The Grandchildren of Slaves Are Dying

tags: slavery

Roy E. Finkenbine is Professor of History and Director of the Black Abolitionist Archive at the University of Detroit Mercy.

Jewell E. Wilson, Sr., the man with the cane, at the premiere of Jordan Anderson writes a Letter.

Six months ago, I lost my connection to the last generation of American slaves.

Let me explain. My friend, Jewell E. Wilson, Sr., passed away on June 28, 2016. He was ninety-one years old. A quick look at his obituary in the Dayton Daily News shows him to have been an exemplary citizen and the devoted patriarch of his family. Jewell was a Morehouse man, a Mason, a skilled musician, an active member of his Baptist congregation, and a veteran of the Air National Guard. He and his wife Estella had been married for seventy-one years. Together, they raised four children, all of whom have made contributions to society in areas ranging from ministry to the music business.

Not mentioned in such a standard obituary was the fact that Jewell learned about slavery by listening to the stories of his grandmother, Jane Anderson Mumford, who was twelve years old when she and her family escaped from slavery in Tennessee in the midst of the Civil War. For the first fourteen years of his life, until she passed away in 1939, Jewell paid close attention as she shared these stories with her grandchildren. In later years, he remembered them and told them to family members – and to me.

Between 2009 and 2014, I had the opportunity to conduct a series of extended interviews with Jewell about his grandmother’s memories of slavery. With his characteristic wit and enthusiastic flourish, he sought to remember and retell all that he had heard from her in his childhood about her and her family’s years in bondage and their migration to Dayton in 1864. Much of it is not recoverable from any other source. He recalled stories about Jane being taught to read in slavery by her master’s daughter – and the whipping that resulted. Of Jane and her family’s route northward, wading barefoot into the Ohio River, crossing the river at Ripley, then going westward along the river to Cincinnati, where Jane became separated from the family and was lost for several hours. Of the family’s partial Cherokee ancestry and the peace pipe they brought northward with them. Of family life in their new home in Dayton. Of their former master sending men to Dayton after the war to encourage them to return to Tennessee and work the plantation for wages. Of the family’s friendship with African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, which I later confirmed from other sources. Jewell proved to be a remarkable griot.

As Jewell and I worked together to recover the family’s experiences in slavery, we were able to bring these stories to a broader audience. In July 2012, both he and I were featured in a lengthy Associated Press article that appeared in hundreds of newspapers in the U.S. and abroad. In September 2013, my university premiered an original multimedia play about one of Jewell’s ancestors entitled Jordan Anderson Writes a Letter, which was performed to thousands of people at a variety of venues in southeastern Michigan, including a national conference of Underground Railroad historians. Jewell was a major character in the play. A documentary film production student and I were able to attend the extended family’s reunion in August 2014 and record Jewell and other relatives telling these stories.

Jewell’s DNA also added to the story of his family’s experience in slavery. As the family’s oldest member with a direct genetic connection to Jane and her slave ancestors, he agreed in 2015 to provide a sample, which was analyzed by National Geographic’s Geno 2.0 Project. It confirmed the family’s claims to Native American ancestry, as well as demonstrating – as expected – a significant element of European ancestry. It also strongly suggested that the family’s African roots came from populations in the Senegambia region of West Africa.

When the last generation of American slaves passed from the scene in the 1930s, the Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) sponsored an effort to interview, record, and transcribe the testimony of these former slaves. These interviews are widely available in research libraries and online and are widely used by historians. Jewell’s death symbolizes another passing, one far less well recorded – that of the grandchildren of slaves, who were born in freedom and heard the stories of slavery from the last generation of American slaves. Some four score years after the WPA slave interviews, their passing goes almost unnoticed. With each successive generation, fewer and fewer of these slavery stories are handed down in African American families. Although Jewell kept his family’s slavery stories alive, the passing of thousands like him in recent decades means we must strain ever harder to hear the voices of the former slaves themselves.

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