Friday, October 29, 2010

AAHGS 2010 & The Bark Azor

It’s been three weeks since I attended the AAHGS conference, and I'm still thinking about it, processing all that I learned. It was my first time and I was just blown away by the incredible work being done! While I went to try to identify new sources to mine or to get more out of the sources I have, sometimes I just got caught up with other people’s experiences.

That's what happened the first day at the first session I went to. Anna Guy Burroughs presented research she had done on the experiences of one of her husband’s ancestors. The story, according to the family’s oral history, was that a relative in freedom had gone back to Africa. Anna found plenty of information from the antebellum and post-war efforts of the American Colonization Society to Marcus Garvey’s Back to Africa movement but still hadn’t found what she was looking for.

She shared a story about how she was book shopping and already had an armful of books that would keep her busy when she came across a book that caught her attention. She picked it up, thought about it but then put it back. She said she was drawn back to it and said that sometimes that happens when something else is at work, something powerful like the ancestors, she suggested. Her audience agreed, knowing how some events and discoveries seem to be guided by those who want their stories to be told.

Anna left the book again, but once more was pulled back to it. She decided to buy it. She read it and was halfway through when she came across a single reference to led her to the Liberian Exodus Association, a ship called the Bark Azor -- and her husband's ancestors who had gone to Africa in 1878!

Anna's presentation "The Bark Azor and Liberian Exodus-Beyond the American Colonization Society" gave me chills. It was another incredible part of American history that I never learned in school, not even in college courses in African American history -- the accounts of free people experiencing the failure of Reconstruction and unbearable oppression and deciding to go to Africa. I had seen an episode of the History Detectives that mentioned "informal networks that people tried to use to raise funds to get to Africa," but it was the first time I got to hear details of how this was actually done.

Fortunately for Anna and for all of us, the Liberian Exodus Association and the Bark Azor are well documented and a lot information is accessible online. Anna's presentation was exciting, inspiring and well-sourced -- a perfect way to start the conference!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Checking Out Checking In

During the Jim Crow era, hotels in Virginia served one race or another, and in Alexandria choices were limited to a hotel and a few private homes.

The Hotel Jackson (above) at the southwest corner of King and Peyton streets served African American clientele. The hotel was named for its owner, Washington "Wash" Jackson, who was active with civic and business groups. The Hotel Jackson also served as a venue for African American community and civic activities, such as a staging area for the emancipation celebration in 1903 and the meeting site for a local branch of the National Negro Men’s Business League in 1905.

The Hotel Jackson was demolished after a tornado ripped through Alexandria and severely damaged dozens of buildings in November 1927. The hotel's King Street fa├žade was torn away and the structural damage was so significant that the city ordered that it be razed.

John Wesley Jackson (no known relationship to Washington Jackson) owned a bakery and home (above) at the southwest corner of Pendleton and Henry streets. The bakery had opened around 1919 and it later served an important role by providing accommodations to black visitors, including chauffeurs and laborers who were not welcome at local hotels. It was likely listed in the The Negro Motorist Green Book, published by Victor Green.

This directory, known among its users simply as the Green Book, provided African American travelers with a list of boarding houses, restaurants and other services that welcomed them and, according to Wendell P. Alston, would save them from "as many difficulties and embarrassments as possible." The 1949 edition offered two possibilities for accommodations in Alexandria, tourists homes at 724 and 803 Gibbon Street. None was listed for Arlington, Fairfax, Falls Church or Leesburg and the only other Northern Virginia city listed that year was Warrenton.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Volusia and Davy

My research into a photograph of two women and several children taken near Alexandria during the Civil War has been going on for more than two years. I'll work on it for a while, get somewhere, get stuck and then let it rest for a while. As thorough as I think I've been, I will still discover something "new" from a document I think I've previously exhausted. Sometimes new sources become available through digitization or from archives and repositories I'm finally able to visit.
Much of what I've learned is in an article I posted on Scribd but since the focus of this blog is African American history and genealogy, I hope to share more detailed info about my ongoing search here.

The photograph was taken almost 150 years ago at a farm called Volusia. I've found the names of several enslaved people who lived there and have been able to establish the relationships of some. The matriarch of this family is Julia Hughes and as of 1858, six of her children -- all adults -- were enslaved with her by the same owner; a seventh child, according to an 1874 newspaper account, was sold away years before. Julia was reunited with that child, a daughter named Louisa, in 1874 and later lived with her in Ohio. I haven't located Julia's other three daughters but I have found two of her sons, twins named Wilson and Levin, in freedom, and I'm currently working on some leads for the third son who was named Davy.

