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From Jerusalem

Letters of An Abiding Faith:

Legacy of a Slave's Granddaughter to Her Son

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!

Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!

                                                                                            Psalm 137.5-6

 

 

 Introduction

 

Family Origins -- Church, Family, & Place

I call Jerusalem my home. I was born, however, in South Baltimore at University of Maryland Hospital. Jerusalem remains a place of refuge and spiritual comfort. It is where Mama lives, where Daddy is buried. It was and continues to be a village, a hamlet of about ten families, spread out around a church, named Jerusalem Baptist, founded by freed Christian slaves in the late 1860s. There are some who believe it was named, not merely for the ancient and holy city of Judea, but also for the former county seat of Southampton, Virginia, that the Christian prophet and apostle Nathaniel Turner intended to seize in his holy war in August 1831. The first sixteen years of my life were conditioned by this place and when I was twelve I was immersed, along with others my age, in Jerusalem’s baptismal pool by the then new pastor Reverend John Boone.

Jerusalem is located in a piney woods five miles outside the township of Jarratt, named for a late eighteenth-century English landowning family that settled on the borders of two counties Sussex and Greensville in southeastern Virginia, about thirty-five miles south of Petersburg. Route 301 (Old Halifax Road) and now Interstate 95 run through the town. Along with Emporia, Jarratt was a significant during the Civil War when General Grant held Petersburg in seige. Jarratt Station, a crossroads of train traffic, was burned down and the rails twisted to assure that supplies did not reach the Confederate Army.

The last of her generation, Elizabeth Jarratt, who died nearly a hundred years old, was the last Jarratt to live in the English-styled house that sits at the head of the main street of the business district near the old station. When my aunt Annie cared for her before her death, I visited the old home and honored Miss Elizabeth with a bouquet of orange roses. The old house has been abandoned, except for the Negro attendant, who, it has been rumored, has taken up residence in the room where his mistress used to sleep.

Despite the former sway of the Jarratts and other white families, much of the land acquired by Jerusalem was formerly owned by William Bassett, a mulatto and the first pastor of the church. Along with others of his generation, Bassett fostered among his congregants a program of land ownership and education. Early in its history as the church prospered, there was internal conflict. Bassett led a portion of the members away from Jerusalem and helped to found Hassidiah Baptist, a church about five miles southwest and near the township of Jarratt. When he passed in the late 1880s Reverend Bassett was elaborately buried in the Hassidiah cemetery within a wrought iron fence with a four-foot headstone. Mama’s grandmother Malvina, a member of Hassidiah, was buried not far from the foot of his grave. My immediate family, however, has continued as members of Jerusalem since its founding.

The family land of about ten acres, on which I was raised, was consecrated over a century ago by the fathers of Jerusalem, former Christian slaves. So I consider it sacred, a magical place. My grandparents purchased this land from the church in 1948, the year of my birth. Before that year, my grandfather William Norman Lewis (Daddy) and my grandmother Ella Jackson Lewis (Mama) had been sharecroppers and lived on other people’s land from their marriage in1926 until they acquired this piece of church land. Just before moving to their new home, Mama and Daddy worked the farm of Cary Mason, a Negro farmer whose husband was called fondly “Kicky Bob.”

Old Jerusalem with its cemetery, now overgrown by trees and bushes, was constructed beyond what is now the open fields in back of our house. When I was a boy, Daddy and I went back near Old Jerusalem with mule and wagon and snow on the ground to cut a tree for fuel. It was then that he pointed out the sunken graves of former Christian slaves. Though it still can be detected, that wagon path to the old church has now been overgrown by bushes and trees.

Before they could reside on their ten acres, Mama and Daddy first had to clear the forest of trees and bushes. This readying process was done by cross-cut saw, ax, grubbing hoe, and a mule and wagon. Once removed from the earth or the trunks, and then piled, the bushes, limbs, and stumps were burnt and the ashes spread out on the land; the logs of a worthy size were then taken to the mill to be cut into boards for the new house. After the land was cleared for occupancy, they needed a well as a source of water. Daddy dug the twenty-foot hole with pick and shovel and Mama pulled up the mud and clay by pulley, rope, and bucket and dumped it. Mama and Daddy were sturdy as their parents before them, twentieth-century pioneers, of a sort.

