Documenting Family History: The Diary of Mary Sprow

By Clark-Lewis, Elizabeth | Negro History Bulletin, April-June 1997 | Go to article overview

Documenting Family History: The Diary of Mary Sprow


Clark-Lewis, Elizabeth, Negro History Bulletin


"You a worriation. A miration to no end, girl." Mary Johnson Sprow's soft but excited voice greeted me when she reminded me "for the better part of a year you've been a worriation; had me looking high and low to lay my hands on my old diary. So, just come on over here and see it." She had to add a request, knowing it was one I would never seriously consider. "Child, will this stop you from worrying me about all this old time stuff?"

In fall 1979, Mary Johnson Sprow, a diminutive woman with a captivating smile and an irrepressible spirit that she maintained until her death in 1981 at the age of 94, found a diary(1) she had written while working as a live-in servant in 1916. After seven years of interviews with her, her three siblings, and their spouses finally I would touch the paper on which she so tenderly placed the thoughts of a young woman born near Success, Virginia, in the post-Reconstruction era. Slavery, freedom, migration, urbanization, and many of the other broad themes of African-American history become real with this important slice of family genealogy. Moreover, the diary reveals the emotional and personal themes of life, the values of work, play and love.

Documents of family history like the diary, provide fascinating and moving "insider's" explanation of how African Americans at the close of the last century made "their way through the interstices of a punitive system." Family records are crucial to research because they are windows into the lives of poor, common, and unnoticed persons, like my aunt, who have a rich, uncommon, and distinct impact on the history of their families and communities. Family documents provide valuable sources for understanding, in the words of the people involved, the feelings, experiences and aspirations of members of this important social and cultural group. Without question this diary helped to document a family history that began with a young female slave brought to Fauquier County during the late 1780s from the area know as Western Virginia [today it is Mason County, Kentucky.

The diary edited for this article directed my search for slave ancestors, and Mary begins the diary by describing the work of her grandmother Winnie, and her father Peyton who were slaves of John Walden in Facquier County, Virginia. The diary confirms that Peyton, the father of thirty-three children, was a sheep-shearer who learned his trade while a slave on the Walden family farm. In the beginning of the diary, Mary also introduces Catalpha, Virginia, a small community about twenty-five miles from the town of Success, Virginia, which, most important, led me to the county and state records that confirmed how John Walden acquired Winnie and her son Peyton. William Walden, Peyton's father, sold Peyton to his brother John in the early 1820s for one dollar. The same slave sales receipt also transferred Winnie to John Walden and stipulated that neither Winnie nor her child Peyton could ever be sold from John Walden's farm. The two remained the property of John Walden from the 1820s until they gained their freedom in 1865 at the end of the Civil War.(2)

The diary outlines the lineage of Mary's mother Eliza Dickerson Johnson, who was about twenty-five years younger than her husband. The Dickerson family Bible, which Mary also possessed, lists Eliza as the first of eight children born to Marttora and Rinar Dickerson on December 6,1852. The family oral tradition indicates that she was born a slave on the Stewart farm in Caroline County, Virginia. Although the exact date is not known, it is believed that Peyton and Eliza Stewart Dickerson were married in May 1874. The tax records in 1874 show that Peyton and his wife Eliza paid taxes on 2.3 acres of land in Catalpha, Virginia, and the family oral history notes that Eliza and Peyton were married about six months before they were able to buy land. Moreover, records for the two years prior to 1874 list Peyton as a widower. …

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