In 1988, my husband and I took our second trip South, where we discovered a part of our family’s history. I wrote about what we discovered in the 1988 September/October Neighborhood News newsletter. The Neighborhood News was a bi-monthly community newsletter that I published from 1987 to 1989.
Some of you might remember the article, “Uncovering Family History,” or you might still have a copy of the newsletter. The following is a reprint:
Not being born in the South, I had always felt jealous of my friends who were. When I was growing up during the 1940s, and my friends went South to visit a grandmother or an aunt during the summmer, I felt left out. When I was born, my grandparents-except for my mother’s father, who lived in Detroit-were dead. I had never seen a cotton field, or an outhouse, nor had I enjoyed the black Southern hospitality that I had heard adults talk about.
My peers would say to me that I haven’t missed anything. One girlfriend said she didn’t want to hear or see anything that reminded her of slavery. But I felt different about the past-even about the history of slavery. I felt I should find out about slavery and my family’s history so I could move the “sambos” and·”watermelon men” into their correct perspective.
My family roots were necessary to provide family pride and self-esteem and to continue the family culture. So much of my family history was lost because we overlooked the good who were trying, too hard, to hide the bad.
I was grown when I took my first trip to the South. It was sort of silly, on my part, to think that after 40 years, I would see the same things I wanted to see during my childhood, but I was excited about going anyway.
My first occasion to travel in the South was in 1983, a visit to Biloxi, Miss. to visit my daughter at the Keesler Air Force Base there. I kept my eyes open and ears pealed for the origins of black culture. But they were not to be found in Biloxi, a city where the shopping mall stores such as Montgomery Wards, J.C. Penney, and Sears, made it seem no different from Chicago. Although I had alerted myself to being open to black culture in Biloxi, I really was not disappointed at not finding it.
My husband and I were told of his family’s history this past summer, on a trip to Holly Grove, Ark. We were in Holly Grove on the 2nd of July to celebrate the annual homecoming of The National Holly Grove Homecoming Club. My husband’s family on his mother’s side were from this part of Arkansas, so it was something like a back-to-the-roots visit. One evening while we visited with my husband’s relatives and other residents, the discussion turned to the history of Holly Grove. One relative said my husband’s relative had named the town. Sometime during 1872, two of the influential people of the town were trying to decide on a new name for the town-no one remembered the previous name. But my husband’s great-grandmother, Emma Oates, a servant of one of the influential people, suggested they change the name to Holly Grove·because of the many holly trees in the area. Because the story persisted for over a hundred years, it is possible that it’s true; Holly Grove was incorporated as a township in 1876.
We had a lot of fun in Holly Grove. There was a parade, a picnic, a dance, a dinner, and, of course, church services. The homecoming celebration ended on the 3rd of July.
The morning of July 4, we left, glad we had come and excited about what we had learned. My husband’s chest stuck out so far, he could hardly fit himself behind the wheel of the car.
We headed north to U.S. Hwy. 40 to connect with U.S. 78 in Memphis, and once on Highway 78, we headed southeast to Birmingham, Ala.
During the ride to Birmingham, I thought about what my mother had told me about my father’s hometown. She told me my paternal grandfather had built a house for his family there, and that the house was still standing at the same location, a site called Boatwell. My mother said Boatwell had 13 rooms, and that my grandfather and his six sons had done all the brickwork and plastering. I could hardly wait to see the house. But I never imagined the pleasant surprise that awaited me in Birmingham.
My cousin Mary, who lived in Pratt City, a suburb of Birmingham, took us to see the house-a huge structure that was covered on the outside with yellow siding. The present owner told us that after remodeling, the interior now had 11 rooms. I was proud to have seen the house my father helped build and lived in.