Building & Rebuilding

Daddy was a trained carpenter and so he built, with the assistance of Mama and neighbors, a four-room house with an upstairs in sight of the church and its cemetery.

By the time they moved into the house at Jerusalem all their daughters, except Annie (called “Bunk”) had married or gone to the city, to Richmond or Baltimore. Four of us thus lived in the new house—Mama, Daddy, Annie (their youngest daughter, then about ten), and me. Destined for a short life, that house in 1952, when Annie was about thirteen and I about four, burned down along with everything therein. Though there was suspicion of foul play, none was brought to account. For me, the worst of the loss was twofold—the old, wind-up Victrola and its 78 rpm records and the space to be alone indoors.

While Daddy rebuilt, circumstances thus required us to live for a year or so in the cramped space of a cinder-block building. He had built this structure closer to the dirt road for a country store; on weekends, it was used also as a juke joint, which may have caused some consternation for the saints of the church.

The present house was built in front of the old house and thus closer to the road but not as close as the store. Daddy constructed this house twice as large, with eight rooms downstairs and three low-ceiling rooms upstairs. He wanted a family house so that his children would have a place to return if they got in trouble in the city. His thoughtfulness has kept the family tied together and the family has made ample use of the house. Nearly five decades later that house still stands and is still in use.Mama and Annie and her husband Nat now live in the house, which has been given a face life with new siding. It remains a place for faraway family members to make visits home.

Photo  left: Mama, Bustuh Rivers, and Daddy, 1956

The Coming End of Black Farm Life

It was in this house that I grew into adolescence and learned moral and spiritual values and to obey God and my parents. The bible and discussions of the scriptures were at the center of our lives. It was allso in this house that I first performed my studies and prepared for my classes. There were few intrusions from the outside world—no telephone and seldom even a newspaper. There was the AM radio, however, that picked up a few stations. A local rural station in Emporia provided news and agricultural reports in the morning, country and western music in the early afternoon and the more harmless versions of rock and roll (Pat Boone and the Platters) in the late afternoon, and then it signed off. At night, there was Randy’s Record’s Mart of Nashville, Tennessee, with its blues/jazz format. I also heard here the first Clay-Liston fight, and prayed a victory for the Louisville Lip. When we got our black-and-white television in August 1958, I spent many hours before the tube until the screen was filled with snow and I was wakened to go to bed.

Outwardly, ours was a fairly simple life. There was no indoor plumbing or central heating. Water was carried from the well in a pail and the house in the winter was heated by wood, which had to be cut with a cross-cut saw and chopped and carried into the house. We relieved ourselves in an outhouse set off from the main building at a distance. The last one constructed with its concrete floor still stands, barely. There were other structures out back—a barn, mule stables, hog pens, chicken coop, wood shed, and a smokehouse. This last smokehouse was built on the concrete front porch of the house that burned down. In it, after the hog killing season, meat (hams, shoulders, fatback, bacon, snouts, ears, tails, feet) was salted, smoked, and stored. Sausage packed in guts hanged from the ceiling. There were fields in back of the house in which we raised tobacco, cotton, corn, peanuts, and a vegetable garden. A mound of pine straw and dirt preserved the  potatoes.  

Inwardly, our lives were fairly complex. Making a life, which means sustaining a family, is never a simple matter, even in our agrarian world, in which there were primarily two industries, harvesting the forest and tilling the soil. This new house had to be furnished, all eight rooms and upstairs, and made into another home. This project of home and family required the energies, commitment, and creativity of all hands, adults and children, and, at times, the resources of those away from home. Nine years older than I, Annie and I grew up together in this house at Jerusalem as older sister and younger brother. We had our chores, which were many. Here we found no shame in work and learned how to work and find one’s humanity in work. Wood had to be cut and toted, pails of water hauled, clothes washed on a board and hanged on a line; and the fields hoed.

The harvest had to be taken in and stored; pigs killed and cleaned; garden produce picked and canned. There was always a harvest surplus that Mama and Daddy willingly and happily shared with their children, kinsmen, neighbors, and visitors living nearby or in the city away from home. Of course, there were always debts and insurance to be paid.

