A Quest For Roots Uncovers Ordinary People

May 26, 2012
Originally published on May 26, 2012 5:44 pm

Lawrence Jackson went through most of his life not knowing much about his family history. That didn't bother him until he had a child and wanted to share stories about his ancestors.

So he began a search, armed with only early boyhood memories, for his late grandfather's old home by the railroad tracks in Blairs, Va. Jackson describes his journey in a new book, My Father's Name: A Black Virginia Family after the Civil War.


Shortly after Jackson began a search for his roots, he found out his great-grandfather was a slave.

"If you said to me that my father's grandfather grew up in slavery and actually spent maybe the first 10 or 15 years of his life as human chattel, I wouldn't have been able to take that idea so seriously," Jackson tells Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered.

"I didn't imagine that those times — the antebellum heritage of the United States — were so close to me," he says.

Jackson's journey began with the 1900 census. After he located the names of his great-grandparents, Edward Jackson and Celestia Hundley Jackson, he was able to track down their marriage certificate, and with that, his great-great grandparents' names.

"I found that my great-great grandfather Granville Hundley, he bought his 40 acres and a mule ... the same year that the federal troops left the South."

Jackson says it was hard for him to imagine how his great-great grandfather, a man who at that time was in his early 60s, was able to come up with the money for the land in Pittsylvania County, Va., and "grasp the dream of yeoman farmer."

"He put in his tobacco and his wheat and his corn, but soon enough he was parceling out the land to his children," Jackson says.


In his research, Jackson discovered that Granville Hundley's children seemed to have all lost their plots of land.

The 40 acres he bought in Pittsylvania County was the heart of the Virginia tobacco empire when Hundley lived and worked there in the 1870s.

When Jackson visited Pittsylvania County more than a century later, he was able to find and sketch out the plot of land that once belonged to his great-great grandfather.

Jackson says the story of his ancestors will probably be familiar to many Americans. It is not one of "economic triumph or battling segregation or the KKK, it's the story of very ordinary common people."

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About a year after Lawrence Jackson became a father, he decided he wanted to put together a family tree for his young son, Nathaniel. The problem for Jackson is a problem many African-Americans encounter when they begin to dig deep into their roots. Many of those records are difficult to find because African-Americans, both before and after slavery, weren't always accounted for.

But Lawrence Jackson, who's also a professor of African-American Studies at Emory University, was determined. He knew his family went back several generations in Virginia, so he began a journey to those places, and he's written about it in a new memoir. It's called "My Father's Name: A Black Virginia Family After the Civil War." And when we spoke, he told me one of the first things he found was that his great-grandfather had been enslaved.

LAWRENCE JACKSON: If you said to me that my father's grandfather grew up in slavery and actually spent maybe the first 10 or 15 years of his life as human chattel, I wouldn't have been able to take that idea so seriously.

RAZ: You're 44, and you are just three generations removed from slavery.

JACKSON: Exactly. Exactly.

RAZ: And that would - and, I mean, that sort of reality must have been mind-blowing, but that's - that is how far away most African-Americans your age in America are, from slavery.

JACKSON: Well, this was one of the revelations, I think, of the project was just that we tend to think of this experience as being in the remote past. And we struggled so much to even understand, really, what took place in the 19th century, especially the last generation of slavery. And it's actually so very close and such a strong determining factor in our modern-day lives.

RAZ: How did you find who your great-grandfather was?

JACKSON: Well, it began with the 1900 census where I found my grandfather, Nathaniel Jackson, who was born in 1895, and his parents' full names, Edward Jackson and Celestia Hundley Jackson. And I found out that my great-grandparents got married on December 18, 1878. That marriage certificate includes the names of their parents. And I found my great-great-grandfather, Granville Hundley, he bought his 40 acres and a mule, if you will, the same year that the federal troops left the South.

And I couldn't imagine, you know, sort of how he was able to come up with the price - I think it was about $200 - as a man who was in his early 60s, that he would be able to sort of grasp the dream of yeoman farmer. And as you can imagine, if you buy 40 acres at 62, you know, you're at the end of your active farming years. And so he put in his tobacco and his wheat and his corn, but soon enough he was parceling out the land to his children - he had six children. They seemed to have all lost their plots. They probably couldn't even pay the property tax on the small plots that they had after he passed on.

