Virginia: the mouth of the cave.
Ten years ago I was living in the Old Dominion. I’d grown up in Baltimore and worked in Washington and was pivoting back down South, where my family had made its start long ago. In Richmond the experience of living off of a street with monuments that attempted to revive the Confederacy stirred a passion, a sense of history in me. I went looking for my father, a native to the state, like all my other people. On my dad’s birthday in June, I drove down Route 316 to his hometown, shooting 35mm film of the regal barns bestriding the old tobacco road. A couple of weeks later, I thought it appropriate to fetch his birth certificate from the state’s vital statistics bureau. The torn old record contained a trove of personal information, including the street in Danville, Virginia on which my father had been born. I later found a writer’s description of the area as consisting of “tumbled-down Negro shacks” and the “poor little Providence Hospital for Colored.” In the hard times of the Depression, black women from nearby Poor House Hill were thought to eat dirt.
But the index card also contained a minor revelation. My grandfather had included the names of his parents, “Ned Jackson” and “Less Hundley Jackson.” I’d never heard of them before and found, to my surprise, that I had never quite imagined them before either.
For ordinary black Americans, there seem remarkably few opportunities to know about the antebellum past. Your ancestors might have been vicious desperados who were tried before the bar of justice and had their deeds exposed by the press, generating a paper record for posterity. A wealthy, well-organized planter might have owned your family, so an ancestor’s name may have been jotted down in a record when he or she received a peck of cornmeal, a blanket, a visit from a doctor, or thirty-nine lashes. Finally, and least probably, your family might have stewarded an African legend of some kind, passed down orally, whose provenance might be traced. But since most blacks merely tried to survive slavery, and most served out that sentence with something like ten or fifteen fellow captives on a small farm, and many on these farms were children, and since so many black Americans are as uneasy toward Africa as are American whites, the chances for uncovering enslaved forebears are slight.
Of course, the real trouble was in my uncommonly ordinary surname. Mr. October. The King of Pop. Jesse, Samuel, and Bo. In 2000, the census reported 353,046 black Americans sharing the surname Jackson, almost one in every hundred. Black people made up 53 percent of all Americans named Jackson; only Washington and Jefferson had higher percentages. There are more black Washingtons and Jeffersons than white Washingtons and Jeffersons—but there are more black Jacksons than all of the Washingtons and Jeffersons, black and white, combined.
Some of these surnames were simply the names of the slaveowners: in 19th-century America, African Americans were overwhelmingly owned by English descendants. Several surnames include significant percentages from among a population group that had no legal right to any for the greater part of the 19th century. They are Smith, Johnson, Williams, Jones, Brown, and Jackson.
But some of these names were freely chosen, the connections to them invented. At the conclusion of the Civil War, many newly freed people very naturally chose surnames like Freeman or Washington or Jefferson or especially Lincoln—revered national figures who seemed to embody the ideals of democracy and the franchise. The Democrat Andrew Johnson was President when the emancipation became irrevocable and widespread. Johnson believed in a country and government for white men, but picking Johnson as a surname must have been classy. The choice said, “Hey, look at me! Last week I was on the block with a mule, and this week I have the same name as the man who runs the White House!”
Thinking of himself and others he knew who were named after prominent historical figures, Ralph Waldo Ellison once praised the complex adaptation that African Americans made after slavery:
Perhaps, taken in the aggregate, these European names which (sometimes with irony, sometimes with pride, but always with personal investment) represent a certain triumph of the spirit, speaking to us of those who rallied, reassembled and transformed themselves and who under dismembering pressures refused to die.
Ellison was trying to defuse the absurdity and comedy that had hounded black naming practices, but even Ellison’s legendary powers of reason couldn’t account for the reformation of black Americans into those tribal nominal categories.
As I pondered the idea of finding my ancestors, the details that I had secured from my dad’s original birth record were, in fact, a bit deflating. If I was going to take advantage of Virginia archives and the records in Danville and surrounding Pittsylvania County, where my enslaved relatives probably lived, I needed more than the damningly popular “Jackson.” To boot, I needed more than given names like “Ned” and “Less.” I knew them to be foreshortened proper names, but abbreviations of what I did not know.
But my grandfather’s cryptic message—his own parents’ names on my father’s birth certificate—had lodged in me a delicate seed of curiosity. I started to believe that I might uncover a meeting place or switching station in the past, where a very definite number of actors and episodes would collide. I couldn’t stop myself from wondering about my ancestors, about what they must have done and known to survive, and about the human beings who crowded their world and profoundly shaped the possibilities of their lives. I thought that with some sweat and some luck, I might reach my family’s last generation in slavery. It seemed like the right thing to do.
