FLORENCE — Jo Beckwith Ford and her sister, Hazel Beckwith Johnson, have been on a mission for years to learn more about their ancestors and heritage.
They got a major assist in their quest when the staff at the Florence-Lauderdale Public Library invited them to take part in processing a treasure trove of Beckwith family papers from the 19th century. The papers were donated anonymously to the library in June 2012.
“I’m excited because it gives us insight into where we might have come from,” Johnson said.
The scant oral history they have collected from older relatives indicates their ancestors were brought to Alabama from Virginia.
“But we don’t know where they came off the slave ship,” Ford said. “We want to get DNA testing done so we can pinpoint where in Africa we came from — our roots.”
The Beckwith papers span the years from 1845 to the early 1900s. They include letters, ledgers and records that chronicle the plantation and farms they operated in the Gravelly Springs area of Lauderdale County. The information that most interests Ford and Johnson is found in the records of slaves the family owned before the Civil War.
Like many freed slaves, their ancestors assumed the surname of their former owners.
Ford and Johnson have pinpointed a 10-year-old slave boy in an 1856 ledger named Fred as their direct ancestor.
“My father had always said his father’s name was Fred,” Ford said. “To see that name on an 1856 ledger was really exciting.”
Ford and Johnson are fortunate to have access to the Beckwith papers. For many African-Americans, the search for their ancestry is a study in frustration.
Tom McKnight has experienced frustration in his quest for roots, but he also has found unexpected successes. After retiring from the United Nations, the New York native set out to find his ancestors, which led him to Tuscumbia.
“If you can go back more than a couple of generations, you are lucky, unlike some of our European counterparts,” he said. “The system of slavery itself was such that you didn’t have anything. The name of the game was to strip you of any knowledge of who you were and where you came from. When slaves were brought here, they were separated by family, tribe and tongue.”
McKnight’s research revealed that his great-grandparents lived in Tuscumbia.
“My great-grandmother was a cook at Ivy Green when Helen Keller was a child,” he said. “She was related to James Napier, a successful businessman and lawyer and civil rights activist in Nashville. He formed a bank that’s still in business today.”
Part of the frustration shared by McKnight, Ford and Johnson is the reluctance of many of their older kin to speak about the past and their families.
“It was hard getting oral history from our older kin,” Ford said. “I guess they considered those things private. I don’t think they would approve of what we are doing.”
“It was not like today, when there are kids under your elbow all the time,” McKnight said. “When my great-grandmother’s people got together to talk, you got the eye cut. No words had to be spoken. It meant go outside and play because you don’t need to be hearing this.”
McKnight said he didn’t realize until years later, inspired by Alex Haley’s “Roots” to research his family history, that his elders did not want the children to hear the tales of hardship and cruelty many of them had endured.
But that came at a cost.
“Even today it’s hard to capture those oral histories,” he said. “So, we end up losing an awareness of who we are.”
The Beckwith papers were well preserved when the library obtained them.
Spread out in folders over several tables, the scent of cedar is detectable.
“The person who brought them in said he found then in an old cedar trunk,” said Clint Alley, one of the library’s preservationists. “We’re flattening the papers to get the creases out, then they will be digitized.”
Letters written by Elizabeth Beckwith are often unique. Wealthy, divorced and helping direct farm operations after the Civil War, she clearly had a strong personality and bluntness with words.
Alley said in a post-war letter to a nephew, she writes, “Uncle Hugh was murdered last week. By the way, tell Xander I decided not to sell the mule.”
“These papers will tell us a lot about the social structure at that time,” Alley said.
Robert Palmer can be reached at 256-740-5720 or robert.palmer@TimesDaily.com.
Want to go?
What: Florence-Lauderdale Public Library is hosting a seminar on researching African-American genealogy
When: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday
Details: Call Lee Freeman, 256-764-6564, ext. 30, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org