(Re)Tracing Oral History in Ink
Growing up in Charles City County, Va., Dr. Daryl Cumber Dance and her family did not know the story of their great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Elizabeth Brown, whose three sons were taken away from her at different times and made indentured servants. The story they had been told, over and over again, was about Abraham -- a free Black man who owned land and founded one of the earliest Black churches in the nation in 1810.
"We knew we were the descendants of Abraham," Dance says.
Tracing that lineage back to Abraham and his mother, Elizabeth, has been a life-long journey for Dance, a professor of English at the University of Richmond in Virginia. When she was 20 years old and about to marry, Dance realized that she was the last to carry the Cumber name. That realization sent her on a desperate quest to record the stories she grew up hearing and the history of the name. The search, which began with interviewing family members, took her to the archives of Harvard, Hampton and Virginia State universities, inside the court records of Charles City County and through the public documents of the state of Virginia and anywhere else that her ancestors trod. In 1998, more than 35 years later, the search culminated with the publication of the Lineage of Abraham: The Biography of a Free Black Family in Charles City, Va., Dance's written account of her family's direct history.
After years of teaching, researching and writing about literature of the African Diaspora, several English professors, like Dance, have turned their focus toward a more personal nature. They have become modern-day griots -- retelling and retracing their families' stories and preserving them in the printed word.
For Dr. Carla Peterson, the desire to write about her family's history grew out of the need to fill a gap she noticed in her research on 19th-century Black women writers and the subsequent publication of her book `Doers of the Word': African-American Women Speakers and Writers in the North (1830-1880).
"One thing that came out of Doers of the Word was how much work had been done on African Americans in Philadelphia and to a lesser extent Boston, and how very little had been done on New York City," says Peterson, a professor of English at the University of Maryland College Park.
The silence intrigued Peterson, whose father's family came from New York. During the past year alone, as a fellow at the Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, Peterson has been able to trace her family's lineage back to 1779 and the birth of one set of great-great-great-grandparents, Elizabeth Hewlett and Joseph Marshall. The truths she has uncovered reveal a counter-narrative to what traditionally has been taught. The untold story is one of free people of color in New York during the time of slavery running their own schools and businesses, building their own neighborhoods and communities, establishing political organizations and fighting for civil rights.
Peterson's great-great-grandfather, Peter Guignon, was a member of the New York Association for the Political Elevation of the People of Color. Her great-grandfather, Philip Augustus White, was secretary of the New York Society for the Promotion of Education among Colored Children. He was also the first Black appointed to the Board of Education in Brooklyn. In the 1880s, White was responsible for getting Brooklyn to integrate the schools. Outside of education and politics, one of Peterson's collateral ancestors, James Hewlett, was the first African American stage actor in the 1820s.
The stories are also romantic. Peterson's great-great-great-grandmother Elizabeth Hewlett worked as a domestic servant for a number of wealthy families. Peterson found accounts in an unpublished autobiographical narrative written by Maritcha Lyons and held at the Schomburg Center in New York that recount trips Hewlett made to Lord & Taylor to buy lace as well as her marriage to Joseph Marshall, who ran away from his home in Venezuela because his family wanted him to become a Roman Catholic priest. …