Forum for descendants of authors of slave narratives to be held in NYC

Pen and ink drawing of a slave auction.

Event will feature four ancestors who participated in groundbreaking UB program

Release Date: March 11, 2016 This content is archived.

“These stories are very difficult to uncover. Slave narratives and interviews of former slaves give us a more intimate, personal perspective but many people are not even aware that they exist. ”
Sylviane Diouf, director, Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery

BUFFALO, N.Y. – A University at Buffalo workshop that for the first time brought together descendants of authors of slave narratives to illuminate their ancestral heritage is the inspiration for an event at 6:30 p.m. on March 16 at the Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery, 515 Malcolm X Blvd. in New York City.

“Reclaiming Our Ancestors,” reunites Rhonda Brace, Lynn M. Jackson, Regina E. Mason and Vera J. Williams (see “Participants,” below) for a panel discussion moderated by Kari Winter, professor of transnational studies and director of UB’s Institute for Research on Women and Gender, that will explore the four participants’ personal journeys, which have reconnected them with the lives and legacies of their ancestors.

The event is free and open to the public, but seating is limited and guests must register in advance.

“In some ways this is a story about the power of journalism,” says Winter, who organized and hosted the original UB workshop.

The idea for the Lapidus Center program began with a New York Times story about the events at UB held in November of last year.

Sylviane Diouf, director of the Lapidus Center and a historian of the African Diaspora, read the article and immediately contacted Winter.

“These stories are very difficult to uncover,” says Diouf. “Slave narratives and interviews of former slaves give us a more intimate, personal perspective but many people are not even aware that they exist.

“In that sense, the film ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ has been quite useful in bringing a slave narrative to an international audience,” she says. “But what unfolded at UB was going one step further. Kari added a new dimension, linking the past to the present by introducing the voices of the descendants.”

With that one email, Diouf set in motion a new event based on what had concluded at UB just two days earlier.

“I thought [the UB workshop] was smart, unique, intriguing and something that would be of immense interest to our public,” says Diouf.

Her instincts were right.

Several hundred people have already registered for “Reclaiming Our Ancestors” which Diouf hopes will inspire people to research their family history and share it.

“I would like for our patrons to reclaim their own ancestors,” she says. “Even if they cannot find information about them, they still can understand parts of their lives through other people’s stories.”

That connection to the past is critical, says Winter.

“History is alive and it’s important to understand that,” says Winter. “If we act like the past has no meaning, we lose meaning in our lives in the present.”

The Lapidus Center is part of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library. It is the only facility of its kind based in a public research library.

“The center is central to the cultural life of African-America,” says Winter. “It is a repository of so much African-American history and literature, but it’s also a wellspring for African-American creative production.  It celebrates the past and a past-inflected present.”

The Lapidus Center organizes many public programs throughout the year, including conversations, screenings, panel discussions and book signings, according to Diouf.

Participants from the 2015 UB workshop:

  • Rhonda Brace is the five-times great-granddaughter Jeffrey Brace, author of “The Blind African Slave: Memoirs of Boyrereau Brinch Nicknamed Jeffrey Brace.”
  • 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 unsuccessfully sued for his freedom in the infamous 1857 U.S. Supreme Court case, Dred Scot v. Sandford.
  • Regina E. Mason is the three-times granddaughter of William Grimes, who authored “Life of William Grimes the Runaway Slave,” the first fugitive slave narrative published in America.
  • Vera J. Williams is the three-times great-granddaughter of Solomon Northrup, author of the 1853 memoir “Twelve Years a Slave,” which was adapted into the 2013 film by the same name.

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