Family History Uncovered: My Sunday in Mississippi
Yesterday, I spent the entire day in Mississippi. To say my time there was amazing would be a gross understatement!
First, a little background information. Most people know that I was born and lived much of my life in Chicago. Our mom, my siblings, and I moved to Alabama in the 90's while our dad remained North and worked to provide for us here. Eventually, our parents ended up divorcing; my siblings and I would go back to Chicago for most breaks and some weekends until we got to the ages where we started working and going to college.
When we lived in Chicago, we would make trips "down South" to visit our family. My mom's family roots are in Pickens County, Alabama while my dad's family roots are in Decatur, Mississippi. Just as we would visit here, I remember our cousins from both my mom's and dad's sides would visit us in Chicago, sometimes at the same time. However, when we moved to Alabama, we were surrounded by our mom's family; and since our dad came down periodically (and then sporadically), we kind of lost touch with our dad's side of the family in Mississippi, although (which we didn't really know until recently) they were less than 2 hours away!
Within the last decade or so, our paternal grandmother's sister moved to Canton, Mississippi. With her was our great-grandfather, C.N. McIntosh, whom we affectionately called "Paw-Paw." He passed in 2009 at the age of 97. At his memorial service in Jackson, we became reacquainted with his family. We were invited to an annual gathering at McIntosh Farms for Memorial Day, which we still haven't attended because honestly, being so far removed, we don't really know where to begin. At the same time, we met an aunt and uncle of whom we'd had no previous knowledge, and I met a cousin whose job had been regularly sending him to Anna's Linens in the now defunct McFarland mall.... Yes, the mall that's two blocks from my job. And we never knew each other or how close we were.
Our great-grandfather's passing reignited an interest in my dad's family for me. I'd been doing searches for the names of the family members I could remember, which led me to census records from 1940. At that time, Paw-Paw was 28. My great-grandmother, Lucille, was 24. Records indicate that my "Uncle Gene" (Eugene) was 6, my grandmother Minnie was 4, my Uncle Buck (Lamar) was 2, and my aunt Gent (Geneva) wasn't even a year old.
This was as far as I'd gotten until my Facebook connections grew. I was in a group for women with natural hair and came across a young lady with the last name McIntosh. She looks like some of my relatives. So, I clicked her name. Sure enough, she is from Mississippi. We struck up a conversation, and although we can't trace the roots ourselves, we're practically certain we're related. Our previously mentioned Memorial Day gathering is hosted by her parents! Through other family members that I remembered from my childhood, I became acquainted with more of my grandmother's family through Facebook. And I've been communicating with my great-grandfather's children that I'd met at his funeral.
Although all of this is my grandmother's side, when my dad mentioned a few weeks ago that my grandfather wanted to visit his home church in Mississippi, I KNEW I had to go! My grandfather is now 82-years-old, and I want to know as much about his side as I'm learning about my grandmother's side. My grandfather's home church Sunnyhill M.B. Church is having revival this week, and he wanted to be here for the first night, which was last night. He planned to accomplish many things in this trip, including visiting his sister Alberta and her ill son, Willie James Hoye, who was most often called by his last name. Unfortunately, Hoye passed a week ago. So, what was supposed to be a joyful trip kind of changed directions, as more family than expected is now in Decatur for a funeral.
My brother, my sister, and I still traveled with our dad and aunt to church in Mississippi. When we arrived, our grandfather-- (Again, he's 82. So, whispering? No, he cannot.) Anyway.... -- exclaims, "You made it at halftime!" Uhhh.... Granddaddy, this is NOT a ball game!
We enjoyed the service; and when it was over, we were greeted by many people! Most of them were our family members. Before the benediction, the pastor invited everyone to dine together in the fellowship hall, stating, "It won't get you full, but you'll have enough to get you over to wherever you're going."
Once we finished eating, we went across the street to the cemetery where our grandfather's parents are buried.
Both of them had passed before I was born, which is one of the reasons I often take pictures of my daughter with my grandparents (her great-grands). I want her to have something to look back on, even if she doesn't remember the moment, and to be able to show the pictures to her future children.
