Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Uncovering the Past...

One of the greatest benefits of social media is the ability to truly reach out and connect with individuals you might not otherwise have had meaningful contact with. We've enjoyed making "friends" with people from Indiana to Ireland. We've gained new museum colleagues, exchanged ideas with artists and artisans, given and gotten advice, and shared exciting victories and deep sorrows.

Sometimes you encounter a story that really touches you because you've touched someone else. The other day, when we posted a link to a story about the discovery of a rare photograph of slave children on Facebook, Kelly Hunt reached out sharing compelling stories of her own ancestors--a past concealed in prior generations because of prejudice, hatred, lack of opportunity, and fear. Kelly, by all indications a white woman, is partially descended from black slaves.

And so, in her own words, here's Kelly's story about discovering her roots:

I also have a disk with pictures of my Slave Families graves in West Virginia, and some homes they lived in...the land they were deeded.

How this came about- I'll try to be brief and direct and you may quote me or paraphrase; I had my geneology done about 15 years ago by a friend. She mailed me her work, and put a message to call her before I reviewed it. You see, I grew up thinking my family was Caucasian. I made the call and she asked; "Are you sitting down?"... As we reviewed Death Certificates and Census records, she asked me to tell her what I was seeing. The answer was; "Negro, Black, Slaves... over and over". It was a big surprise! To be honest, I was elated- I KNEW deep down that my dark hair, eyes and olive skin had to be from something other than the English/Irish ancestory that I had been told about by my parents and grandparents.

What I didn't realize was- My Maternal Grandfather- Vernon Mayfield, was half black. In the 1920s that was still considered BLACK, as it is today. The *one drop rule* was still in effect, and even though I only carry remnants of my African heritage, I would not have been accepted in White society then, if anyone knew of my family. My Grandfather had VERY dark skin. I often used to ask him about it and he would make jokes. But despite his dark skin, he had very Caucasian features that allowed him to pass himself off as white. He married my White Grandmother, (not legal at that time), and because he taught himself to fly Bi-Planes in the late 20s and early 30s, he landed a job at American Airlines as a pilot. Again, they thought he was white. He would have not been considered for employment by American or any other Airlines as a Pilot had they known. He retired after 35 years from American as a Captain.

I was rather enthusiastic about this discovery and quickly began calling all my Oliver-Mayfield family to tell them about it. We had a holiday gathering shortly thereafter, and I found some of my family as excited about this as I was, and wanted to know all the details. Others...not so much. They really couldn't believe I was talking about this out loud, and a few were in complete denial. Over time I have learned more about racism and its ugly grip on humanity than I ever wanted to know. Until then- racism was something I had vowed as a young girl to never participate in. I grew up in the 60s and 70s when racial tension was again at a peak. I had friends of every color! But to imagine that one day I would be standing in a group of Caucasian peers, only to hear a racist comment or joke was unthinkable, but it happens all the time. They have no idea who they are insulting. Not just me, but generations of my family who had to endure being someone else's property, had no rights, were thought of as second class, and couldn't even vote. They insult my Grandparents who had a tough decision to make- Stay *Black* and endure, or *Pass* and give your children opportunities because society will see them as second-class? The fear they must have faced worrying about someone finding out their secret must have been a constant burden.

But by finding out about Sarah & Bartimus Oliver, and all the details of how and where they lived- I feel like I've liberated them, and all the needless shame that has followed their legacy. I feel like I know them personally.

I'll include pictures and details on finding slave ancestory in an e-mail later this evening.
I've included a picture of my Mother as a girl. (She's with her pet crow) If you look at her arms, you will see the vitiligo that she and I both had as young girls. It is common in people of mixed heritage.

Here is one of the Census Records. I hope it comes through clear enough. It's from 1900 Wetzel County West Virginia. It shows hand written names of my family members. These are Sarah Oliver's son and his family. This is the actual copy of the hand written Census. If you look in the 3rd column, you will see a *B* beside everyones name. This stands for Black.

Census records were often recorded incorrectly. Some people easily passed as white, while others who were perhaps Native American or Jew were put down as Black simply because they didn't have enough catagories. That is why the Emancipation Document was so important. It clarified our history.

I apologize that it's not any better detailed, my scanner is small and won't take a document that large. I took these pics with my camera.

Thank you SO much for your interest!

Here is a great picture of my Grandfather: Vernon H. Mayfield. It was for 25 years of service with American Airlines. You can clearly see his coloring, and that is not a tan:-)

My Grandfather (whom I called affectionatley; "Daddy Slim") was also known as "Slim Mayfield", as he was rather tall, at about 6'2".

Daddy Slim was buried in his American Airlines Captain's uniform. It only seemed fitting.

Noone knew (including his children) of his heritage. He took it to the grave. It was only through rigorous digging into the past, that this was discovered. We had always speculated on his heritage, and he often made jokes that he was perhaps *Mexican* (his own words), or he'd say "I'm just an old Cajun", suggesting some mixed, or french ancestory?

My father (his son-in-law) told me that he once told him a story of seeing an Uncle *Lynched* (again, his wording) as a child and what a horrible thing that was for a child to witness. Now, with all our modern technology, we can piece together the patches of our past like a quilt that tells a story of who our family was, and how we came to be.

I want to encourage people to dig into their own treasure trove of personal history... I want those who are descendants of slaves to live in such a way that validates their families sacrifices, and I also want to do my part to stamp out racism.
I have to say that knowing my history has helped me help others view *color* as something that just makes us unique, not separate. We are all equal.

Like I said- You may condense this as you see fit. I thank you for indulging my story.

You have my permission to use my documents, name and story. I want to help others find their own heritage.

--Kelly Hunt

Thanks to Kelly for sharing her riveting story! In light of Juneteenth this coming weekend, it is especially timely!

If you have a story you'd like to share, let us know!

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