Mama Photographed at a church gathering, 1950s

 

By late 1948, Mama began working as a cook at Jarratt Motel, up on Route 301, eight hours a day, for less than twenty dollars a week.  In addition to the six days as a cook at the motel, at which she retired in the mid-1970s, Mama continued to work the fields at the house, raise her chickens, can and store meat away for the winter. Daddy farmed, worked at sawmills, built houses, and whatever other work he could find to make ends meet. His last job, I believe, was as a custodian at the new modern elementary school built in Jarratt in the late 1960s. Despite our trials and accomplishments, we all looked forward to Christmas, when family would come from afar, and a grand meal would be set on tables. Daddy would pray a long and sustained prayer and then we would eat until all burst at the seams. Then presents would be shared and opened and all seemed right with the world. 

On these grand holiday occasions, our family communed with those present and those remembered. Memories of those fallen by the wayside were then passed along.  

Assembling the Ancient Past

Mama’s paternal grandmother Malvina Jackson was born in 1850 a slave in Scotland Neck, North Carolina, and died 1952, over a hundred years old. Leaving her dead husband John in Carolina, Malvina, called “Malviny,” and her four sons Thomas, John, Willie, and Herbert and daughter Emily came up to Jarratt in the early 1880s and made it their home the duration of their lives. 

Mama’s father, Thomas Jefferson Jackson (1865-1951), called “TeeJay” by his drinking buddies, was the oldest son of Malviny. TeeJay met and married Laura Williams, daughter of the upright Sam Williams, born 1829(?) a slave, on some indefinite farm in southeastern Virginia. (Former slaves were not too anxious to speak of their former lives. They were new men and women in Christ.) Fannie Mason was Sam William’s beautiful and fair wife and Laura’s mother. Of a weak, it seems, constitution, Fannie died in her thirties shortly after Laura’s birth, about 1872, and Sam Williams died in 1910, about eighty years old, a year before Mama was born..   After Fannie’s death, Sam Williams never remarried and thus raised his three children—Tempie, Allan, and Laura—alone on his ten-acre farm. He lived to see his two daughters well-married. Tempie had two daughters Merty and Suzanna.

Photo right: Lucinda, me, Mama, my sister Theresa, 1997.

 Through Merty, Tempie has numerous descendants. Suzanna, whom we called “Cousin Sue,” was a farmer with one son, Charles. Outliving her son, she died in her eighties and, because of her thriftiness, according to reports, left her two grown grandsons hundred of thousands of dollars, some say a million dollars. Allan called “Guy” was a dwarf and died without issue. Laura was the baby girl. She was about twenty-three when she married TeeJay in 1893. Together, they had eight children: Wiley, Fannie, Jimmy, Sally, Sam, Tom, and Ella (the baby girl). Wiley, Fannie, Jimmy, and Tom died as young adults. While in Hackensack, New Jersey, Tom had a daughter named Betty. Sally and Sam, both dead, also have numerous descendants.

The oldest of TeeJay’s children was Henry Robinson, whose mother was a resident of Southampton. Uncle Henry, who died in 1984, had three daughters. His father, Teejay was a timber boss for Gray Lumber Company in Waverly, which is situated at the other end of the county from Jarratt, about forty miles away. As Mama recalls, she rarely saw her father as a child. He came home about once a month; he did, however, send money home on a regular basis. Laura supplemented the family income by taking in wash and working in the fields. According to Mama, they all knew nothing but work; there was little time for formal learning or travel. As an adult, she did manage to visit by the Trailways bus as often as possible her sister Sally who moved to Baltimore in the late 1920s. I spent my first two months of life in Aunt Sally’s house on South Fremont.  

The Birth of the Lewis Family

At fifteen, Ella Jackson, born 1911, married William Norman Lewis (1905-1970). Daddy  had seven brothers, all the sons of Mary Lewis—Edward, Irvin, Joe, Richard, Arthur, Percy, and Theodore (called “Billy”). Daddy’s mother Mary Lewis, born 1875 and died 1959, was thirty at his birth. Never a landowner, Mary lived most of her life on her sister Sally Myrick’s five acres. Their mother Betty Jones was born and became a young woman in slavery and never married. Mary, however, took possession of her father’s name and thus surnamed all her sons Lewis. For, if nothing else, they were her very own. Mary worked most of her life as a field hand on the Owens farm. Mary’s seventh son, Percy, was a mulatto, fathered by her employer Marvin Owens. In her seventies, Mary married Jake King. Her first marriage was of short duration. One of Mary’s descendants, through Daddy’s eldest brother Edward Lewis and his son James, is the diminutive actor Webster Lewis, who in the 1970s had his own show on television.