The first step was easier than I’d anticipated. In 2006, the university where I was teaching subscribed to a new database called Ancestry.com. Knowing my grandfather’s name—Nathaniel Jackson—his approximate year of birth—1895—and that he’d been born near Danville, Virginia, just north of the border with North Carolina, I was able to find him in the 1900 US Census. He appeared to have lived in Danville with his father Edward Jackson and his mother Celestia Jackson. In a moment, I had their formal “given” names.
The names were good, but the dates were unnerving. According to the census, both my grandfather’s parents had been born during the final decade of chattel slavery. My great-grandfather Edward Jackson gauged his age in 1900 at 45 and my great-grandmother Celestia Jackson believed herself to be 41. But when I trawled for their names on the 1860 census I came up empty. No enslaved African American was named on an antebellum federal census; they were counted, eighty to a page, and the count was made, by 1860 at least, by supplying the rough age, sex, and color of the individual, either black or mulatto. Prior to the search, it had made sense to me that three generations back I might face a wall of silence. But when I discovered the simple facts, witnessed the script on the census ledger, and interpreted the hash marks in a column, the historical record took on another kind of life altogether. It seemed—well, the word I would use is close: uncomfortably present, not in the past, not safely tucked away at all.
On the 1870 census Edward Jackson told the registrar that he was 15. But no other family member named Jackson was listed at the same address or even in the same vicinity. Instead, in 1870 he was living with a recently wed black couple in their twenties named Isaac and Bettie Ferguson. Edward gave his occupation as “domestic servant.” Isaac Ferguson meanwhile was a “farm laborer.” It occurred to me that they could have been his siblings, but the census indicated people’s relation to the head of household: son, brother, or brother-in-law. Ned Jackson had no kin relation to the Fergusons. What had happened to his parents, my great-great-grandparents? I doubted I could ever know.
The census taker did not describe their home, but it was no doubt a small slave-era cabin with a mud chimney. The census record for the Ferguson cabin immediately followed that of a well-to-do landowner and former slaveholder named Levi Hall, whose property and effects were worth $6,000 in 1870. Most likely the Fergusons and Ned Jackson all worked for Hall. Ned, who may have been small or sickly in his youth, started his laboring life in the house, and Isaac Ferguson worked the fields.
The crop on Levi Hall’s farm and the Virginia farms around it in 1870, as in 1770, was tobacco. Pittsylvania County was at the heart of the Virginia tobacco empire. My great-grandfather, always tethered to the same locale, census after census, spent his life in the Southside, a hair east of the Piedmont in what some old maps called the Virginia “Midland,” between the fall line of the sandy Tidewater to the east and the Blue Ridge Mountains to the west. With its clay soil and numerous low-lying hills, this was a productive region for high-grade tobacco.
In the year before the Civil War began, Pittsylvania County, Virginia, with a total population, black and white, of 32,267, alone exported more than 7 million pounds of tobacco. There were about 8,572 enslaved and 9,893 whites and freedmen living in the southern half of the county, along with Ned Jackson. Pittsylvania boasted of famously rich men who owned scores of African descendants, but it was middling planters like Levi Hall who were the economic mainstay of the Piedmont.
During the Civil War, Danville served as the main weapons depot for Confederate forces operating in Virginia. The hard work necessary to produce, tackle, and cart the munitions involved a large number of black county people. Free blacks and the enslaved toiled in the munitions factories; they also traveled throughout the state to construct fortifications in vulnerable Richmond, and then came down to Danville to fortify that town, too. More than a few black men marched with the Gray, and perhaps that showed another version of patriotism. Edward Jackson’s neighbors were Confederate Army veterans of mainly the 38th and 57th regiments, two units terribly bloodied during Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. And at the inglorious finale to the war, Jefferson Davis fled Richmond, the Confederate capital, and sought refuge in Danville. For several days in April 1865, he was a guest at tobacco manufacturer (and Virginia Tech founder) William T. Sutherlin’s mansion on Main Street. From there Davis took a stagecoach to North Carolina to evade George Stoneman’s 4,000-strong Union cavalry, onrushing from Tennessee.
The formal occupation of Danville began when Colonel Thomas Hyde’s Third Brigade, Second Division of the Federal Sixth Corps, entered the city on April 27, 1865. Among other things, the Union soldiers published the newspaper Sixth Corps for at least several weeks. The paper conveyed to the locals the general orders made by the military government. By May 6, 1865, Major General Wright had issued “General Order No. 13,” which mandated that, to bring in the crop that year, “Negroes will therefore remain at the homes and plantations to which they belong, attending to their work as usual . . .” It’s not easy to say where slavery ended and freedom began.