I'm pursuing a David Hughes who I think is promising. Davy's owner's estate inventory in December 1858 identified him as being 29 so he would have been born around 1829. The 1870 and 1880 censuses show a David Hughes living in Washington, D.C., who was born in Virginia around that time. That David Hughes has several children including two daughters named Julia and Louisa. The D.C. city directories show David working as a barber and living on 12th Street NW in the early 1880s and then in 1884, living in the 1000 block of U Street NW. Levin Hughes, Julia's son, is living in the same block at that same time. The following year, Frances Hughes, identified as David's widow, is listed at the same home on U Street and Levin is still on the same block.

So David's age, birthplace, daughters' names and 1884 residence are encouraging but I'll need more to be sure. Through the Civil War soldier and sailor index, I found a David Hewes who served with Unassigned Company A of the U.S. Colored Infantry which was organized out of Alexandria. Julia's son Wilson served with Co. A and his widow filed a pension application but I have been unable to find one for David or his widow Frances.

I hope to visit the MLK Library in D.C. this fall to use the Washingtoniana collection and the Black Studies Center. I've already been able to explore some resources online with my D.C. Public Library card to get free access to the historical Washington Post and the Baltimore Afro-American. Let's hope I can find evidence that will prove whether David Hughes is Julia's son, Davy.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Contested Waters

During segregation, African Americans in Alexandria were not permitted to use the municipal swimming pool on Cameron Street. Children seeking recreation and relief from the heat swam in local waterways including the Potomac River, Four Mile Run, Hunting Creek and Cameron Run. Pollution, debris, and lack of supervision posed serious dangers to those swimming in these bodies of water.  Several young people drowned in these runs and rivers during Jim Crow before the City of Alexandria opened a pool for African Americans in 1952.  Located at First and North Payne streets (and seen near a water tower in this aerial image),  it was named in honor of the Johnson brothers, two boys who had drowned the year before. In the early 1960s, city facilities were desegregated and the Cameron Street pool was opened to all swimmers.
In 2010, following the recommendation of a naming committee, the City of Alexandria named the pool at the new Charles Houston Recreation Center the Memorial Pool. This name pays tribute to the memory of the Johnsons and other Alexandria youths who drowned during segregation. Currently nine children are listed on a plaque at the rec center but evidence indicates that a tenth child should also be honored.
Lindora Hyman, a 14-year-old girl, drowned in Cameron Run on May 27, 1939. She lived only three blocks from the municipal pool on Cameron Street but was not allowed to swim there. Newspaper accounts state Lindora was wading in the muddy run when she became trapped in a deep hole and could not get out. Another girl summoned help, and police and fire personnel  responded but were unable to save her. A native of Bethel, N.C., Lindora was survived by her parents, a brother and a sister.

According to Jeff Wiltse in Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America (UNC Press, 2007), segregated public pools were the norm during the first half of the 20th century, either through  Jim Crow ordinances or through practice.  Some Northern cities, like New York, didn’t ban blacks from using pools but rather “encouraged segregation de facto by locating pools within racially homogeneous neighborhoods,” says Wiltse. Other communities, when directed by courts to open their pools to African Americans or build new pools for them, closed down their public pools altogether.
The legacy of segregation remains. A Sports Illustrated article in August 2010 indicated that African American children are three times more likely to drown than white American children. The article, focusing on the efforts of Olympic gold medalists Cullen Jones to teach black kids to swim, considers the role that segregation and public pools played in this disturbing statistic. The article was published just a couple weeks after six African American teens drowned in the Red River in Louisiana – more than 70 years after Lindora Hyman drowned in Alexandria.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Introducing Aunt Delia

Welcome and thanks for taking a look! If you're interested in African American history and genealogy, then we have something in common.

This blog is called "Finding Aunt Delia" because of my quest to properly identify a woman of color in a photograph from my white American family's past. "Aunt Delia" appears in this image, which was taken around 1880 in Norfolk, Va. She is holding my great grandmother, Lois Evalyn Wemple who was born in 1879. Many years after it was taken, my grandmother (Lois's only child), who was then a grown woman herself, identifed the woman as "Aunt Delia" in writing on the back of the photo. Despite being a pretty good researcher, I have not been able to determine Delia's last name, where she lived or how exactly she was associated with my family. But there are many more Delias who I might be able to identify and whose stories can help me and others understand our shared American history.

So the title of this blog is meant to signify my interest in African American genealogy and history, and in particular, research resources, photographs and history in Northern Virginia, and sometimes a little further away, that can help us find out about our ancestors. In future posts, I plan to share some of the stories I've found compelling, some of the challenges I encounter, good books others might want to read, and some of what I've done to find "Aunt Delia."