24 July 2012

Tombstone Tuesday Twofer: William W., James E., and the Big Surprise

Tombstone Tuesday is another daily blogging prompt from Geneabloggers that turned out to be especially appropriate for me this week.

I've been away from the blog for a few days, but that doesn't mean I haven't been busy with genealogical research. In fact this past week may have been my biggest yet so far in terms of discoveries and their emotional impact. What I found this week has changed my life. I found that I may have African-American ancestors and relations that I knew nothing about.

It all began innocently enough. I have a copy of my paternal grandfather's death certificate, which lists his father's name as William W. Leslie. I searched for William W. Leslie of Braggs, Lowndes County, Alabama on Ancestry.com and the following picture came up:
William W. Leslie, Oct. 3, 1851-Dec. 18, 1899.
New Bethel Braggs Cemetery, Lowndes County Alabama

(I have added the caption in case the inscription is difficult to read). I left an excited comment asking the person who posted the picture to contact me and share information. An African-American woman named Sharon Leslie Morgan replied, and invited me to continue the conversation further via e-mail. You can find the original photo and exchange of comments here. We began trading e-mails and documents, and the William W. Leslie she had found sounded like the William W. Leslie I was searching for. She is especially interested in the father of William W. Leslie, James E. Leslie, because in blog posts here, here, and here, she reflects on being a Leslie and discusses her conviction (or at least her supposition) that James E. Leslie (1823-1875) fathered a child with one of his black female slaves. That child was, or may have been, her great-grandfather, Tom Leslie. This is a photo of James E. Leslie's tombstone which she sent me:

James E. Leslie
Born Feb. 22, 1823
Died Mar. 1, 1875
"He left a Wife and three Children"
New Bethel Braggs Cemetery, Lowndes County, Alabama.

(Again, I added the caption in case the original inscription is hard to read).

The upshot of all of this, at least for me, is that I may have African-American ancestors and relations I  knew nothing about, a possibility that I (perhaps naively) had never considered. For much of the South's history, clandestine and unacknowledged interracial sexual unions (whether consensual or forced) and children resulting from those  unions were far more common than many people, white or black, were willing to admit. I knew this in an abstract, intellectual way from taking college courses in race relations and the history of the South, but there is a huge difference between understanding something as an abstract concept and seeing how it could affect the history of your own family.

I am still trying to process both my emotional reaction to this possibility and the evidence for it that Sharon Leslie Morgan has shared with me thus far. We both want to continue the conversation and gather and interpret more evidence, if it can be found. We agree that the evidence is not conclusive, but it is suggestive. There is much we both need to know before we can say with any certainty whether or not we are related through a common connection to James E. Leslie. We may not be able to resolve the question except through DNA testing.

If you'd like to know more about Sharon Leslie Morgan, she is the coauthor of a forthcoming book, Gather at the Table, due out in October. In the book, Ms. Morgan, a descendant of slaves, and Thomas DeWolf, a descendant of slave owners, discuss their experiences traveling across the country together doing research into their respective family histories and grappling with how the legacies of slavery and racism still affect them. Thomas DeWolf is a member of the Board of Directors of Coming to the Table, an organization that helps descendants of slaves and descendants of slave owners understand their common heritage and promote racial healing and reconciliation.

As for me, whatever happens, this experience has made me re-examine my concept of myself, my identity as a white Southerner, and my own attitudes on race and racism, and that can only be a good thing. It's good to take a good hard look at yourself every so often, and ask yourself what you really believe and why. As more than one philosopher has said, the unexamined life is not worth living.


Michelle said...

Very nice story! As a Coast resident I can relate to your story. I come across this all the time in my own family. Good luck in your research!

Jim S said...

I just saw found your website through Geneabloggers. Welcome to Geneabloggers.

Regards, Jim
Genealogy Blog at Hidden Genealogy Nuggets

Niall Mor said...

Thanks for the welcome, Jim! I'm glad to be here. I've added your blog to my blogroll.