RAZ: I'm speaking with Lawrence Jackson. He's a professor of African-American Studies at Emory University. He's written a new book. It's called "My Father's Name," and it's about his search for the story of his family's history in Virginia after the Civil War. You went to those 40 acres. You actually needed to see them with your own eyes. What did they look like?

JACKSON: Sure. This was a fun part of the story. I mean, I like the adventure, and, of course, I became a fan of the old style architecture. I mean, that was one of the really...

RAZ: There were still structures there, as you saw. I mean, tobacco barns and...

JACKSON: Exactly. Exactly. The chinked-in hand-hewn logs, notched in Vs at the corners. I mean, like, a structure that really will withstand the elements for a century or...

RAZ: Structures that your family built.

JACKSON: Yeah. They must have had some connection to them. There's a barn at the bottom of the sandy creek, and that was the key for me in terms of determining the old land boundaries. I should tell you what this plot of land - what it sounded like from the deed book. I mean, it is - it's a fascinating description. If you don't mind, I'll just - I'll let you know.

This is what's recorded in the courthouse: That Granville Hundley purchased in 1887 a parcel of land lying in the county of Pittsylvania and adjoining the lands of Dr. Edward Williams, William E. Ferrell, John Hundley and others, beginning at Smith Old Path, where Dr. Edwards' line crosses the same, thence the old path to cross paths that lead to Hubbard's Mill, supposed to contain 50 acres, more or less.

So finding Edward Williams' house and the boundaries of the creek where the old mill used to stand, you know, pretty much gave me a great sense of, like, what the geography was.

RAZ: When you were there - I mean, you're an academic, but you were also essentially a detective. How did people react when you were asking questions about what happened here and who was here and what do people remember?

JACKSON: Well, actually, the owners of Dr. Ed Williams' house, who are descendants from one of the longstanding families in that part of the county, very graciously invited me inside, and they gave me, sort of, the information that I could have only gotten there. I mean, it was really an emotional peak for me because I'd been sort of driving around Virginia and going to libraries and really not talking to very many people. And so it was sort of a moment of union and communion, in fact, when I finally met people who had a firsthand sense of the history of the area.

And then at the same time, of course, they had a bust of Robert E. Lee in the foyer of their home and 19th century firearms, you know, sort of lovingly placed over the fireplace. They also had comic caricatures of African-Americans, you know, the porcelain figures or the plastic figures that are bric-a-brac in some people's home.

So I was reminded of that element of the past that we do not share and the difficulty that the descendants of slaves yet have making this negotiation and trying to recover elements that can be useful in the present.

RAZ: Lawrence, in popular culture, there's been a focus on finding out about ancestry. There's, and, of course, Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has this popular series on PBS, "Finding Your Roots." But you write that for most African-Americans, it's: A, it's difficult to find out about your ancestry; and B, it's painful.

JACKSON: That, for me, was one of the important takeaways from the project. I'm dealing with people who were completely obscure, you know, who would have, say, one or two entries on a census in a 40-year period who weren't biracial themselves and didn't have, you know, sort of a famous white ancestor whose, you know, sort of papers you could get access to or something. So in some ways, it's not really a story of, like, economic triumph or battling segregation or the Ku Klux Klan or something. It's the story of very ordinary common people.

And I reflect a great deal on the way that modern day black Americans, I mean, have to get to this past. I feel like when people who, you know, sort of barely knew the legal names of their grandparents, when we look back at slavery, we do that from the perspective of the families that we know today. And as an urban American, you know, I mean, I'm thinking about some of these tragic stories.

I mean, elements of the tragic past, of the results of the migration, the grandfatherly male cousins that we have who've never, in all of their lives, had regular employment, people whose street names never grew into adult names, the sisters, aunts and female cousins raising children in poverty and sometimes with gentile flair and sometimes not. Those kinds of things are sort of what comes to mind when you begin to reflect on this past.

RAZ: That's Lawrence Jackson. He's a professor of English and African-American Studies at Emory University and author of the new book, "My Father's Name: A Black Virginia Family After the Civil War." He spoke to us from Emory University in Atlanta. Professor Jackson, thank you so much.

JACKSON: Thank you for having me on the show. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.