Sifting the census records of the Danville neighborhood told me something else. A 55-year-old mulatto man named Granville Hundley plowed fields on a tract of land within shouting distance of Edward Jackson in 1870. His 50-year-old wife Charity no longer worked the corn, wheat, and tobacco, but was “keeping house.” The liberation of the African-American woman from common field labor was for blacks one of the single great achievements of freedom—at least for those able to pull it off. (A number of single black Pittsylvania women were still working full time in the fields in 1870.) But the Hundleys are significant to my own story because their oldest child living with them in 1870 was a daughter named Celestia. The couple thought or knew her to have been 11 in 1870. By 1880, the census shows her living with Edward Jackson and a 3-year-old boy named Charles. My grandfather Nathaniel Jackson was born fifteen years later. The families had a cluster of cabins in the postal area called “Ringgold and Laurel Grove,” at a southeastern fork of a waterway known as the Sandy Creek.
The Pittsylvania County clerk’s office sits in the basement of the County Courthouse on the main street going through Chatham. The courthouse was built in 1853 and would have been a familiar, maybe even fearsome landmark to my father’s ancestors. In June 2008 I drove to Chatham to search county records for my tribe. The door to the clerk’s office opened into a heavily air-conditioned chamber, its counter only a full stride from the door. Behind the counter, five or six metal desks and cabinets of file drawers were huddled together, manned by trim female deputies in their fifties. The deputy clerks wore jackets and sweaters to fight the air-conditioned chill.
After explaining what I was looking for, I was led into the basement proper, perhaps a ten-foot wide corridor, outfitted on one side with floor-to-ceiling metal shelves. Each shelf was made of half a dozen two-inch-wide rolling pins, to help citizens pull the hefty volumes away from the stand. As a person whose research work had been confined mainly to the 20th century, I was impressed by the dusty, leather-bound, embossed, fifteen-by-twenty-four-inch legal volumes that dated to Pittsylvania’s founding in 1767. This is something about the United States that I genuinely admire: public access to records.
Each book weighed about the same as a gallon of water. In the middle of the corridor was a long metal draftsman table, angled at about thirty degrees and with a lip to catch the heavy volumes. Speaking through a cigarette smoker’s rasp, the clerk identified the indexes for marriage, deed, and land records. Her hair was curled, blown, and dyed into an approximation of that pinup from the 1970s, Cheryl Tiegs.
In my experience, white Americans put on a particular kind of armor when dealing with black American natives, or American Africans as Toni Morrison says. It doesn’t matter what we natives look like, nor does it matter if the whites had ancestors in the US during slavery or not. Our white American countrymen are defensive, even when they are solicitous, and I distrust that guilt-based defensiveness. Besides, I don’t believe it anyway. I actually think that it is a mask that conceals a sentiment closer to arrogance, an element of insult that rides underneath the hood of their remote eyes. The women seal their eyes into a pale blue glaze and the men narrow theirs into a serpentine fire. And this sentiment quickly becomes evident when the black people are asking questions about anything that can loosely be described as racial injustice, which is better known as American history.
Because I am black and know that all of my ancestors were living in the United States in 1850, I don’t feel that much difference between being in the North or being in the South. By now it has become a part of my own protective conditioning to not let a surveyor’s lines confuse the shared reality of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and Forsythe, Georgia; Meriden, Connecticut and Meridian, Mississippi. Some black people I have known counter that look of remote defensiveness by making every interaction with whites a confrontation with the enemy. Richard Wright once wrote of another style, insistent and obsequious, but in my day, outside of courtrooms, welfare offices, hospitals, banks, and police stations, I have not seen black people kneel in fear and submission. I have, however, witnessed numerous instances of blacks zealously guarding whites’ feelings. As for my approach, I style myself a spy in the enemy’s country.
I began my search with marriage records for my known ancestors. I was looking to see how far back the names of the parents of the brides and grooms could help me travel. But I knew from some experience that any such records, if they hadn’t been misfiled, misplaced, or misnamed, could be in any of dozens of places within this narrow and chilly basement. Really, I needed to sit down and read all the volumes and master the story of the entire county, and probably those adjacent to it, to get a handle on what happened to my forebears. My procedure could be likened to two ancient crafts. First, as a stonecutter I was chipping blocks of neighborhood history out from the quarry of the county’s legal records. Second, as a mason, I was attempting to size the blocks economically and place them into the pattern of a family’s life. In the middle of the stacks closest to the street were the massive volumes indexing the county’s marriage certificates and deed books between 1767 and 1889. I began maneuvering the weighty leather-bound volumes off the rolling pins with alacrity and rushing them three feet over to the examination table before I could feel their heft. Lawyers must have been as strong as farmers at one time, or maybe they were all the same people.
