods at the commotion and smiles. “See what I’m saying?” Nicodemus was named a national historic site in 1996, a designation that provides funds to preserve its five remaining historic buildings: the First Baptist Church, the township hall, the St. Francis Hotel, the school and the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Roofer Val Williams walks around the First Baptist Church admiring the weathered wood shingles he has uncovered: round ones, pointed ones, square ones. He hasn’t seen anything like it in all his years of construction. Not that combination, anyway. He was born here and came back just a few weeks ago from Kansas City to work on some of these rehabilitation projects. Other federal grants have been awarded to qualifying families for home repair. For Val, 55, that means jobs. He was recently divorced. He looks out at the cracked road of Washington Avenue running past the church, no longer marked by a street sign or lights and strewn with fat tufts of tumbleweed blown in off wide fields from God knows where. A distant rush of traffic rolls off U.S. 24 and merges into the landscape with the honking of Canada geese flying low overhead, and he feels the isolation settle around him, feeding his sense of peace and need to be alone. Ora Switzer, 102, lives in an apartment a few doors down from Twillia and just opposite the First Baptist Church. Banners celebrating recent birthdays — Happy 99th! Happy 100th! Happy 101st! — festoon the walls above faded photographs of her six children and their children. Her grandparents were freed slaves, her parents part of the first generation born in Nicodemus. She spends her days seated comfortably in a chair by the kitchen, back straight, blankets wrapped around her lap. She raises a thin arm, peers out from her one good eye, and points. “Look around you. History,” Miss Ora says in a voice slurred by age. “The younger people left us here to carry on our history elsewhere. History repeats itself. One day we’ll be big again.” She was born in a sod hut behind her apartment long since submerged into grass kept green by a sprinkler. “I can remember when we had two stores, a millinery shop. I can remember seeing the town and people in it. I can remember when we got electricity. That impressed us.” Her 81-year-old son played sports but wasn’t allowed to eat in the high school cafeteria in Bogue because he was black. Miss Ora wrote a letter to the school: If you’re going to run him to death, feed him. “It’s starting to come back,” she says of the town, “A new house on the hill. A new house, it’s a beginning.” “How’s it going, Val?” shouts the town historian, Angela Bates, as she drives slowly past the First Baptist Church. “Just found me a little medicine bottle,” Val says, holding out a gloved hand for her to see. “How’s that feel, holding a bit of history?” “Feels good.” Angela, 53, laughs and continues to her office at the Nicodemus Historical Society, a one-room house across from the schoolhouse, where she serves as executive director. On the other side, construction workers measure the front porch of a new ranch house, bright blue under the afternoon sun, the heedless surge of a clear sky rushing overhead. A San Jose, Calif., family related to the founding settlers moved into the house in September with their 10-year-old daughter. Before the girl, the last child to live in Nicodemus was a boy born in 1978. Angela sits at her desk, blows on her hands and turns on the computer. The house doesn’t have heat. The utilities are to be donated, so she hasn’t complained. She hopes to have a functioning furnace before winter. Her parents were born in Nicodemus, her mother buried in one of the three cemeteries outside town. Angela grew up in Pasadena, Calif., but visited relatives here every summer. She fell in love with horses and the open country. Everyone was related. No one worried about their children because wherever they were some relation was always nearby. If you did something wrong at your auntie’s house, next door would be your grandmother ready to scold you. “I’d go back to Pasadena and tell my friends I spent a summer in an all-black town,” Angela recalls. As she grew older, she left California, attended college in Kansas and earned a teaching degree. She moved to Washington, D.C., and started an interior design business. In 1979 she returned for a visit after a six-year absence. The town had changed. “The general store and the post office were gone. The Masonic Hall, a lot of residences. I thought, ‘We’re losing Nicodemus.’ I felt a panic. ‘My God, Nicodemus is dying.’ ” In 1989, she bought a house in Bogue. She began the drive to have Nicodemus registered as a national historic site. Recently, she purchased 25 acres in town and contemplates using it for a housing development. “I spent six years begging someone to sell,” she says. “A lot of descendants aren’t willing to sell. The land has been in their family and stays in their family even though they don’t live here. I finally convinced a cousin to sell to me. There’d be a lot more descendants here if the housing was here. Their hold on the land prevents commercial development.” She hopes the museum and annual events including Pioneer Day, Emancipation Day and the Christmas Tree Trimming Party can start a trend that would lead to more activities and recharge Nicodemus’ economy with tourism dollars. “We get calls constantly. People want to be here and raise their kids. As that trend unfolds, as family and home becomes more important than acquiring things, then Nicodemus and its history and what that history represents will be a place they’ll want to come.” Outside her office in the former dining room, creased and grainy black-and-white photos of some of the first settlers, her great-great-grandparents John and LeeAnna Samuels among them, stare out across the wood floor along with Charles and Emma Williams, forebears of Twillia Wilson’s family. Constrained in formal dress. Impassive and resilient before the camera and the dry wind-blown land and the losses of time and the darkness that falls as Angela leaves, closing the door behind her. To rise again in the lives of the living. Beholden to no one in the world to come, and not forgotten. Not forgotten. Go to to read previous installments.