Walking in Another’s Shoes
When my sister-in-law asked me to locate more information about a black Civil War soldier, I became interested in his life. Little did I know that my interest in Thomas Jackson would lead me to walking in another’s shoes.
It isn’t easy to put yourself into somebody else’s shoes. Not only had I never done African American research, but I’m caucasian… white skin, blonde hair and blue eyes. While I am a professional genealogist, this was out of my scope of experience. Surely I could walk around in their shoes and learn something, plenty of something. I have no black ancestors, but quite a few ancestors who owned slaves.
Those shoes have proved to be painful. I have photos of some people I research, their eyes looking at me as if they are inquiring if I know what their life was really like. Children, staring back at me with their cute, childish grins, holding white dollies. Did they know those dolls were white?
I grew up with a prejudged mother, southern grandparents, relatives and ancestors. I knew the rules and especially learned my lesson when I requested a black dollie for Christmas. The signs of segregated restrooms, drinking fountains and lunch counters are still vivid in my mind. What right do I have prying now into their lives, their painful lives?
In 1962 I bid farewell to college friends who were boarding a Nebraska train bound for Hattiesburg, Mississippi. They were going to make a wrong a right. Or were they merely going for the adventure? As if going off to war, they proclaimed that they might not come back alive. I didn’t go to experience the Mississippi turmoils and view first hand the brutalities. What right do I have now that I’m investigating these black lives?
The shoes are worn through at times, and I am walking on bare feet. I feel the sting of the rocks of a foreign soil and at times history reminds me of the lashings and beatings as well as the lynchings. Walking in those shoes does not make a wrong a right. My feet are tired at times and I want to stop walking and researching. Later I am compelled to walk again and see what is around the next bend. Who are the masters who owned humans of another color? Wishing to keep going beyond the Emancipation, I pick up only fragments of names, very seldom a surname, or names of parents.
My research comes to a halt quickly as I discover name changes, missing records and I long for written testimonies, other than criminal records or newspaper accounts. As I dig deeper and deeper the frustration mounts as well as the sensitivity to the mental and physical battering of black lives. Was the Peculiar Institution political and economical? Was there no love and compassion in the souls of the masters? I hope that my slave owning ancestors treated their slaves with kindness. Especially in one plantation family, I have proof that my great, great, great uncle had children by one of his slaves, all the while his wife was filling their mansion with white babies. Disgust and bile for what he did churn inside of me.
Yet my research must go on as my sister-in-law and I are writing a book on the African Americans of Western Nebraska. Some had been slaves and others had parents who were slaves, while even more were third generation blacks who sought land or employment in western Nebraska. Some had escaped slavery by the Underground Railroad to Canada. A few of them fought in the Civil War and then enlisted as buffalo soldiers. When their term of service expired, they were at Fort Robinson in the panhandle of Nebraska. They stayed in the area to continue their life, free from slavery. How free was it? The railroad opened the route to the settlement of western Nebraska as well as challenges to the black population. Am I up to the challenge of telling their story? I cannot walk comfortably in their shoes, but I have a story to tell so that they will be remembered.