From there, we went to view Hoye's body at Murray Chapel. Unbeknownst to me, we arrived at the time of his wake. Once exiting the church and arriving back to our cars, my dad casually mentioned and pointed to the place where "Mama Hawk" (last name Hawkins) used to live. I asked who that was, and he said she was my grandmother's grandmother. My aunt chimed in and told us that Medgar Evers lived directly across the street. Another aunt said that he, our grandmother, and our uncle used to walk to school together! These are things I'd NEVER heard before!
That Mississippi heat wasn't playing!!! Of course, I have to act like it was so much worse than Alabama heat!
While at this same location, my grandmother's sister, Aunt Gent as we call her, and her daughter Beverly came walking up. They'd come from Jackson to see us and to show support for the family.
After talking with them for a few minutes, we asked our grandfather to show us some of the other things from his life in Decatur. He showed us where he went to school; and while we were in route to where he grew up, we went past East Central Community College. At this point, my aunt says, "Paw-Paw helped to build that school. I remember hearing about that." This aunt is only like 10 years older than me. So, a lot of this was new to her, too; but she did remember that.
While in the area, our grandfather asked if we wanted to see where our grandmother's mom was buried. Of course we did! So, we went to the cemetery where she was buried amongst other family members. One of the most beautiful markers was one for my great-grandfather's sister-in-law. Though my uncle still lives, his placement next to her is set. Apparently, at the time she died, they'd been married 72 years! I thought that was remarkable.
We walked around in search of my great-grandmother's grave. My aunt said they would know it when they saw it because at the time of her death, the family could not afford a headstone. So, my dad-- a child when she passed --made a marker for her grave.
We walked around and looked at a number of graves, and I learned that my grandmother's family has a history of long life. Many died well above 100 years old.
Right near the cemetery, my grandfather also showed us where he and my grandmother lived when they first got married. I made the joke that there is still the G for Gibson by the front door.
We continued our journey to where my grandfather grew up. On our way to there, all of a sudden, my dad turned around. He said my grandad wanted to go back and holler at someone he knew.
We pulled up at a house, and my grandfather got out the car. He walked over to talk to a man who was in a truck in the driveway. After a minute or so, the man got out of the truck. As he and my grandfather talked, we made our way out of our cars.
Let me back up for a moment.
My grandfather has caramel brown skin and green eyes. All of his siblings are darker with brown eyes. So, growing up, he was teased by other children and told he had a white father. Those were fighting words back then. As an act of defiance, my grandfather gave himself the nickname N*****. Yes, what you're thinking is exactly what that is.
So, my dad walked to the truck with my grandfather and heard him ask this guy, "Hey, would you happen to know of a man they called N***** Gibson?" The older white man in the cowboy hat, apparently around the same age as my grandfather, thought for a minute and said, "Yeah, I think I remember him. They say he died a long time ago..... Unless I'm looking at him." My grandfather smiled and said, "You're looking at him."
The look on the guy's face.... I can't even describe it! He looked surprised and happy, almost like he wanted to cry. They told us about how he would steal his father's school bus and pick up my grandfather and Uncle Mason and take them into town. Of course, blacks and whites weren't supposed to be seen together back then. So, he'd drop them off a block away from wherever they were going. He also said my grandfather was known for drinking "Royal Crown" cola. When my grandfather left for the military, someone told him that my grandfather had drank 20 or so Royal Crowns, which ultimately killed him! We got a good laugh from that one, but I instantly remembered how many RC Colas were in my grandparents' house when we were children! That amused me even more.
My grandfather's friend told him that he better not ever come back that way and not stop by to see him. They said their goodbyes, and we went around the corner to the land where my grandfather's family used to work.
The land owner's house is still standing, as is a marker for the Mt. Vernon Plantation. A few yards down and across the road is the place where my grandfather's house once stood.
This concluded our day with our grandfather in Mississippi. We took him and our Aunt Deborah to their hotel room and headed back to Alabama. More of our family arrived in Mississippi last night in preparation for today's memorial service, after which my dad, grandfather, and aunts will be returning to Chicago. But I am grateful for the time I was able to spend with them and for the knowledge I've obtained.
I hate that so much history has been unspoken for this long and that our families have been so disconnected. I can hardly wait until the next time my siblings and I are able to travel together so the ones that weren't able to go this time will have the opportunity to visit the areas of our family origin, and I look forward to getting to know more about my family that lives.