Oral History

How have entire lives been so reduced?

“Written records are more reliable than oral tradition, by a disconcerting margin. You might think that each generation of children, knowing their parents as well as most children do, would listen to their detailed reminiscences and relay them to the next generation. Five generations on, a voluminous oral tradition should, one might think, have survived. I remember my four grandparents clearly, but of my eight great-grandparents I know a handful of fragmentary anecdotes. One great-grandfather habitually sang a certain nonsense rhyme (which I can sing), but only while lacing his boots. Another was greedy for cream, and would knock the chess board over when losing. A third was a country doctor. That is about my limit. How have eight entire lives been so reduced? How, when the chain of informants connecting us back to the eyewitnesses seems so short, and human conversation so rich, could all those thousands of personal details that made up the lifetimes of eight human individuals be so fast forgotten?”

– Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor’s Tale


Willie Brown’s sisters and me.

A recent post in a Facebook genealogy group about a portrait offered on eBay sent members speculating and lamenting and made me think of something I wrote years ago:

Urban Provisions is the first and only little home decor and furnishings shop in my gentrifying town on the edge of Atlanta. An older black woman stopped in one day and asked Ben if this was where you could get help with your ‘lectric and gas. He said, “No, ma’am.” “Well, it say Urban,” she huffed, and stepped back out.

As Ben was telling me the story some hours later, the same woman poked her head in the door and beckoned us outside. She and her husband began pulling old family portraits out of their backseat. They were for sale. One was a framed commemorative newspaper (50th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation) depicting Abraham Lincoln, Booker T. Washington, and Frederick Douglass. It was in bad shape. The best of the lot was a large, well-preserved, beautifully framed photographic portrait of two women. The husband said they were his great-grandfather’s sisters and insisted they were Siamese twins. (After some grime-wiping and hard squinting, I could see that, unless split zygotes cling shoulder blade to clavicle, this was not the case. They didn’t even look much alike.) The great-granddaddy was named Willie Brown, and he lived near Edison and Morgan in Calhoun County, Georgia.

I asked the husband what he wanted for the portrait, and he told me to name a price. After some hard internal dialectic, I named $100. He said I ought to at least give him $125. I said, “Wai’ min’te, now,” and he caved. “I got to pay bills,” he explained, and I rode my bike up to the bank to get his money. I told Willie Brown’s great-grandson if he ever wanted to get his people back to stop by the store and let Ben know. The wife said, with finality, “We ain’t gon wont ‘em.” She had other pictures to hang now that these were out of the way.

I collect photographic portraits of black people. The older, the better; I go for those in original frames with original glass. I have paid a lot for some and a little for others. I know the provenance of a few, but most have entered posterity in forlorn anonymity. One hundred years after the photographers bulb burst in their stoic faces, these stiff brides and babies and black-suited gentlemen regard me in tight-mouthed silence. Had they already bitterly foreseen their eternity in a stranger’s dining room? I am guiltily aware of my lack of kinship with these ghosts.

How does this happen? How do such prizes manage to break loose and drift away from their moorings in some proud, hardworking, veil-lifted family? I do know, of course, for I’m the one hoarding my family’s remaining sepia-toned snapshots — none as grand as the Brown twins — protecting them from indifference or disdain or desperation. For some, family exists only three-dimensionally, in the here and now. Sentimentality may be unaffordable. Maybe I tether these unknowns, give them a nice, black, ancestor-worshiping home, to make it up to my own, whose frames warped irremediably on back porches, their fragile, charcoaled images rotting in country sheds or shredded in the buck teeth of cellar rats. Are any of my people hanging dusty in the dimness of some junk dealer’s lair, pawned for baby’s shoes?


The “Siamese twins.”

Agriculture, Business, Free People of Color, Newspaper Articles, North Carolina, Paternal Kin

Tax trouble.


Goldsboro Messenger, 2 April 1877.

Simmons & Aldridge??? I’m fairly certain that the Aldridge in this partnership was Robert Aldridge (though it could have been one of his older sons, George, Matthew and John) but which Simmons? Section 69 imposed penalties on “any manufacturer of tobacco or snuff” who failed to pay proper taxes on their products. Robert was said to have operated a brickyard near Dudley, but I’ve seen nothing else to suggest that he also had an interest in a tobacco cottage industry.

Education, North Carolina, Paternal Kin

Signature Saturday, no. 2: Henderson.

Lewis and Margaret Henderson were surely unlettered, and I suspect that most of their children were, too. I have only been able to find handwriting samples for two.

Caswell C. Henderson was the most worldly of the siblings, having migrated to New York City in his mid 20s, engaged in local politics, and secured a patronage job at the United Customs House while in his 30s. From his 1893 marriage certificate to Emma D. Bentley:

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And from a letter he wrote in 1926 to his sister Sarah:

Screen Shot 2014-12-05 at 5.28.33 PMSarah Henderson Jacobs Silver was also literate, though her handwriting and grammar reveal the limits of her schooling. This signature appeared on the marriage license of her niece, Minnie Simmons Budd.

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Most families grow exponentially, but Lewis and Mag’s descendants underwent a bit of a bottleneck in the third generation. Of their nine children, only two — Ann Elizabeth and Loudie — had children that survived to adulthood. Those two produced five children (barely, as one died at age 19) who reached majority. Of the five, I have only found the signature of one. Jesse “Jack” Henderson, Loudie’s son, affixed his name to his Social Security application in 1936:

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Agriculture, Business, Free People of Color, Land, North Carolina, Paternal Kin

I stated the fact.

The fourth in an occasional series excerpting testimony from the transcript of the trial in J.F. Coley v. Tom Artis, Wayne County Superior Court, November 1908. Paragraph breaks inserted for better readability.

Plaintiff introduces John Rountree who being duly sworn, testifies as follows:

I know Tom Artis. I heard him say that the cotton was for rents. I heard that for the last 14 years. I collected the rent for W.S. Hagans for several years. I heard Tom alude to it as rents. I heard last September after the land was sold, that it was interest. I never heard anything but rents to that time. I had a conversation with Tom, and carried a message to Hagans for Tom. This last Fall Tom came over to the gin house where I was ginning, and said to me that he understood that Hagans was going to sell the 30 acres piece of land, and said to me to tell Hagans if he pleased not to sell till he gave him notice, because he wanted to buy it. I delivered that mesage to Hagans. Hagans said alright he would sell it to him as soon as anybody, but he didn’t want to sell one piece at the time. We didn’t talk about the sale to Coley.


I have lived at W.S. Hagans’ for about 18 years. I farm at Hagans’. I rent land. I pay him 1/3. I collected Tom’s rent along in the Fall. Hagans has asked me to go to Tom and ask him to send his rents. Uncle Tom sometime would bring the rent and Hagans wasn’t there, and he would give it to me to keep for Hagans. Tom called it rent when Pole Hagans was living. (Plaintiff objects.) I wasn’t there when he sent it to W.J. Exum. While Mr. Exum was living, I didn’t see Tom taking his cotton there. I didn’t tell Hgans that I would swear the old man always called it rent. I had no right to, I didn’t tell the lawyers I would swear to that. I stated the fact that he always called it rent. I told Tom that Hagans had sent me for the rent two or three times. I knew it was rent. I told Hagans that I had his rent from Tom. I told Coley that the old man called it rent last summer. They had me subpoenad before then. I told him Tom always called it rent. I told Mr. Coley’s lawyers that last summer. I never told Hagans, he knew it.