Around this time in 1830, in Buckingham County, Virginia, Jack Johnson owned mulatto Allie and they had a daughter.
Said another way, my great-great-great grandfather owned his wife. My great-great-great grandmother. A slave. And in 1830 she gave birth to their fifth child, whom they conveniently named Virginia. My great-great grandmother. Also a slave.
Jack owned his wife, all of his children, and his children’s children. Until the Civil War came marching right on through their front yard. But. This isn’t the same-ol’ same-ol’ story about a white man in the antebellum South and what he did with/to his female slave. For starters, I have come to believe with conviction, three-plus years into my research, that Jack truly loved Allie. Even that they loved each other. And that during their marriage, yes, I say marriage, she was his only.
This book project has been in the making for a long, long time, the idea of it anyway, appearing to me over the years in many forms. A persnickety abolitionist-leaning Northerner sitting up in her settee and stitching away at her story quilt. An apparition prodding me, actually, and every time she pokes her needle into the square depicting the slave who’s hefting two buckets, one on each side, each hanging from a long, straight stick balanced across his thick, round shoulders, shoulders almost as broad as his thick fire-red lips, I feel that needle, in either my arm or my butt, depending.
“Reconciliation Quilt,” 1867
International Quilt Study Center, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2001.011.0001
And that abolitionist’s quiltmaking continues to create quite a kerfluffle from hundreds of slave quilts stitched before hers, all pieced together painstakingly, all packed with their own stories, quilts that awaken from their slumber in an endless summer of waves and rise up from their Underground Railroad and lay themselves upon me so heavily that I fear sometimes I might be smothered.
Other times it comes in the form of a brown-sugar-skinned red-headed boy, real cute if you ask me, who grows up to become a strappingly handsome young man, now a soul-food star-chef who entices me with his Virginia version of Jamaican Jerk Wings and his Yum Yum Special BBQ Samiches. (My cousin!) And especially compelling is when it’s my grandma Carsue upbraiding 11-year-old me for feeding the chickens and then letting the pig out, because it promptly tramples those poor chickens while scrambling for the corn I threw and breaks the neck of one of them in the scuffle. Especially because then Grandma makes me watch as she finishes the job wringing the luckless chicken’s neck then plucking the feathers off the dead thing then frying it up in pig lard, in a castiron pan on the woodburning stove. And most especially sitting at the supper table and having to eat the thing that was running around clucking in the yard just this morning. Photo by Joshua Fitzwater
But it wasn’t until grown-up me stood and turned and peered toward Buckingham County from my tiny little house in California, squinting against the sun with my hand up on my brow, that I looked back far enough to realize, in the most visceral way, that the tiny little house I spent my Virginia summers in and the chicken coop where I fed the chickens all served as my slave ancestor’s home. Built in 1850 and still today without running water or a bathroom and all that, meaning that this place I had occupied very briefly in its long life was a very historic homestead. If those walls could talk, right?
Now that I really get it, all these people, with their singular message, persist in pushing and poking at me in a clamorous cacophony: get up off your behind and get those arms and fingers moving. Write this story.
I chose to start this epic by writing the story not of Jack and Allie but of Virginia, my great-great grandmother. Part of the process, for me, was my own self-discovery: one mixed-race woman’s search; one’s search for oneself. Since, like Virginia, I am also the product of a white father and a black mother, I had the idea that by tracing and understanding Miss Virginia and what her unusual life circumstances might have felt like, coming of age in the antebellum South and then witnessing the War Between the States pass right through her front yard, I might really understand who I am.
I was not prepared for the fascinating story that began to take shape, brought to life by the research my uncle and cousin had done before me and the documents I found in the archives and embellished by colorful family lore. Jack’s father’s will, written in 1823, for example. (Jack’s oldest half-brother contested the will.) Slave receipts. (Bought, sold, rented.) Church records. (Public drunkenness.) Along the way, I realized this is much bigger than me. I realized that this story needs to be told because I owe it to Virginia. The story of mixed-race people who lived through this time in history, from their perspective, is sorely lacking in the American letters. Now, it’s Miss Virginia who is speaking to me regularly. Now she has the needle in my side: “Write. Write!”
Stay tuned: Part 2 coming next….