Knowing your history is one thing. Seeing your history is quite another.
So last month when I walked into an old school house that had been built by ex-slaves and restored as a museum, I was rendered speechless by something in a glass frame on the wall. It was a slave pass that had been given to my great-great grandfather Adam Collier, who was born in 1820 and who died sometime after 1910.
The pass, dated 1831, permitted Adam to “pass from John S. Mathews to Right Adams by Capt. Holloways. He is at liberty to stop where he may think proper near the road on his rout(e).”
Being in that museum and seeing that piece of paper, with those scrawled instructions – a typed version was also included – was an exhilarating experience, connecting me with ancestors whose determination to survive and thrive I marvel at today. It is humbling to think that without their strength and fortitude there probably would be no me.
The other amazing thing about this museum is that its founder and namesake is a 97-year-old cousin of mine, Georgia Collier Scott. Adam is her great-grandfather. Georgia, whose own story of perseverance and achievement is noteworthy – she was a longtime S.C. educator who was among the first African Americans there to get her master’s degree – raised the money (and put in a chunk of her own funds) to restore the 1800s-era community school.
When the museum was dedicated in 2010, a slew of dignitaries and residents of McCormick, S.C., where the school house sits, stood in attendance. The museum, which includes the school bell used by the school’s first teacher, original seats students used, old church pews and other artifacts, is now on the S.C. Historic Registry.
Two PBS features – Ken Burns’ “The Roosevelts” and Henry Louis Gates’ “Finding Your Roots” – recently have gotten me thinking a lot about the journeys we as Americans have traversed. They are often different in some significant ways but they are no less American journeys.
And whether you are born to privilege or struggle to survive, there remains a connective thread to the American journey. Perseverance and determination play a central role.
Perhaps that is a reason so many of us are now seeking to learn more about our collective American past, and about our personal history – and more should. History is indeed a great teacher if we would pay attention to it and learn from it.
The changes that occurred in this country during the years of Presidents Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, and FDR’s wife and First Lady Eleanor, were sweeping. But as interesting to me were the roles of myriad of others – including the masses of everyday people – whose actions and circumstances played a part in remaking America, over and over again.
My slave ancestors were among them.
And in our own “Finding Your Roots” trek, my family is now having light-bulb upon light-bulb moments of discovery. With new DNA results, we’ve not only found our ancestral beginnings in Africa (Benin on my mother’s side; Sierra Leone on my father’s), we’ve been linked through common ancestors to people and places we had not a clue of – including Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio. We’ve also been given email contacts for unknown relatives.
The America we know today exists only because of what those who lived before us sweated and persevered to achieve. Their journeys as well as ours are worth “discovering” anew.