The subject of marriage during and immediately after slavery takes on a special significance when juxtaposed with the contemporary weakness of marriage in American life, where more than 50 percent of all the nation’s newlyweds land in divorce court, and where more than 50 percent of African-American children never live in a household with their married parents. The chief impact on the children is poverty. In the 1950s and ’60s, historians and social psychologists pointed to slavery as the culprit for high African-American out-of-wedlock birth rates. In the 1970s much of this thinking was revised, particularly on account of Herbert Guttman’s book about black marriage, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750–1925. The era of enslavement, when marriage was esteemed and widely practiced, became viewed as a time of comparative health for the black family. No one can miss the doleful irony that black family life was stronger and more enduring in the last generation of slavery and its immediate aftermath than it is today.
As for the recently freed, I think that marriage was one straightforward way of asserting equality to whites after bondage. What was more important in a rural economy that twinned all wages to seasonal crops was the need to have two people working hard every day to ensure survival. In a world without disposable diapers, boiling rags might take on outrageous importance. The postbellum marriage logic for these black farmers would change, irrevocably, once they moved to cities with indoor plumbing and heat, and women could earn as much cleaning houses as men could earn cutting grass and sweeping the streets.
Celestia and Edward Jackson were indexed on the marriage register in 1878. Reading their names betokened something glorious, as if a friendly portal to another time had opened up. It also felt like being rescued. My grandfather’s parents married on December 19, 1878, after filing their marriage certificate the day before, in the same clerk’s office that I was standing in that very moment. The wedding occurred during the brief slack time in farming life at the end of December. The license itself had three portions: the “Marriage License”; a “Certificate to Obtain a Marriage License,” which was an informative segment annexed to the license after the passage of state acts in 1861 and 1866; and a “Minister’s Return of Marriage,” which completed the form. Federal troops left the South in 1877, and what followed included years of violence, brutality, and eventual long-term segregation. But I hope that 1878 was a good year for my great-grandparents. I find myself needing to believe that when Edward and Celestia stood in that office long ago, attesting to the facts, they didn’t have to consider marauders and vigilantes—that they could just be young and in love.
The official conducting all of this—the only formal state business that either Edward or Celestia ever engaged in, as far as I know—was a 22-year-old deputy clerk named George Noell. After the Civil War, courthouse clerk was one of the few white-collar jobs in a still largely rural county; the other prominent clerks’ posts were at Sutherlin’s tobacco plant in Danville. It must have been intimidating for Edward and Celestia to walk into this courthouse, the province of all of these white men and legal volumes, unable to state their ages with complete accuracy, unable to read or write. When Noell turned the marriage ledger in their direction so that they could mark it, what native endowment protected them? What was their storehouse of mother wit that guided them when they were asked questions in an English perhaps quite different from the one they used on the farms watered by the Sandy Creek? How did they muster the wherewithal to respond quickly and precisely to the questions, to pay the fee with the correct change?
On the certificate, Edward claimed he was 21 and Celestia believed she was 19; neither of them was ever completely sure, but from one census to the next, Celestia came closer to maintaining a consistent birth year. Both of my great-grandparents said that they had been born in Pittsylvania County. Edward might have started his working life as a “domestic servant” in 1870, but by the time he married he had left that career behind for the calluses of a full-fledged farmhand. That’s what he did for the rest of his earthly life, which ended on November 17, 1944.
And here the remarkable record simultaneously gave me something and took something away. On the portion of the marriage certificate designated for her parents’ names, Celestia had listed at least one of the same persons whom I had glimpsed through the 1870 census, Granville Hundley. I had come looking for Jacksons, and hoped to uncover the generation before my great-grandfather, and tease out where the family name began. But for his own parents’ names, Edward had Noell write that his mother and father were Jennie and Sandy Dickerson. The news bewildered me. In 1870 Edward had been living with the Fergusons over by the ex-slaveowner and tobacco farmer Levi Hall. Under what circumstances could he have been named Jackson but his parents were named Dickerson, and then at 15 he lived with the Fergusons?
In 1870, a 50-year-old African-American blacksmith named Sandy Dickerson resided in the postal delivery area called Chatham, about twenty miles from Danville. He was married to a woman named Eliza (not Jennie) who was 31, and three young boys under 12 lived with them; one of them too was called Sandy. Why would Edward Jackson have called these people his parents when they had a different surname and lived some distance away?
What if the names Edward wrote on the official certificate were those of his “natural” mother and his stepfather? And how would I ever find out? My grandfather, Nathaniel Jackson, was long gone; my father, as our saying goes, “went back to Guinea” in 1990, the year I finished college. I had new light on the topic of the name, enough to see that the past was actually quite dark.