Grandma Mary also raised the son of her sister Sally Myrick, Richard, called “Blind Dick.” He was born without sight. Working as a domestic in Richmond, Sally was unable to care for him and thus that responsibility devolved to her sister Mary. The same age as Daddy’s brother Richard, Blind Dick died when I was a boy. All eight of Mary’s sons are now deceased, except, possibly, Percy, who deserted his family in the mid-1950s. Like many young black men of southern Virginia, Daddy loved the land and so did most of his brothers. 

Arthur, whose father was Daniel Robinson and a deacon at Jerusalem, also remained in the countryside. He had three children—Martha, Mary (called “Phoodie”), and Herbert. Martha and Mary moved to Philadelphia and raised their families there and continue to live there. Herbert, their brother now a deacon, remained in Jarratt. Uncle Arthur is dear in my memory. It was he who bought me a little blackboard and taught me my letters and numbers. His foresight, interest, and diligence led me to excel in my elementary studies and outstrip my peers and graduate a year early.

As young men, both Joe and Richard moved to Richmond. At his death Uncle Joe, however, was returned to Jarratt and was buried in the family cemetery; Uncle Richard, however, was buried in a proprietary cemetery in Baltimore. His second wife Catherine wanted him near her. Although I met Uncle Joe several times, I did not know him as well as Richard, whom Daddy called “Dick.” Uncle Richard made his life as a mechanic, first in Richmond and later in Baltimore. 

When I was a boy, I loved for Uncle Richard to come home to Jerusalem. He was “big time” and always had for me a few coins and at times a few bills. In Baltimore in the late 1960s, I worked for Uncle Richard, who managed the preparation of used cars for A.D. Anderson Chevrolet, whose lot was at 25th and Maryland. I washed, waxed and buffed, and vacuumed cars. Unlike Daddy, Richard was very playful; he even had an electrified train set in his basement on Bentalou. Richard had two sons, one in his youth by his first wife called “Sonny” (now dead) and a much younger son named Carlton

Uncle Richard, a lover of cigars and big Oldsmobiles, attempted to persuade his brother to move to Baltimore. Daddy had no love for the city and thus remained in the country of his birth and became a sharecropper on a number of farms and supported his mother Mary. He worked also in the timber industry, the other major source of wages, most often at Cap’n Smith’s sawmill, the place that milled most of the boards for the family houses. But Daddy was also a carpenter and bricklayer. Like most men and women of the countryside, he possessed multiple talents, which were necessary for survival and progress. Shortly after their marriage and after living with Grandma Mary for awhile, Mama and Daddy lived for a year or so with Daddy’s father George Graves.  

Cox' Snow & George Graves

Born a slave fifteen years before Abraham Lincoln was elected president, George Graves (1845-1932), a mulatto, had a considerable estate of twenty-five acres by 1926. He was “twelve years old in Cox’s Snow,” he told Mama. (According to The Negro in Virginia [1940, p. 32], numerous slaves dated their ages by this snow that “came up to the eaves of the house.” Cox’s Snow was named for Dr. Philip Cox, who had delivered many Negro babies. Responding to a medical call, he went out during the snow and was found in his buggy, reins in hand, frozen to death. This was the “worst snow that ever hit the Old Dominion.” It came the winter of 1857—February 9, 10 and 11—and “covered all Virginia and most of North Carolina.”) Thus George Graves, a deacon at Jerusalem, was sixty years old when Daddy was born and about sixty-two when Richard was born.

Actually, Daddy had three other siblings. For George Graves had another family in Petersburg before he met Mary Lewis and had two sons by her (William and Richard, Mary’s fourth and fifth sons). George Graves’ other children were Alice, Molly, and Edward. They were adults when Daddy was born, probably in their twenties or thirties. Certainly, Alice was as old or older than Mary Lewis when Daddy was born.  

