From where have I come?
When you start opening the Ancestry.com doors to the past, you hope that what’s hiding behind them will be a huge prize, like on ‘The Price is Right’! Well, sometimes, what’s behind those doors is a lifetime supply of sardine cans filled with tasty question marks.
Luckily, I love a good mystery. In fact, as a Scorpio, it is said I would make a good detective. However, no detective, even one that loves sardines, likes a case unsolved, including me.
Here lies my great grandpa, Jasper Chambers, age 3 in an 1880 census in the Roseville precinct in Barren County, Kentucky. (Hey, Y’all!)
However, WHO is his daddy? Ain’t no man to be found in the Chambers household, but look below, right next door to find a John W. Chambers, unmarried living with his momma, Tamsy. Right.next.door. Jennie and her kin, along with the lonely Hunter Chambers above, seem to be the only black folks living in this area of two pages of census and I’m wondering how they got there. Did Tamsy have something to do with that? Because, at age 68, I can imagine that her family may have had slaves up until her 30s or 40s and perhaps she kept or brought Jennie and Amy along with her to Barren County where some of her relatives lived. OR NOT.
I called the Barren County Chamber of Commerce and Cultural Center today to, you know, see if I could get any answers. The women I spoke to were lovely and basically suggested I come on down there because they have just about every record you could ever want and that yes, the Chambers name is quite prevalent down there. I wasn’t so bold to ask them if they knew if Tamsy owned Jennie and Amy. I really wanted to, but just couldn’t.
Alas. As you’ll see behind door #2, there are several Chambers living in this area, (one woman is named America Chambers, which I LOVE! Apparently this Roseville/Barren area is mostly Scots-Irish and is a part of the Glasgow, KY Micropolitan Statistical Area named for Glasgow, Scotland*.) I have images of a thankful immigrant naming their kid America running through my head. By the way, on page 19 of this census, there is yet another America Chambers, different age, but I am heavily assuming they all have something to do with one another.
But back to my kin.
Let’s talk about the lonely Hunter Chambers in image #1 (love his name). Who was this little black boy living with the white Landrum family? At 13, was he a hired hand that lived in the house? More importantly, was he a child of my great great grandma Jennie? Does he belong to our people? If I hadn’t scanned above, I wouldn’t have seen his name, and as this census is recorded, if he wasn’t living in the home, he wouldn’t be associated with Jennie. Instead, at 13, he is merely a laborer with the Landrum family who, Wiki tells me, Landrum is on the National Register of Historic places. Knowing what I know of towns that are named for folks, those folks are usually wielding some sort of wealth, power or fame, right? Hunter, what’s your story?
And lastly, it says that Jennie and Amy Chambers are two single women in the house; as I mentioned before, there are no adult men. Jennie is aged 33 with three children Adah, Sarah and Jasper and Amy is aged 20. Is Amy a sister of Jennie? Are the two kids, Crutchfield (Crutchfield??) and Burl Amy’s or what? It says that Amy is a servant — to whom??
I’m doing this research as part of my Squire Foundation writing residency project and my forthcoming novella. I hadn’t planned on becoming an historian, but it looks like all my training with Jessica Fletcher and Columbo is going to come to good use because some of this historical stuff has become the basis for my lovely fiction. I’m excited to uncover more clues here that can solve our Chambers mystery, however, I may not have the stamina to uncover as much as I’d like (this is JUST ONE PARENT!).
And there’s one big, big, red herring here in this can of sardines and that is the fun topic of generational pain. Jennie did not have a husband in the house. My grandpa Jasper marries a Fannie Ellis in 1895, but disappears from the 1900 census and Fannie is alone with two children, one being my grandpa. My grandpa Roscoe married my grandma Alice and left for reasons I personally do not know, thereby leaving my dad and aunt to grow up without their dad for their teenage years. My parents divorced when I was eight and I lived with my mom first without my dad and then my dad and stepmom without my mom. I’m 48 and just now in a relationship that has stuck in its heels. And yes, I am a-ware that my fiance is white and what that can mean historically to some and even for me. There is a lot of pain here, seen and not. If families weren’t forced apart back then for one reason or another, would the black family be stronger today? Could I have met my great grandpa Jasper? What would that have meant?
I was talking to my dad today about all this, and I was saying to him that it is amazing to learn about this stuff while the people to whom it actually means something are all dead. These names are merely names; I have no stories to go along with them, let alone pics of great great grandma Jennie on the farm. It’s easy to want this to all mean something profound, harder to accept that maybe it really doesn’t. Because if we live in the past, we’re stuck there. Before you get all sociological on me, I am not talking about ignoring the past, I’m saying that we also need to be present in where we are now while taking account of the past, hence my thoughts on generational pain. ‘Cause this stuff affects more than just black people. It affects most people.
Ultimately, for me, I care about two things. I care that these people lived so that I could, too. I care that they existed because they are my history and I’m fascinated by them and their lives as they appear on paper. The second thing I care about is what I can’t know. I received my ancestry DNA results (I will share them with you in the next post, but I will share now that I have 4% Ireland/Scotland heritage — Hello Glasgow, Kentucky??). I want to know how my DNA got mixed up in me. Where did those stories come from? Some, I may never know and hence why I’m writing my story now. I’m filling in blanks with what may or may not be fiction from ancestors that I hope are speaking to me through my fingers.
Only time can tell the difference.
Just one more thing. You know how I like to think I’m psychic? Well, my Nigerian (5%) ancestors are speaking to me loud and clear as I write my new novella and secondly, ancestor Burl Chambers made himself known, too! He’s the name of one of my characters in Pt 2 of Harlem’s Awakening (It’s being reviewed right now, guys. I promise I’m almost done). I’d never heard the name Burl before; imagine my joy when I saw his name on the census last week as Amy Chambers one-month old son!
There’s more to come. History is in the making.