Another kind of record surfaced during my visit, as inspiring as the birth certificates. The registry of official deeds revealed that in 1877 my great-grandmother Celestia’s 62-year-old father, Granville Hundley, paid $200 for the privilege of becoming a landowner. It had been twelve years since Hundley was “shot free,” as the saying went—emancipated from slavery by the Union victory of arms. Two hundred dollars bought him fifty acres, more or less, by the Sandy Creek, where he had lived for at least thirty years, maybe longer. How he amassed the money or gathered the determination to do it I never learned from those meager courthouse registers, but I took great pleasure from his act against the odds. His having borne enslavement for half a century and then scrimped for a dozen free years convinced me that for him, owning the land must have overlapped with the dream of his own physical freedom.
Recorded on the county deed register as one “Granvel Hundley,” my ancestor bought a tract of land from John Hundley, the 89-year-old white man who seems to have owned him during slavery:
a parcel of land lying in the County of Pittsylvania and adjoining the lands of Dr. Edward Williams, William E. Ferrell, John Hundley + others, beginning at Smith Old Path where Dr. Edward’s line crosses the same. Thence the Old Path to cross paths that lead to Hubbard’s Mill. Thence straight line to a large poplar in William E. Ferrell line at an elbow, thence Ferrell line to John Hubbard to Dr. Edward Williams line to the Old Smith path at the beginning supposed to contained fifty acres more or less.
The parcel itself was really just a working farm for one active man. The rough area is something like a quarter of a square mile. One hand could comfortably plow one of those 440-yard lengths with an ox in two days.
Granville Hundley must have had a gambler’s streak to have felt confident enough to buy his ground by Smith’s Old Path after he had gone beyond his sixtieth year of life. By 1877 he must have outlived most of his peers, black and white. Part of his experience must have been doggedly lonely. Somehow Hundley got what black folks called “half a white man’s chance”: he became one of a select few who learned something about dealing with white men, business transactions, and saving money. He must have been skilled so that, in spite of his advanced years, he could imagine himself capable of identifying valuable land and then making that land yield. He must have paid attention to, if he did not become a proselyte of, the ready homily of the Freedman’s Bureau commissioner, Colonel Orlando Brown, who advised Pittsylvania’s freedmen to stay on the farms of enslavement: “Better for you to remain than looking for something better.”
Some Laurel Grove blacks of Granville Hundley’s era did not let the era of enslavement disappear very easily. In 1864, a couple named Judy and George Walton, who must have understood that the Civil War was nearing its end, decided to name their son Cuffee, a name derived from the Akan name Kofi, signaling a boy born on Friday. To whites Cuffee was a catchall name for any black male, like Sambo, also the name of a restaurant chain popular during my childhood. I found another fascinating name in the census records of 1870: Aniky Shelton, “domestic servant.” Seventy-five years old and black, she lived in the house of a white man; presumably she, like Granville Hundley, survived slavery and then remained near the family of the person who had owned her. Though advanced in age, she was still working, perhaps doing hard work. In some way, the septuagenarian’s employment was a privilege, as white farmers turned their backs on many blacks after the War. Some of the Freedmen’s Bureau labor contracts explicitly forbade the provisioning of young or old relatives who were not directly toiling; if everyone didn’t carry their weight, even the contracted workers would be fired. But two other noteworthy facts from the census called me to attention.
The first was age. Aniky Shelton would have been born in about 1795, or thirteen years before England outlawed its involvement in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and suppressed slave shipping from major portions of the west coast of Africa. In the years just prior to the ban, more Africans landed alive in the New World than ever before. Literally hundreds of thousands of human beings were mutilated and scrotomized, and then parceled out to remote farms in a densely forested wilderness. Some of my ancestors were exchanged with the amount of reflection we would give to transactions at an expensive pet store.
By the aftermath of the Civil War, genuine 18th-century American Africans were increasingly rare. Their memories of black life as it had been in Africa, and in 18th-century colonial Virginia, and then in Jackson-era America, dramatically differed from the reality of the industrial-scale manufacture of tobacco and the ubiquitous coffles of Virginia’s enslaved marching, sailing, or being loaded on trains to the cotton farms of the southwest. They had also lived through the acculturation of West African folkways into American folkways, principally having to do with speech and food. And in the Piedmont, where they had numbers, their older traditions would have resonated.
The second curiosity about this working woman was her name, “Aniky.” I once had a friend named Aniké. She was a Nigerian woman from the Onitsha province, in the Niger Delta, just north of the old slave ports Calabar and Port Harcourt. While that is the only other time I have ever heard the name, I found out that the name Aniké is well known among the Igbo, who come from the same region in Nigeria. Perhaps Aniky Shelton was a very old woman who had survived the Middle Passage and the First Winter and then held on to some semblance of her original African name? Perhaps she kept the name of a parent, relative, or revered person who came from the land of the Igbos? She definitely was one of the oldest black people in the district, and undoubtedly freedpeople knew and respected this woman, who could have had a profoundly different philosophy of time, God, and life. It had not been irrelevant to the slaveowners that the African traditions be stamped out. “Take care,” the famous Virginia slaveholder Robert “King” Carter wrote to his overseer in 1727, “that the negros both men and women I sent you up last always go by ye names we gave them.” Maybe that name, Aniky, that difference, was a kind of lighthouse for my people, setting a course for themselves after the stolen labor and peeled family ties of slavery.
