Root Connection

Reaching Deep To Find Great-Great-Great Grandmother

Slavery in America has had little more reality for me than for most Americans. Even a lifetime of saying and believing that some of my ancestors came to this country as captives and that they and their children were held in generational bondage always felt more academic than real.

My distance from the details of slavery was easily maintained by having few family stories to guide me, and I found little interest in our past among my relatives. Because names change from document to document and because poor record-keeping is common, tracking individual African Americans back into slavery is hard to do. And it takes time.

But I wanted to try because when I look in the mirror I see evidence of the slave and the slave master, or perhaps an indentured servant or some other immigrant. I wanted to know who they were — if not how they came together.

Over the past six years, like someone sitting down at a piano and riffling the keys every now and then, I used various websites and the valuable notes my great-aunt Lillie made in 1976 when the same curiosity inspired her to fly to western Virginia to look for evidence of our existence.

Call it my way of digging up bones.

Using the single marriage certificate I had along with post-Civil War cohabitation records from the federal Freedman's Bureau and county and federal census information, I poked awkwardly around. I looked for one ancestor and then another. Feeling like a first-time visitor to Venice, I've spent more time running lost down narrow streets and coming to dead ends at one canal or another than finding data I could trust.

Even with compassionate and enthusiastic help from an amateur historian who lives in Wytheville, Va., where my family lived for most of a century, I'd often push back from my computer after scanning endless lists of masters and chattel and consider more useful ways to spend my time.

Then I found Winnie Graham — my great-great-great-grandmother.

I could easily have missed her because she appears in various documents as more afterthought than not. But like the stars, the pieces of her life began to line up so clearly that suddenly — there she was.

In 1870, she was a 60-year-old woman, an ex-slave, living in her son-in-law's house where, using his last name, she was counted in the local Wythe County, Va., census. In addition to Winnie, the household included my great-great-grandfather, Richard Graham, his wife, Dorcas — Winnie's daughter — and seven children ranging in age from 2 1/2 to 24. My great-grandfather, 18-year-old Sanders, was there. Beverly Bough, 26, was also part of Richard Graham's household, but I don't know who she was. The Civil War was just over and Winnie was free and probably helping poor Dorcas manage the numerous children who made up their household.

But just a few years earlier, in the will of Wytheville slaveholder Robert Sayers, she was property. In it she and Dorcas and another daughter, Judy, have no last names. Only their relationship to one another is noted. They are "given" by their owner to his three nieces, Margaret, Lucy and Jane, in part, he says, to make up for the deaths of slaves they'd inherited from their late father. He was restocking his family coffers with my relatives.

I wondered how this change of ownership affected their lives. Were they better or worse off with the nieces? What kind of work did Winnie and Dorcas do? My three-times-great-grandmother lived nearly a half-century of her life enslaved. Dorcas and Judy and any other children she may have had didn't belong to her. They belonged to Margaret, Lucy and Jane, to do with what they wished. It is impossible not to wonder whether she thought not being free was normal, the way life was supposed to be, or whether she suffered every day of her life from the truth of her situation.

Winnie Graham — who was, at least, able to die with two names — was born nearly 200 years ago. My data is clear enough and strong enough for me to know who she was and who she is to me. I've been able to reach back across centuries and generations and find this one woman, a member of my family, who lived an American life as a captive that is beyond my ability to imagine or understand.

In my heart we are holding hands across the ages, and I feel joy because even though the details of her life are lost forever I do know her name and where she lived and died. I've pulled her out of endless lists of forgotten people and claimed her as my own. I hope I've honored her by caring enough to look for her.

Lyn May of East Haddam is a retired journalist and communications consultant.

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