Family ReunionPosted August 3rd, 2011 by Thomas Norman DeWolf
I just returned from a family reunion. It was attended by people, old and young, who have been getting together for more than 30 years. I had never known any of them until we met this weekend at the Elliot School of International Studies at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. I was scheduled to deliver a genealogy presentation that would help explain how we are all related. I did my best.
Everyone at the reunion is connected, either through genetic or affinitive relationships, emanating from a Scottish immigrant named Charles Gavin. Charles arrived in America in 1695; one of a group of twelve led by his father-in-law. The group settled in North Carolina and became quite prosperous owners of land and slaves. Charles’ children spread their wings as economic opportunities became available; migrating into Florida, Alabama and Mississippi, where they also owned lots of land and slaves.
My job at the family reunion was to share what I have learned through genealogical research over the last three decades. Supported by documents that prove my findings, I put it all into an historical context that was easy for people who are not genealogists to understand. As I delivered my presentation, I was greeted with stunned silence, followed by ovations. For the first time, everyone in the audience was given the opportunity to see a coherent picture of our history and relationships. We finally had a place to “belong.”
The part of the Gavin family history that involves me (and the people at the family reunion) starts in Mississippi. Just as Charles had come to America, they went to Mississippi as a group. They arrived sometime around 1831, after the signing of the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, which ceded Native American lands to the U.S. government. The treaty created a major bonanza for people like the Gavins and they took full advantage.
In this quest for economic advancement, the ancestors I claim had nothing to celebrate. They were slaves. It was their free labor that built the Gavin franchise. Collectively, the Gavin family owned at least 125 people in five counties. And that was just in Mississippi. Family members also had plantations in Alabama, South Carolina and Florida. After the Civil War, they even went to Brazil as “Confederadoes” and owned coffee plantations and slaves there as well.
Our side of the configuration forces a confrontation with the proverbial “nig—- in the woodpile.” At least two Gavin men fathered children with female slaves. In my line, that slave woman was Bettie Warfe. She was taken to Mississippi from Virginia as a nine year old child by John Warf, an ambitious man who hoped to cash in on the frontier bonanza. He bought some land near the Gavins in Noxubee County, Mississippi and proceeded to cultivate cotton, just like them. But he didn’t do as well as they did. In the wake of the Civil War, he cashed in, selling his land and slaves. He traded Bettie to the Gavins for a horse and ventured further onward into Mississippi, where he bought a farm christened “Starvation Hill.”
My ancestor (Bettie) had 17 children with a scion of the Gavin family. He was the nephew of another Gavin who fathered children with yet another slave woman. His name was Gabriel. Her name was Harriett. She had four children with him. Owned by Gabriel’s father (remember Charles? Gabriel was one of his sons), Harriet ultimately became part of an inheritance. Charles’ will left his slaves to his wife Margaret. When she died in 1853, these slaves were distributed to the next generation. In 1853, Harriet and her children were broken up and dispersed to other family members (not the father of her children), where they would continue their servitude.
When both this man (Gabriel) and his nephew (my ancestor) died, the family fought tooth and nail to keep their wealth. Neither of them left anything whatsoever to their offspring. Both were adjudicated by law to be lifelong bachelors with no heirs. My slave ancestor (Bettie) fought the estate of her children’s father for five years after he died in 1896. She was ultimately “settled” in 1902 with $125 and an admonition to “get out of Mississippi before we start treating you like the nig……s you are.”
My “little” story is just one in a cavalcade of historical rumination. African Americans have a long and arduous history that reaches from the cotton fields of the South to the industrial cities of the North. We provided the labor that built America — literally. We are the only American immigrants who did not come here by choice and, over the four centuries we have been in this land, have contributed in every possible way to the evolution of American society.
I have a hard time coming to terms with all this history. Engaging in a journey with Tom DeWolf, who descends from the largest slave trading family in American history, and writing Gather at the Table, is my attempt to find resolution and peace. Attending the Gavin family reunion is another.
Our ancestors struggled too long and too hard to be forgotten and I am firmly committed to the idea that we can empower our future by honoring our past. I can think of no better way to do that than by researching my genealogy and seeing life through my ancestor’s eyes. Tom has asked me why I don’t claim the white part of my ancestry. If you read the story above, I wonder: Would you?
Once my research led me to the GAVIN surname, a door was opened for me to journey to courthouses, cemeteries and farms all over Mississippi. Whenever I go, I do my best to walk consciously in the footsteps our ancestors left behind. I have been all over Africa, the Caribbean and America. I have been to every county in Mississippi where I found the Gavin name. I have spent days poring over books and microfilms in the research hall of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in Jackson. I have been to what remains of the Gavin family farm in Noxubee County — along the road that still bears their name. I crossed a cow pasture to explore the Gavin graveyard, carrying a machete to cut back weeds and wearing boots to deter snakes. I drove through Gabriel Gavin’s Sandy Land plantation and found a place still known as “The Quarters.” This is, no doubt, the historical location where the slaves (the ancestors whom I proudly claim and honor) lived.
Farther afield, I have walked the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, where civil rights demonstrators were beaten and incarcerated on “Bloody Sunday” so that my great grandparents could exercise their right to vote. I went to Bryant’s Store in Money, Mississippi to witness where a boy named Emmett Till made a fatal mistake. I visited Tuskegee Institute, where my grand uncle (a child of rape by a white man against a black woman) learned the electrical trade. I stood at “The Forks in the Road,” a slave market at Natchez, Mississippi where my ancestors might have been bought or sold. I have been to Mocambique, where DNA testing said the genes of my ancestor, Bettie Warfe Gavin, were born.
There is a bitter memory associated with almost every location I have visited. Yet, every time I venture forth, I am reminded of a paradox. As bitter as the memories may be, the South is the only homeland most African Americans will ever know. And Africa is a great mystery we may never discern. No matter where we live now, these are the places that, through genealogy, should live forever in our hearts.
There is much we need to know, not only about our ancestors, but about the times in which they lived. A good genealogist is also a good historian. We know that we can’t impose the standards of our modern world on the conditions of the past. Yet, I continue to try and come to terms with the gravity of history that juxtaposes against my own personal family story. I truly want to find a place in my heart where forgiveness resides. It will be obvious from this essay that it ain’t easy.
It is high time that America get over it’s obsession with race. I know that and appreciate the call. In response, I engaged in this “healing journey” that Tom and I are on; hoping to deliver a book that will help show the way for others to reconciliation and peace. It continues to be a journey that is fraught with anguish on my side. I can only hope that I am up to the challenge.
Lawd, help me!
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