The surviving records can’t fill in a complete history of the African names, but for people like my ancestors the Hundleys, I wonder what that sort of auditory difference meant. Granville Hundley, with a surname from his former owner and a given name that seems to have been popular in that owner’s family, shows up on courthouse will and deed books a few more times. In 1886, a year of bad crops county-wide, he filed for a tax exemption. The next year, at age 72, he went to the courthouse in Chatham to sign a will.
Though the act of filing a will at the Pittsylvania County Courthouse in the 1880s must have been rare—possibly even prestigious—for an African American, it might also have been the act of a haunted man, fearful that his heirs would never possess that hard-earned ground. In Virginia after slavery ended, the relations between blacks and whites took one turn after another. When Granville Hundley left the earth in 1893 and apportioned the holdings to his six children, his property became humble sustenance land that might have been difficult for them to profit from. In fact, my relatives, Hundley’s children, seem to have lost the land because they were without the means to pay the property tax.
Frederick Douglass’s favorite line from Abraham Lincoln’s 1865 inauguration speech was “until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.” But, overwhelmingly, the rest of the country preferred the “with malice toward none” part of the address. I suspect that Edward Jackson responded to Douglass’s vision. The Freedman’s Bureau and the schools it begrudgingly supported never reached him; he never learned to read or write, and seems to have been able to encourage that endeavor in only a minor portion of his children. His father-in-law Granville Hundley, apparently a remarkable man in the neighborhood, bought forty acres of land on account of his strong ties to the local white men. But Edward, who never owned a clock or a horse, probably never achieved those strong custodial ties to whites. He never amassed any capital, nor is it clear that his children were able to. Edward’s life seems to have been dominated by the title of a farm journal article published two years after the war, “Let the plow be king and Cuffee his prime minister.”
It would take the expansion of heavy industry and global military conflict to moderately change the circumstances of my family. My grandfather Nathaniel Jackson, Edward and Celestia’s son, was drafted into the army during World War I and dug ditches in France. It was the first time he’d left Pittsylvania County. In those decades, the movement of African Americans like my relatives to the major cities of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Washington DC, and Maryland changed the demographics of Pittsylvania entirely, from approximate racial parity among 52,602 residents in 1880 to roughly eleven whites for every black among 61,271 inhabitants by 1930. Black people simply fled the county. When my dad was born in Danville in 1932, in a warren of frame houses south of William Sutherlin’s mansion, which was then the public library that no one related to my father could use, the logic of white supremacy in Pittsylvania was not merely an aesthetic logic; it was a logic of considerable human might.
My grandparents took my dad to Roanoke, where my grandmother’s family had moved. After they divorced, my grandfather, a railroad fireman, returned to Danville. My father stayed in Roanoke, however, graduated college in Baltimore, also served in the army, and worked for the housing authority after he got out. He began a professional career in 1960 at a time when his dollar, his credit, and his degree went as far as they have ever gone. I guess his optimistic climb boomeranged in 1973 with the absurd inflation caused by the oil crisis, the new wrinkle to our cycle of credit, speculation, and misfortune. The posts my father held at Job Corps and Manpower during my childhood, as the Great Society programs gasped their final breaths, made him seem like an officer going down with the ship.
So it was no surprise that what I finally came to about my Virginia heritage is this: we survived slavery as black people by ever making ourselves into something that white people couldn’t assimilate. We became nuggets of obdurateness, but without ever fixing who we were, or, for that matter, putting too much faith in who we were with. I guess this was true because my ancestors didn’t always have the means to tell the next generation what we knew, and they counted on the fact of our stumbling and imprecision to make us rely upon and develop our imaginations. But since the contours of the message became the key to unlock the message itself, the people who endured slavery also invested their faith in a slow, maddening, and torturous process. That’s what the ancestral wisdom feels like to me.
Contemporary American liberal academics who write about enslavement see strong family bonds among the enslaved, and they’re not of a single mind about whether the enslavement was condemned by its survivors. In the really remarkable research and writing of the respected scholarly elite, I nearly always come across a kind of waffling over the issue of slavery, the Civil War, and its aftermath. The general line of reasoning holds that the oppressive legal and condign power was regularly creased and wrinkled.
