Letters to the Editor, From the Daughter of a Slave
(Photo courtesy of New England Historic Genealogical Society’s online resource, AmericanAncestors.org)
In the late 1800s, my great-grandmother Josephine started writing to the Southwestern Christian Advocate, a newspaper based in New Orleans that primarily served black Methodist Episcopalians in the south. At first, her notes were two or three line missives – “I am a girl sixteen years old. I take the Southwestern and enjoy reading it. My sister died April 18, 1889.” But by the time she was almost 19 and soon to be married, she was writing editorials. They’re very spicy. She says stuff like, “A bold and specious humanitarianism is destroying worship” and “Heart sins that are not opposed, not warred against arrest prayer.”
I’ve spent long passages of time rereading her words, trying to understand what exactly was destroying worship, twisting my hair and equating her editorials to wars against all the things she must have been up against. She was the youngest child like me. Her parents were a former slave and her former master. One of her brothers was lynched in a manner so dramatic that news of it appeared in papers all across the country. Some of her siblings took their enslaving father’s last name, but not Josephine. Until she married, she was a Burton like her mother. I know because I read it right there in her byline – Josephine Burton. Her name. Her words. Her battle cry.
“I was at the camp meeting Saturday night and heard Rev. I. Pratt preach a most excellent sermon,” she writes in one issue. “All my family belongs to the ME church except one,” she says in another. “Brother, truly God is good to the children of men. Why can’t they serve him?” I feel sorry for whoever “they” is. Religion was close to Josephine’s heart, and she had no problem calling you out if you weren’t praising right. Just read her editorials. She’d call you out for other things too. In between an editorial condemning separate but supposedly equal rail cars for blacks and a report that the annual Colored Methodist Episcopal conference had voted against admitting women appears this notice she published in the March 17, 1892 issue of the Southwestern:
“Miss Josephine Burton, of Ocean Springs, Miss., justly complains against certain persons who have been writing letters to this paper in her name.”
I haven’t come across anything penned under her married name. Maybe she stopped writing when she became a Ford. She must have met her husband, the Reverend James Ford, through the church. James was an itinerant minister who traveled all around the Gulf Coast of Mississippi preaching. In the summer of 1888, he wrote an ad in the paper announcing an upcoming camp meeting in Ocean Springs. During the 1892 Mississippi Conference of the ME church, the paper reported that James was appointed to the periodical committee. He and Josephine married two years later, and, of course, they invited The Southwestern editor to the ceremony. “We acknowledge receipt of invitation and wish the happy pair very much joy,” the editor replied via the paper. Their wedding announcement in the next issue was simple and sweet, the way love should be.
I think all that reporting was practice for the main story I wanted to uncover — my family’s history.
Like his grandfather James, my father is a preacher. But his name, Joseph Burton, he inherited from Josephine. I’d like to think I inherited something from her too. I started writing for my high school newspaper my senior year, and I’ve worked at all kinds since — dailies, monthlies, and a quirky community weekly called the Villager run by a gray-haired couple who turned that money-losing paper of the 90s into an award winner. I think all that reporting was practice for the main story I wanted to uncover — my family’s history.
In my house (and my classrooms), we did not acknowledge that some of our ancestors had been slaves or the sexual oppression that went hand-in-hand with the dreaded institution making my great-great-grandparents slave and master as well as family. It was our silent shame. And the legacy lingers. When Ben Affleck was profiled on the PBS show, “Finding Your Roots,” the actor asked producers to omit the fact that one of his ancestors owned slaves. In 2010, the Texas state school board voted to take the word slavery out of textbooks, replacing it with Atlantic Triangular Trade. That would make me a descendant of triangles. Just this week, McGraw Hill came under fire for calling enslaved Africans “workers” in the latest edition of their Texas textbooks. My grandfather did the same thing when he first told me about his grandmother, Tempy. He said she “worked” on his grandfather’s farm.
Thirty-five percent of all African American men hail from a black woman and white man from the slavery era, most likely slave and master, but it’s difficult to find information about these unions. Slaves like Josephine’s mother were numbers in censuses and property sometimes only referred to by their color in their enslavers’ wills and deeds. I wanted to beat back this erasure. I wanted the names. I wanted their stories.
I found them in the paper.
“Mr. Editor: I desire to find my people. Mother’s name was Eliza Burton, sisters, Nancy, Polly, and Liberia Burton.” That’s how Josephine’s mom, Tempy, begins her June 4, 1891 ad in the Southwestern Christian Advocate. Thead appeared in a column called “Lost Friends,” which helped former slaves find their lost family, separated by slavery. Preachers would often read these columns from the pulpits on Sunday.
A slave until she was in her 40s, Tempy probably never learned how to read or write. A 1900 census states she could do neither. But someone (probably Josephine) carefully wrote her petition and sent it to the Southwestern. 120 years later, a complete stranger who loves historic newspapers and was reading through them online, was struck by Tempy’s quest. So she checked out the AfriGeneas message boards to see if anyone today was looking for Tempy the way she looked for her people back then. My cousin Monique had posted a query on AfriGeneas, an online community for genealogists researching their African ancestry, looking for any information on our common ancestor, Tempy. It’s so rare for descendants of slaves to learn much about their enslaved ancestors, but because of the paper trail Josephine and Tempy left behind, I know who my third great grandmother was: Eliza Burton. And the irony that I only found these newspapers because they were digitized and archived online is never lost on me. We all were found.
I keep copies of Tempy’s ad and her follow-up thank-you letter tacked to my office wall. “The Southwestern Christian Advocate has been the means of recovery of my sister, Mrs. Polly Woodfork and eight children,” Tempy reported in the paper a few months after publishing her ad.
Recovery. That’s my battle cry. That’s my great-grandmother realigned in me, warring against sins — the untold story, the ancestor lost to time — that break my heart.
How proud Tempy would be of you, Dionne. You are her channel and share her soul.
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