Sharecropping & Getting an Education

Though Petersburg was Edward Graves primary residence, he lived for awhile with his father, George Graves, whose estate was across the road from where Mary resided. Edward Lewis (called “Little Eddie”), Mary’s first child, was the son of Edward Graves, who seemingly was of a weak constitution and died mysteriously in his late twenties or early thirties. Little Eddie was Mary’s “love child” and his father, whom Mary had hoped to marry, the love of her life. Alice and Molly inherited George Graves’ twenty-five acres, sold it at his death, and were never seen thereafter. In his early eighties, George Graves offered to sell his estate to Daddy at market value. Though he could have purchased the land from his mulatto father by installments, Daddy, however, refused to buy that which he felt should have been his by inheritance.

Though highly skilled in the arts of rural life, Mama and Daddy never finished their elementary education. Though he could read, write, and figure, Daddy often boasted, for he had much to be proud of, that he went to school only one day of his life.

He exaggerated, according to Mama.She stayed a more extended period at Creath School, which was about two miles north of Jerusalem on a dirt road that wound through Sansee Swamp. The two-room clapped board school for colored children was named for the local white farmer, Luther Creath, who donated the land on which the school was built. Many of the area Negroes also worked on the Creath farm. Creath school had originally been part of the church school at Jerusalem Baptist, which has been on its present foundation since 1870. The Creath building was torn down in the 1970s.

It had been in operation since the early years of the second decade of the twentieth century. 

A painting of Mama by Kaki

When Mama went to Creath she lived three to five miles north of the school at her grandfather Sam Williams’ place.

Grandma Mary, Daddy’s mother, lived a mile north of the school across from the Owen's farm. Like many other children, Ella was taken out of school in the spring for planting and in the fall for harvesting. She always found herself behind in her studies; in addition, she did not have the necessary clothing to present herself well. So she dropped out of school at ten or eleven to work at home with her mother Laura or on the Creath and Owen's farms. She too can read, write, and figure.

Daddy (fondly called  “Pompsie” or “Tinka”) and Mama had five daughters: Virginia, Susie, Lucinda, Edith, and Annie. Like Mama before them, they too attended Creath School and all five finished Creath’s seven grades. Mama sacrificed to assure that they went beyond her own studies. All five went on to the training school in Waverly and all, I believe, reached at least the ninth grade before dropping out and then marrying. Mama’s daughters were all children of the Great Depression; that is, everything was scarce, especially money. Lucinda recalls working for seventy-five cents a day for ten hours work in the fields. Mama thought her daughter had it good, for she had worked for fifty cents a day. Love of family and hope for the future, however, endured through it all.  

Five Sisters & Me

Susie lived and continues to live just beyond the back field, on the same road as the church. With an additional purchase of land from Jerusalem, Daddy gave Susie and her husband Clarence Carter this parcel of land and built with his own hands a house for her after Clarence’s death. Clarence died on the way to the hospital after a gunfight near Dew Drop Inn with the local police in a town ten miles south of Jarratt, called Emporia. Clarence’s family was from Southampton but lived in Sussex and then in Greensville counties. (By some reports, Clarence’s mother Elsie was the daughter of Jim Jordan of Como, North Carolina. In the 1950s, this fabled root doctor, whose customers came from faraway places such as Michigan and New York, amassed a considerable fortune.)  

A grieving widow in October 1956, Susie was left with three sons: Norman, Clarence Vaughn and Clinton McNeal (called “Mack” or “Clint.”). Norman, born the same year as I, was the oldest of the three brothers. Like Mama’s five daughters, we four boys along with other children of Jerusalem walked to Creath and graduated. As soon as we  were old enough we worked the fields behind the house under Daddy’s supervision. After three decades a widow, Susie married George Threatt, a truck driver who died in the 1990s; he  lies in Jerusalem’s cemetery near Susie’s first husband Clarence Carter.  

Mama and Daddy’s oldest daughter Virginia (called “Sistuh”) married Samuel “Bustuh” Rivers, whose grandfather was a great Negro landowner in the Gray-Yale area (See black-and-white photo above of Mama and Daddy on porch, between them is Bustuh Rivers).

A painting of Daddy by Kaki

The Rivers’ family land was on the edges of and extended into Southampton County. Sistuh and Bustuh had four children: Sandra, Elaine, Lydia, and Sam Junior, called “Sonny.” They all went to an elementary modeled on Creath called Rivers School, built on land donated by their great grandfather. Their grandfather Norfleet, “Snooks” Rivers, a farmer, also ran a juke joint at Rivers Mill in Southampton, where corn was also milled. This manmade body of water also served recreationally as a fishpond. As a little boy, I stayed with Bustuh and Sistuh for days in the two-story farmhouse in back of the school. With the building of modern schools, Bustuh turned Rivers School into a juke joint and then later Daddy helped remodel it into a house for Bustuh, Sistuh, and their family.

