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Tracing family roots: history, identity, personal stories

Lynne M. Jackson, a descendant of Dred Scott and founder of the Dred Scott Heritage Foundation based in St. Louis, speaks at a public session in the Central Branch of the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library. Photo: Nancy J. Parisi

By RACHEL STERN

Published November 5, 2015

“Now I know that we must celebrate ourselves and our history, and share our stories, no matter how difficult they may be because if we don’t, no one will.”
Rhonda Brace, descendant of former slave Jeffrey Brace and participant
Workshop for Descendants of Authors of Slave Narratives

For Rhonda Brace, the roots of her family always led back to two places: St. Albans, Vermont, and Samson, Alabama.

She had no documents, Bibles or papers showing her family lineage. So for Brace, it was simple: She was a descendant of free people; she was an American.

Until 2006. That was when Brace first learned about a narrative written by a teenager who was captured in West Africa and thrown into slavery. She read about it in a Vermont newspaper article and came across a very familiar name: Jeffrey Brace.

It was the name of her grandfather, uncle and cousin, as well as the middle and last names of her father, brother and nephew.

“From that day forward, my family roots transitioned from American to African-American,” says Brace. “I discovered that I was a descendant of a slave who fought for his freedom so that I, many years later, would be free. Now I know that we must celebrate ourselves and our history, and share our stories, no matter how difficult they may be because if we don’t, no one will.”

Brace was one of a dozen descendants of authors of slave narratives — including Venture Smith, Solomon Northup, Dred Scott and William Grimes — who gathered at UB last week for three days. The group, from all around the country, took part in workshops that looked at history, identity and personal stories.

Discussions ranged from the sometimes circuitous path to genealogical discovery, to how to actually find those documents, as well as how their ancestors’ stories have been portrayed and what they can do to be active in the making of those narratives.

“Being a slave meant being a genealogical isolate, with no right of kinship,” says Kari Winter, professor of transnational studies and director of UB’s Institute for Research and Education on Women and Gender, who organized the unprecedented, three-day Workshop for Descendants of Authors of Slave Narratives. “So to have this group together, in Buffalo, it’s hope for the future. We can now be active agents in shaping the historical landscape.”

Some descendants, like Brace, only recently found out about their historical roots. But others, like Corinne Henry Brady and Susi Ryan, descendants of Venture Smith, grew up knowing. Only they didn’t believe it.

“I thought my parents were joking,” says Brady, from Rhode Island. “It wasn’t until we started going to ‘Venture Smith Day’ that it became real. Now, thanks to this workshop, I want to take it a step further. I want my voice to be heard. I want to start researching Venture’s wife and give her an active voice in history.”

Workshop publicity increases interest in slave narratives

It appears the workshop inspired interest in reading slave narratives. Many books written by the ancestors of this weekend’s workshop participants saw considerable sales increases following coverage of the event in The New York Times and The Buffalo News, and on NPR’s “Weekend All Things Considered.”

 

The figures are not the result of any controlled research monitoring, but are nevertheless interesting to ponder.

 

“The Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave” climbed roughly 1,000 places in Amazon.com’s American biographies and memories rankings. Regina Mason, Grimes’ great-great-great granddaughter, edited the most recent edition of the narrative with noted scholar William Andrews. Mason participated in the workshop and served as a panelist for the public event at the Central Library Downtown.

 

Grimes’ was the first fugitive slave narrative published in America in 1825.

 

Kari Winter, UB professor of transnational studies, published “The Blind African Slave: Memoir of Boyrereau Brinch, Nicknamed Jeffrey Brace” in 2005.  That book climbed as well in the Amazon rankings in the categories of U.S. history and biographies and memoires.

 

Brace’s narrative is one of the few works in English authored by someone born in Africa and a rare first-person account by a black soldier who served in the American Revolution.

 

Brace’s five-times great granddaughter, Rhonda Brace, was also at UB for the workshop and sat on the panel with Mason and Lynne M. Jackson, a descendent of Dred Scott, the plaintiff in the infamous 1857 U.S. Supreme Court case Dred Scott v. Sandford that declared that black people possessed “no rights.”

 

— Bert Gambini

Despite different paths to getting there, one thing was similar: the group’s desire to take history into their own hands.

“I now see legacies matter,” says Eric Sheppard of Carrollton, Virginia, a descendant of Moses Grandy. “In the name of our ancestors, we have a sense of power and we must leverage that legacy to move mountains right now. If we don’t equate that to change, we have wasted that legacy. It is up to us to move forward in the name of our ancestors. I expect nothing less of myself and the rest of this group.”

Part of shaping those legacies is to present these authors of slave narratives in a more heroic way, says Cecil Foster, UB professor of transnational studies, who presented at one of the workshops.

“We must take their legacy and shine the light on it,” says Foster. “You must establish the dominant narrative. The past is how we re-tell it. Much of your task is what you want to be left of them.”

To accomplish that very task, descendants talked about what they will do going forward, after leaving Buffalo.

Some talked about making documentaries, writing second editions of their books and going into public schools to spread their ancestors’ stories. The group also discussed putting together an anthology of all of their stories with the hope of getting that collection into public school systems.

Winter left the group with a message: “Northup, Grimes, Brace, Grandy — think about the ancestors in this room and seeing you here today. You are their triumph. You are their struggles. Imagine what it would mean to them to see you here today. Take responsibility for your power as a creator of historical meaning.”

READER COMMENT

On behalf of the 11 participants at the University at Buffalo workshop "Reclaiming Our Ancestors," THANK YOU for such an opportunity to share and connect. These histories are precious and as we seek to safeguard and share them in hopes that others will do the same with their families, we extend a heartfelt thanks to Dr. Kari Winter and the entire team she assembled to host and welcome us as you did. The articles were sensitive and excellently crafted. We aspire that each descendant will be successful in continuing in the tradition that they brought to the table. We all were blessed from this incredible experience.

 

Lynne M. Jackson