Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A Friend Of Friends: Lessons From The Underground Railroad #TALIAFERRO


By sjtaliaferro

One night during the holidays I watched one of my favorite movies, Roots: The Gift. The movie stars LeVar Burton and Louis Gossett, Jr., in their roles as Kunta Kinte and Fiddler from the television series Roots. In this movie, Kunta and Fiddler accompany their owner to another plantation at Christmas time for a party, and become involved in a plan to help some runaway slaves escape via the Underground Railroad to freedom. A simple, yet powerful story. There are many messages and lessons to be learned from Roots: The Gift.
In one of my favorite scenes, Fiddler and Kunta are helping the group of runaway slaves get to the river where they are to meet a boat that will take them further on their journey to freedom. Along the way they make a stop to pick up other “passengers” on the Underground Railroad. When they come to a farmhouse, Kunta approaches and knocks. The man asks…”who goes”? Kunta responds “Friend of Friends”…in acknowledgment, the man replies “Friend of Friends”. A group of “passengers” exit the house. Kunta, Fiddler, and the group continue their journey.
This year, I was particularly moved by the Underground Railroad scene, and even more so by the phrase uttered by Kunta- Friend of Friends. The phrase, and variations of it, was used along the Underground Railroad as a password or signal to those assisting runaway slaves on their journey North…to freedom. The traditional response to the “who goes there” password is said to have been “A Friend of a Friend”.
A Friend of Friends. Say it… A Friend of Friends, again…A Friend of Friends. It evokes such a comforting, welcoming feeling. A feeling of trust, of sharing, of caring, of kindness, and of friendship, however brief. At the same time, it is transient…adjusting and changing with the circumstances. I’m A Friend of Friends….you don’t know me, but I require assistance…I need your help, and guidance…some information to aid me on my journey…then I’ll be moving on…to the next stop along the way.
The phrase, and the underlying concept, seems particularly appropriate and relevant for those of us in the genealogy community; aren’t we all on some level really just A Friend of Friends? Strangers helping strangers. Friends of friends with a common bond that ties us all together….the desire to know our ancestors, and to tell their stories. A common goal, with different methods, different paths that cross and intersect along the journey. As we travel this road to uncovering our ancestors and their stories we should all embrace the concept…we should be A Friend of Friends. Don’t be afraid or reluctant to share, to care, to guide, or to assist your fellow researcher along their journey.
As an African American researcher my task is two-fold; I research my family, but inevitably I must also research the family of my ancestor’s slave holders if I want to know more about my roots. Often we must seek information (assistance) from those that we do not know to aid us on our journey. It is an unavoidable truth – the descendants of our ancestor’s slave holding families may hold the key to our enslaved ancestor’s past. Slavery is an ugly truth of our shared history. I am not angry with you because your ancestor held my ancestor as a slave; don’t be angry with me because I seek those records that may shed more light on the lives of my people, and help me to tell their story more completely. Some who were members of slave holding families assisted passengers along the Underground Railroad. I challenge you to be A Friend of Friends.
We, as researchers of our African American ancestry, must also remember to share, to care, to guide, and to assist our fellow researchers; reach out, take time….no, make time. Can you request and expect the assistance of others, yet not expect the same of yourself? I urge you to stop being selfish with your research. Don’t miss out on a connection or a long lost cousin because of fear or uncertainty. Post It, Blog It, Share It, and Publish It. Many who were passengers along the Underground Railroad returned to assist others on their journey to freedom. I challenge you to be A Friend of Friends.
True genealogists know all of this, and understand the necessity of it. Indeed, the concept is nothing new in the genealogy community. Random, and not so random, acts of kindness occur every day. So, consider this a wake-up call, my challenge to you. When a fellow researcher comes calling…for info…for guidance…for knowledge…for support – be there – to share, to care, to guide, and to assist.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The family History Project: An Interview With Grandma Margaret

Grandma Margaret 14 yrs old.with siblings, baby Esther, Edythe (Pie) and Johnny.

Many years ago,  my oldest daughter came home from school and told me that her class was doing a  family history project and she had to interview an older relative that had lived during the depression of the 1930's. She chose to interview her great-grandmother, my grandma Margaret. I was beyond excited! At the time she was 12 years old and was so excited. She is now 32 and has no interest what so ever in family history. Sad to say, neither do my other two children. I keep hoping that maybe it just hasn't manifested itself in them yet. Only time will tell.

When I told Grandma that her young great-granddaughter wanted to interview her, she was excited. She loved to talk, and talking about her history was even better. I started the kettle that day before she came in the door. My grandma was a die hard tea drinker. She loved a good cup of hot tea. When she came to visit, you would be wise to have the tea kettle on because that would be one of the first things she'd asked for. She would always ask. " Do you have any tea Honey? "   Makes me chuckle just thinking about that.

My daughter began by asking her when and where she was born?  What was it like when you were growing up and during the depression?

Grandma replied:

I was born on February 4,1916 in Danville, Illinois. Life was not easy. Papa and Mama worked so hard. My Papa was a Coal Miner. When I was very little, we lived in the coal mining camps. Sometimes we would move to different towns in Iowa. Before we had a car, Papa drove a wagon pulled by mules.We had to wash clothes by hand. Mama had a great big tub that she put on the fire outside to boil water in to wash the clothes. When I got older, It was my job to help with the laundry and look after my sisters and brother's. We washed the clothes outside in the warmer months. I always had to wash the diapers, which was a terrible mess! I scrubbed them on a wash board and then beat them with a rock.After that they were layed in the sun to dry. In the winter, they were still hung outside. The clothes would be hard as a brick. Eventually Mama got a winger washer, which made washing a little easier. Saturday night was bath night, everyone took a bath and got ready for church the next morning. Some mornings, my papa sent me to the butcher on the corner to get a slab of bacon. When the depression came, it was hard. Many people lost their jobs. Papa no longer worked in the mining camps, many had shut down. He did odd jobs and hauled things for people with his truck. Food was rationed. I don't remember us ever going hungry. We always had enough food to eat. Mama had a big vegetable garden. She would can vegetables, spiced peaches, apples and jam. The jars would look so pretty lined up on the shelf. She baked her own bread. There was no money for fabric. So mama made our dresses out of flour sacks. She used scraps here and there to make quilts. We had chickens in our yard. Papa would slaughter the chicken and mama would fry it up. Sometimes she made gravy and biscuits with it. My papa would  help the neighbors that needed food. He would take a box and pack up some vegetables, bread, a slab of bacon, what ever  he could spare and take it to them. My papa was a good man."

Grandma's father, Peter Doyle, siblings, Johnny and Edythe. Mary Doyle (in Car)

What did you do for fun?

"We didn't have Television back then. For fun we would have Taffy pulls, Pop popcorn, make fudge, We would play the piano and sing . In the summertime, we had picnics".

What was the cost of rent?

"Well, when I first got married and came to Minneapolis,MN we lived in what they called "Cold Water Flats" they called them that because there was no hot running water, only cold. You had to boil the water to take a bath. Rent was  $10 a month. That was about 1936. Bread was .10 cents a loaf. A good dress was $3.00. I would put my dress on Lay-A-Way. Every week I would walk downtown to pay .50 cents on it until it was paid off". Life was very different back then. People don't realize how easy they have it now compared to the old days.

My daughter put her project together. It came out beautiful. She had to read it to her class. That day she brought home an A!

Grandma and my daughter, Aiesha in 2006.


© 2014 Denise Muhammad