Edith married Cleveland “Skik” Taylor and they eventually had four children—Robert Lee, Wanda, Kenneth, and Cleveland. Skik died when they were children. Their early years were spent in Cherry Hill, a government project south of downtown Baltimore. Concerned about the welfare of his daughter Edith and her children, Daddy convinced her to return to Virginia with her children. He had a house built for her on a parcel of the ten acres at Jerusalem. Though they started school in Baltimore, Edith’s children all completed their education in Sussex. Edith died in her late thirties and lies not too far from her father William in the church cemetery. Wanda and Cleveland continue to live on what was church land. Kenneth and Robert Lee have both made their homes in Texas.

Lucinda married William Lee Carter, brother of Clarence. These two Carter boys had about eight or nine other brothers and sisters. By William Lee, Lucinda had two children: Celestine and Deborah. Excluding me, the first child, Lucinda also had three other children: Theresa, Ronald, and Aisha. Except for me, all of Lucinda’s children attended public schools in Baltimore. At seventeen, when Lucinda first went to Baltimore, she carried me in her belly and lived with her Aunt Sally (Mama’s sister) during her pregnancy. Soon after my birth, while in the cradle unattended I was bitten by a rat. I was thus sent back to Jarratt when I was two months old and raised by my grandparents, who feared for my health and safety. I have always called my grandmother Ella “Mama” and my grandfather William “Daddy.” In the 1970s Lucinda remarried and continues to be married to Grover Reed, formerly of Georgia. He is the father of Aisha.

Annie, who now lives with and cares for Mama, married three times. She has indeed been a blessing for her mother, who is now 91. Dropping out of Waverly Training School at sixteen, she first married David Hawthorne, who fathered her first two sons, David and Clarence (called “Peter”). Their father David, Sr. is now dead. Her other two children, Michael and Michele, came from her second husband, Amos Fleming, whom Annie met in South Baltimore. A fun guy, Amos still lives in the countryside, near Emporia. Her third husband is Nathaniel Givens, a farmer and mason. Annie’s children were educated partially in Baltimore and  then in Sussex.  

Prodigal Son & Family Trailblazing

The first in my family, I attended Central High School from 1960 to 1965. Replacing the wooden barracks-like buildings of Waverly Training School, Central, a  modern structure of brick and steel, was newly built in 1959 for Negroes in order to sidestep the Brown decision of the Supreme Court. The previous generation traveled forty miles by bus to get to Waverly, whereas we had only twenty miles to get to Central. That generation thought we had it easy.

At sixteen, I graduated from Central, the first in my family to complete high school. In 1965, I left Jerusalem on the Trailways Bus for Baltimore and enrolled for collegiate studies at Morgan State. It was another first. I, however, dropped out of Morgan after five semesters and two years of ROTC, Spring semester 1968. My matriculation at Morgan was interrupted by the Black Consciousness Movement, the Vietnam War, and the larger cultural revolution taking place in America and the world. Norman, I believe, earned the family honor of the first to graduate from college when he received his degree in business administration  at Norfolk State.  

I have lived most of my life in Baltimore. But I also lived near College Park, Maryland, where I attended the state university, and in Washington, DC.

A painting of Rudy at 12 by Kaki

 After I completed my graduate studies at College Park, I also lived four years in Louisiana—a year in Monroe, two years in New Orleans, and a year in Baton Rouge. A year before I went to Louisiana, I spent ten weeks in Zaire, Central Africa. A trip paid for by the Peace Corps, it was a wonderful experience that contributed to my maturity and world view.  

Letters of An Abiding Faith

After I left Jerusalem in 1965, Mama wrote me numerous letters from home. I managed to preserve fifty-eight of them, written during an eighteen-year period (1976-1994) while I lived in various places in Maryland, District of Columbia, and Louisiana. These letters reveal the general state of the family, its health and activities; life at the family farmhouse; death of family members and neighbors; and problems of family inheritance. They also contain reports on the weather; words of encouragement to me, her “son”; statements of religious faith; Mama’s anxieties, fears, and pains; and her adventures beyond Virginia. At times her simple sincerity is exceedingly moving. 