A prizewinning historian of Virginia, Melvin Ely, insists on a meaningful distinction between Virginia laws and actual behavior in the Old South. “I have tried to show how white ambivalence or lassitude often, and the decent impulses of white individuals sometimes, created openings within a system whose benighted racial credo seemed to rule out any sort of flexibility.” This is an enlightened contemporary view that seeks new anchoring points of racial relations. The author warns us away from “the easy conclusion that contempt for blacks is unvarying among whites.” But this enlightened perspective always seems to reach the same plateau. “The real shame of the Old South was that white people recognized the humanity of blacks in dozens of ways every day, yet kept them in bondage or second-class citizenship despite that knowledge.” The final analysis has to be about white power and magnanimity.
Then I read a narrative account from Louis Hughes, a mulatto, born in Virginia, sold in Richmond, who lived and worked in Memphis and labored at the Confederate salt works near Mobile during the war. Well after the Civil War had ended, in June 1865, Hughes and his family were still being held in bondage on a Mississippi plantation by a cutthroat who had ridden with Nathan Bedford Forrest, the professional slave dealer, Confederate general, and culprit responsible for massacres of black soldiers, and, after the war, the founder of the Ku Klux Klan. An intelligent, well-traveled man, Louis Hughes realized that he was free but still had to “escape” from the plantation, make his way to Memphis, then pay Union cavalrymen to engage in a ruse to secure freedom for him and his family. Hughes’s ex-owner William McGhee intended to re-enslave him and his family or kill them all.
Even if Ely’s depiction is more of a representative truth than Hughes’s experience, and even if every library in North America and Europe confirms that reality, I am not consoled. Just as soon as I am presented with evidence of the possibility of the decency in white settlers, I have to contend with a transcript of horror that’s more gruesome than what I was capable of imagining.
When black Americans who barely knew the legal names of their own grandparents—people whose ancestry dates back to American shores for ten or eleven generations—look back to the era of bondage, we do this from the perspective of the families that we know today. The now-grandfatherly male cousins we have who have never, in all of their lives, had regular employment. The people known by “street” names, who never grew into adult names. The sisters, aunts, and female cousins raising children in poverty, sometimes with genteel flair, sometimes not. We are seeing immigrants of every hue offer lip service to our historic plight, take advantage of the legislation that we pioneered for two centuries, and then pass us by. We are thinking about the mental illness that seems as much a style as a neurological disorder. We are thinking about black people using illegal drugs and frowned-upon remedies for a hundred years for the same reason that tens of millions of Americans have sought prescriptions from physicians for relief. We are thinking about people who, for as long as they can recall, have experienced a simmering anger that was sometimes addressed with alcohol and narcotics, an anger that became a kind of manufactured commodity that fed an industry of incarceration, security, and hospitalization. We are thinking about neglected communities and decaying houses and public services that operate under multiple standards. We are thinking that in every new place we have ever traveled in the United States, we found a community with posh homes, quaint comfortable businesses that catered to desires we had yet to fully form, and regular traditions that we found enchanting and seductive—and yet just on the other side of the tracks were the crumbling huts for us. Even when these wore fresh coats of lavender or lime or canary or fuchsia paint, it didn’t ease our sight of blemish on the country that willed it.
In the late winter of 2009, I took a trip to Charlottesville, Virginia. A misty rain prevailed through forests filled with gray, leafless trees. My sister had attended the state’s flagship university here. I recalled my family admiring the Lawn, where select undergraduates were housed in early-19th-century brick rooms with wood-burning fireplaces. In a week and a half, my sister would be calling the school “Mr. Jefferson’s University.” (By contrast, when it had been time for my father to attend college, he could not have even submitted an application to the best public university in the state of his birth.) We breakfasted in a student café called the Treehouse, where we couldn’t avoid noticing a pimply, hatchet-faced white undergraduate shoveling his eggs and bacon, it seemed with both hands. My father looked at the boy with disgust. “He’s going to run the country one day,” he said, clearly and, I thought, loud enough to be heard. “He should eat properly.” As the iron-tapped heels of my father’s penny loafers scraped the brick paths during that trip in 1981, his thoughts must have contained wry combinations of resentment, surprise, and regard—ineluctable conjunctions of the present and the past.
About twenty years after my family’s morning at the Treehouse, I gave a rainy Saturday to the University’s Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, beginning with the computerized index for Pittsylvania holdings. The library, two underground floors completed in 2004, was designed to make old-time Virginians marvel. Deeply traditional but technologically modern, and still finished in a blend of wood and brick that Jefferson would have understood as complementary to his overall design, it fulfilled some kind of longing for beauty within me.
Small Special Collections closes at five o’clock on Saturday. Each special collections library is unique, but they all demand a myriad of paper application forms that have to go to the librarians who then bring out materials, sometimes only one at a time, and sometimes only two or three times per day. Of all the requests that I placed that afternoon, the one I knew least about was a simple series called “Pittsylvania County Ledgers.” I only submitted a call slip for it because it was supposed to contain some antebellum materials. It was the last box I opened, late in the afternoon, around the time that fatigue was setting in.
