The letter below was written by TCNJ journalism professor Kim Pearson to her great-grandfather, born enslaved. The piece was originally featured in the winter 2019 issue of TCNJ Magazine.
TCNJ’s programming for Black History Month starts on February 1 and includes a Paralympic ski-racer, moms who won’t be silent, and TCNJ alumni who are shaking things up. Get the full schedule.
Dear Great-Grandfather Jordan,
I write to you with some trepidation, not knowing what, if any, characteristics or values accompany a soul as it traverses from the mortal to the immortal plane. You lived from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th and, I’m told that you, like most men of that time, held to the belief that children were to be seen and not heard. Uncle Bill told me that among his siblings’ children, you shared your slavery-time stories almost exclusively with him, since he was the oldest living, and a boy besides. Then again, other cousins heard a tale or two from you too. But you have haunted me since I learned about you back in 1977, and there are things I must know.
I first learned of you while watching Roots, the landmark TV miniseries about one family’s journey from Africa, through the Middle Passage, to slavery and the epic struggle for freedom. I think it was during the scene where Kunta Kinte’s foot gets chopped off for running away that my Dad quietly said, “My grandfather used to talk about that.” I stared at my father. Your grandfather? ‘Yes, he was a slave.’ You KNEW him? ‘Yes, he lived with us.’ WHAT?
I peppered him with questions and soon learned that you were born in Devereux, Georgia, about 100 years before me, and you almost lived long enough to be there for my birth. You and your family were owned by John Mitchell. Your wife, Martha Holsey Mitchell, had also been a slave. She died when my father was a toddler. You were strong and able for most of your life.
After that conversation with my father, I went straight to the microfilm room in Firestone Library at Princeton University, where I was a student.
I pulled the reels for the 1860 Census. There were the free rolls and the slave rolls, organized by county. From the free rolls, I found two John Mitchells. One had six slaves, and another, John W.H. Mitchell, owned 34. Since my father had referred to a plantation, I reasoned John W.H. was probably the man. The man who owned my family.
That took me to the slave rolls, where I learned that you and your family weren’t recorded as people, but catalogued like livestock. In the left column was the owner’s name, and each slave was listed individually according to characteristics related to property value: male or female, black or mulatto, and approximate age.
I stared at that microfilm for a long time, my eyes flooding with water. It was real. You were real. You were just a little boy. It happened to my own flesh and blood. And no one thought you were important enough to record your name. I had to use family lore to find you. And here I was at Princeton, being trained to trust official sources and records. I staggered from the microfilm room with the printout in my hand, showing it to anyone I knew.
A few years later, Cousin Claudia shared some additional details about your life. Her grandmother was your sister, whom they called Aunt Duck. Aunt Duck said you all had to get your food from a big trough, like what they use to feed horses. She also remembered beatings, but there were some times of singing and dancing as well, especially the shouts of “We are free!” when news came that slavery had ended.
I wondered what the war had been like for you and yours. More than 209,000 black people fought in the Union blue to win their freedom. You were too young, and they were coming from the North, but I wonder whether you saw them, or whether your older brothers had any thoughts of joining up.
Cousin Mel said your father was seven feet tall and so strong that the master put him in charge of the other slaves. Your Daddy let the master beat him with the lash one time just to show “how things were going to go,” as he put it.
In the 1870s census, you are listed as being 10 years old, though they approximated a lot of ages then. You have the occupation of “farm laborer” and being unable to read or write. You lived most of your life as a free man, though under the cruel vagaries of de jure segregation in the South and de facto segregation in the North. You were married in 1883, and by 1910 the census records your name like any other householder, along with your wife, Martha, and children. You were sharecropping on the Mitchell plantation, and worshipping at Mitchell Chapel.
You came to New Jersey in the 1930s. They say you kept to a lot of your country ways, walking everywhere, so far and fast that half the time your family didn’t know where you were. The census records your younger children starting to attend school. It looks as though Mattie —your daughter and my grandmother — got the farthest, which was sixth grade. For a time, she and her husband owned a house. From being property to owning property in one generation. You lived long enough to see Claudia, your baby sister’s granddaughter, graduate from college and become a teacher — so many of us have followed her lead that some of us joke that it’s the family business. I wonder what you thought. I hope you were proud.
If I understand anything about your legacy, it’s that you endured and brought your family through. I need to use the education that your struggle made possible to ensure that we never lose sight of what it took for you to become a legal person — and how easily those rights could all be undone if we lack the will to protect them. Thank you, Great-Grandpa.
Kim Pearson has been a professor of journalism and professional writing for nearly 30 years.