In going to school irregularly, Mama’s writing is not easy to read for one unaccustomed to her hand. In transcribing the letters, I kept a semblance of her cacographic style and syntax. What is most important, which the reader will find pleasing, is that her unique voice can still be heard. In editing the letters, I placed an asterisk at words and at the end of sentences that would not be understood otherwise by someone not familiar with my family’s inner workings and relationships. At the bottom of the page in a smaller font, I added explanatory notes to give context for the letters and an understanding of words, persons, and situations. To create greater textuality, I have added not only biographical but also autobiographical material about where I was and what I was doing and who my relationships were when the letters were received.

The letters enclosed here thus present a family portrait, lived lives, as well as portraits of persons outside the family—neighbors, friends, acquaintances, teachers, and employers. All of it is not pretty. But it is sincere, honest, and spiritually revealing. The driving motive or desire for pulling these letters together in this format is that I want my family to be remembered. Unlike the dead souls of former slaves in the backfields stretched out in the cold dirt, their graves overgrown by trees and forgotten, I want my family to live forever with all their glory and all their failures, as a lesson for the living.

Then there is this place of my spiritual and moral training, Jerusalem, the village and the church. It too must not be forgotten. It is a living and ongoing memorial of the work and foresight of liberated Christian slaves. At Jerusalem Baptist, six generations of my family and their neighbors have found and continue to find solace and a foundation for their lives in a troubling world. Though not as popular as in the 1940s and 1950s when it had three hundred members under its beloved pastor the Reverend General Ruffian, Jerusalem continues its missionary work of bringing lost souls to Christ. 

My aunt Annie is now an ardent worker and disciple of Christ. Her Christian work has made Mama proud and thankful, for her prayers have been answered. Our family home, too, continue to be a refuge and a place of consolation for those who have lost their way in the cities and the byways of life. It remains too a living memorial to its architect and builder, William “Pompsie” Lewis. Though he had only one eye, he was a man of great foresight.

Most of all, this work has been done to honor Mama, Ella Jackson Lewis, so that she may live forever in the hearts and souls of her descendants. These letters have been saved and displayed that her progeny will know that it was indeed possible without wealth, privilege, and station to live a righteous life in this world. The reader will see one who, for more than seven decades, with all her life’s blood and a great giving spirit, successfully provided for, protected, and led her family in the ways of the Lord Jesus Christ and was a comfort and a helper to her husband William as the scriptures teach. But even more, I hope these letters will reveal her great faith in God and his salvation.

*   *   *   *   *

 

Mockingbirds at Jerusalem (poetry Manuscript)

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#3 - Dear G-Spot: Straight Talk About Sex and Love by Zane
#4 - Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny by Hill Harper
#5 - Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You're Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant
#6 - Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey
#7 - The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight
#8 - The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing
#9 - The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson

#10 - John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History  by Ahati N. N. Toure

#11 - Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley

#12 -The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

#13 - The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell

#14 - The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

#15 - Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can't Commit  by RM Johnson

#16 - Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins

#17 - Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell

#18 - A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose by Eckhart Tolle

#19 - John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

#20 - Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris

#21 - Age Ain't Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice

#22 - 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino
#23 - Chicken Soup for the Prisoner's Soul by Tom Lagana
#24 - 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields

#25 - Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class  by Lisa B. Thompson

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Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays

Edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis 

Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a collection of fourteen essays by scholars and creative writers from Africa and the Americas. Called one of two significant critical works on Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late 1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of Carter G. Woodson and Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations were shaped by the Black aesthetic. The early essays, primarily of the Black-as-subject in Spanish medieval and Golden Age literature, provide an historical context for understanding 20th-century creative works by African-descended, Hispanophone writers, such as Cuban Nicolás Guillén and Ecuadorean poet, novelist, and scholar Adalberto Ortiz, whose essay analyzes the significance of Negritude in Latin America. This collaborative text set the tone for later conferences in which writers and scholars worked together to promote, disseminate, and critique the literature of Spanish-speaking people of African descent. . . . Cited by a literary critic in 2004 as "the seminal study in the field of Afro-Hispanic Literature . . . on which most scholars in the field 'cut their teeth'."

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

Browse all issues


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Enjoy!

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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updated 28 May 2008

 

 

 

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