The ledgers were commonplace books and I looked through them as carefully as I could. As usual, I was hunting needles and pinheads. The last item in the box, left out of the enumeration in the computer catalog entry, was a worn calfskin account book, about the size of a checkbook. On its front I could decipher a name inked in cursive handwriting, “V Dickison.” Vincent Dickenson (as he appeared in the census) was a son of the highly esteemed Pittsylvania Reverend Griffith Dickenson, a Revolutionary War veteran, who also had a son named Griffith, who was a trading partner of the man who owned Granville Hundley. I had dredged up a personal account book of an estate sale.
The will books at the courthouse in Chatham had already told me that the Dickensons were a gentle slaveowning family. In his 1843 will, clergyman Griffith Dickenson, “being of tolerable health and disposing mind,” wrote that, “In disposing of my negroes I desire every feeling of humanity to be regarded in parting Husband + wife, Parent + child.” The Reverend had lived well in a two-story, six-room house built around 1800, seven miles southeast of a Pittsylvania town called Gretna, ten miles north of Chatham. A picture of the house was taken during the WPA years and is preserved in the Library of Virginia. Constructed with hand-hewn beams, two large chimneys on either side, and two stairs—one in front and one in back, presumably for servants—it was a basic farmhouse, with its elegance in the gables, windows, and piazza extending the front and side of the home. By the mid-1850s, the eldest son Vincent Dickenson came into possession of a good portion of his father’s estate.
Vincent Dickenson was a literate man who wrote a nice tidy script. He was 74 in 1860 and he kept four negro houses on his place. His oldest human being held in bondage was a 60-year-old black man, and he owned four women in their twenties and eleven children under 10. He also owned two boys that he said were 4 years old in 1860, roughly my great-grandfather Edward’s age.
In that year before the deadliest military conflict known to Americans, time or bad luck or profligate habit caught up with Vincent Dickenson. One of his troubles was borrowed money, at least $10,000 over time, and the bill came due. In April he prepared to liquidate the estate, beginning with his 888-acre home parcel on the Stinking River and another that size by the Brushy Mountain. On June 12, 1860, neighbors from Pittsylvania poured onto the Dickenson place and bought his carryalls and the valuable iron tools, the plows, scythes, and cradles. Then they purchased sixteen enslaved people.
The script of the ledger that I brushed with my fingertips and its abbreviations were perfectly legible. On page five, at the bottom, I saw clearly the intimate hand of the man Vincent Dickenson: June 14, 1860, “receiving 1690.00 Geo W Hall for purch of Sandy.” An enslaved man named Sandy who had belonged to the Dickenson estate had been sold to Pittsylvania’s professional “Negro Trader” George Hall.
How I was affected by reading the line lies beyond words. I could only consider what the event meant to my ancestor Edward Jackson, who on the day before he got married told the clerk that Sandy Dickenson was his father. My qualms about whether or not Edward descended biologically from Sandy seemed insignificant, even disrespectful. I had been left a line of descent, snaky and oblique to be sure, but most certainly a bequest from my great-grandfather. It behooved me to honor it.
I found a transcendent value contained in this leather-bound ledger with its onionskin translucent pages. The ledger itself took on the heft of a slave chain, it stung like a whip, burned like a hot brand, and a great deal more. The tablet was an actual physical object written by the hand of the man that sold Sandy Dickenson. That document, in a sense, directed me, shaped my own life, because of its withering power over one of my great-great grandfather. And of course it was a document I would like personally to destroy, not because I wished for another past, but because I thought it cruel that even documents of the injustice should be so lovingly preserved. And with all the precautions that the illustrious university had taken in this climate-controlled bunker, where security cameras and portraits and busts of Washington and Jefferson, Emerson, Longfellow, and William Cullen Bryant oversaw my perch, I doubt that the university archivists had factored in the possibility of the slave’s descendant’s tears erasing the ledger of slavery. I am even more certain that they failed to consider the possibility of his phlegm.
I was reminded of a sentence from a famous book: “if you go there—you who never was there—if you go there and stand in the place where it was, it will happen again; it will be there for you, waiting for you.” And it is one thing to read about it and it is another thing when it happens to you.
And I am not sure if I want to be standing in the Dickenson yard, seven miles southeast of Gretna, on June 14, 1860, while the factors make their decisions from the porch, where the son of the preacher placates the people he owns with the ever-ready Bible verse they served to buck up the enslaved. “Stand still and see the salvation.”
So I stood up and walked out of the room and tried to get my composure back, thinking of how any kind of sentimentality, anger, or weepy sadness was the worst response. I wished that I could find one of the library’s black custodians, a person with local roots who faced the same heritage. It was one of those times when you need your people.