Giving their ancestors a voice: UB workshop to provide descendants of slaves with tools to research family history

Descendants of Dred Scott, Solomon Northup, Jeffrey Brace, Lewis G. Clarke, Moses Grandy, William Grimes and Venture Smith to take part in historic event

Release Date: September 21, 2015

“We want to reconnect descendants of slaves back through time with people who told the stories that can illuminate family histories.”
Kari Winter, professor of transnational studies
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. – The descendants of former slaves will gather at the University at Buffalo for a groundbreaking workshop to reconnect participants with their ancestors, further reveal their family histories and bring new voice to rich historical stories often silenced by the difficulties of tracing obscure and hard-to-follow genealogical paths.

The unprecedented three-day Workshop for Descendants of Authors of Slave Narratives, which will explore participants’ ancestral roots through discussions, reflections and writing exercises, will be led by Kari Winter, professor of transnational studies and director of UB’s Institute for Research and Education on Women and Gender.

“My passion is working with people who are trying to discover their histories,” she says. “We want to reconnect descendants of slaves back through time with people who told the stories that can illuminate family histories.”

The workshop runs Oct. 30 through Nov. 1 and is sponsored by UB’s Institute for Research and Education on Women and Gender, and co-sponsored by UB’s Humanities Institute, Cultures and Texts Strategic Strength, the departments of English and History, and private donors.

There also will be a separate panel discussion with descendants and scholars on Oct. 30 from 4-5:30 p.m. titled Reclaiming Our Ancestors: Descendants of 19th-Century African-American Writers Share their Journeys, which will be held at the Central Branch auditorium of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, 1 Lafayette Square, Buffalo. It is free and open to the public.

Workshop participants will discover inventive ways of telling multigenerational histories of slavery and the ongoing struggle for liberation, says Winter, by sharing documents, photographs, family bibles and questions about their backgrounds, describing their experiences and learning from one another.

“The temporality of kinship is a circle in which the present is entwined with the past and future,” she says. “Many descendants of the authors of slave narratives have followed in their ancestors’ footsteps by undertaking journeys in what author Toni Morrison calls ‘re-memory’ and critical theorists call ‘memory-work.’”

Winter, along with Cecil Foster, professor of transnational studies, and Jason Young, associate professor of history, both from UB, will guide participants on how to use the tools of modern historiography; how to read sources against each other; and what it means to do oral history and understand the ways in which it is revealing and the ways in which it is unreliable.

The idea for the workshop flows from Winter’s research, which focuses on the areas of slavery and slave narratives and from some of the people she has met through her work.

Winter is the author of “Subjects of Slavery, Agents of Change: Women and Power in Gothic Novels and Slave Narratives, 1790-1865” and “The American Dreams of John B. Prentis, Slave-Trader.”

In 2005, she published “The Blind African Slave: Memoirs of Boyrereau Brinch, Nicknamed Jeffrey Brace.”  The new edition of Brace’s memoirs introduced readers to a historically significant work that had essentially disappeared for nearly 200 years, with the only two previously extant copies in the libraries of Yale and the University of Vermont, both too frail to circulate.

The awareness created by the book caught the attention of Rhonda Brace, the five-times great-granddaughter of Jeffrey Brace, a man captured by English slave traders in West Africa, who would go on to fight in the American Revolution, settle in Vermont as a free man and recite his memoirs to an anti-slavery lawyer in the early 1800s.

Rhonda Brace was among the presenters in July at the first global conference on “Slavery Past, Present and Future” held at Oxford University, along with Regina Mason, the great-great-great-granddaughter of William Grimes, who authored “Life of William Grimes the Runaway Slave,” the first fugitive slave narrative published in America in 1825.

Both Rhonda Brace and Regina Mason are participating in the UB workshop.

Mason published a new edition of Grimes’s narrative in 2008 with noted scholar William L. Andrews of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the person who introduced Winter to Jeffrey Brace’s narrative, 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 narrative might also represent his belief in the importance of understanding family history, articulating in the early 19th century the very goal of the workshop Winter is organizing.

Brace performed rituals where he named all his ancestors, part of what Winter says is a fight against the genealogical isolation of slavery that severs the enslaved from ancestors and descendants.

That isolation is part of what has been defined as a natal alienation that fails to recognize familial bonds. Slaves are genealogical isolates, and in the case of transatlantic slavery, that alienation from family also included separating people from their culture, religion, language and food, a profound isolation that Winter says resounds through generations.

“My argument is that Jeffrey Brace is making a call to his descendants, asking them to respond as a way of overcoming that severance from their ancestry,” says Winter. “When people perform that ritualistically, it’s for an entire people and not just their particular biological descendants.”

The biological connection is valuable but, more broadly, every time a particular intergenerational history is discovered and written all of us gain access to a richer, more accurate version of the human story, says Winter.

Other confirmed participants for the workshop are:

  • Ntare Ali Gault, a spoken-word artist, actor and playwright as well as the author of multiple books.
  • Carver Clarke Gayton, the great-grandson of Lewis G. Clarke, an escaped slave and leader within America’s anti-slavery movement. Gayton has published two books about his great grandfather: “When Owing a Shilling Costs a Dollar” and a new edition of the 1845 “Narrative of the Sufferings of Lewis Clarke,” for which he wrote the introduction.
  • Lynne M. Jackson, a descendent of Dred Scott and the founder and president of the Dred Scott Heritage Foundation, named for the enslaved man who sued for his freedom when slaveholders took him to a free state. The 1857 U.S. Supreme Court case Dred Scott v. Sandford infamously declared that black people possessed “no rights.”
  • Angi (Henry) Perron, a ninth-generation descendant of Venture Smith.
  • Susi Ryan, a ninth-generation descendant of Venture Smith, author of the 1798 “A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, a Native of Africa: But Resident above Sixty Years in the United States of America, Related by Himself.”
  • Gina Ryan, a 10th-generation descendant of Venture Smith.
  • Eric A. Sheppard, a descendant of Moses Grandy, whose memoir, “Narrative of the Life of Moses Grandy: Late a Slave in the United States of America,” was published in 1843 by the British & Foreign Anti-Slavery Society of London.
  • Vera J. Williams, the three-times great-granddaughter of Solomon Northup, author of the 1853 memoir “Twelve Years a Slave,” also the title of the critically acclaimed 2013 motion picture. She is the founder and president of the Solomon Northup Foundation.

Winter hopes that the fall workshop will be the first in a two-year series that will lead to the publication of an anthology of essays that will bring descendants’ stories forward from the 19th century into the present and to a variety of other scholarly, educational and creative activities.

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