[Blackstudies-l] Race/Related: A Teenager Was Bullied. His Ancestors Saved Him.

Maria Helena Lima lima at geneseo.edu
Sat Feb 27 08:12:45 EST 2021


Dennis Richmond Jr. was a student who took refuge in his family history,
some of it very surprising.
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[image: More Race/Related]
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February 27, 2021
Dennis Richmond Jr.’s family photos.Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times
Genealogy as a refuge — but also a history with painful chapters

By John Leland

In March 2008, Dennis Richmond Jr. watched “Roots” with his father, and it
changed his life. It was a Sunday, the Richmonds’ day for leafing through
family photographs in their apartment in Yonkers, N.Y., looking at
relatives going back about a century. “Roots
<https://nl.nytimes.com/f/newsletter/gmNoQrcwwLV091jZ6_fdiA~~/AAAAAQA~/RgRiHLmOP0TmaHR0cHM6Ly93d3cubnl0aW1lcy5jb20vMjAxNi8wNS8yOC9vcGluaW9uL3doeS1hbWVyaWNhLWZvcmdvdC1hYm91dC1yb290cy5odG1sP2NhbXBhaWduX2lkPTM3JmVtYz1lZGl0X3JyXzIwMjEwMjI3Jmluc3RhbmNlX2lkPTI3NTU1Jm5sPXJhY2UlMkZyZWxhdGVkJnJlZ2lfaWQ9NDI3NDA4OTcmc2VnbWVudF9pZD01MjQ2MSZ0ZT0xJnVzZXJfaWQ9MzkzOGYxN2Q4MTgyYTIyZmRlMTQ2N2ZmOWQwYmI1YzVXA255dEIKYDeONDpgx5bvAVIQbGltYUBnZW5lc2VvLmVkdVgEAAAAAA~~>,”
Alex Haley’s semifictional account of his family’s journey from West
Africa, posed a challenge: How far back could young Dennis trace his own
ancestors?

After watching the mini-series’ first DVD, he ran upstairs to ask his
mother about the names of her relatives. Then that evening, Dennis, a
studious 13-year-old, went on the family computer and found a 1930 United
States Census entry for his maternal great-grandmother. The listing
included the name of her father, Brutus Bowens, born in 1889 in South
Carolina.

Brutus!
Dennis Richmond Jr.’s great, great grandfather, John Sherman Merritt
(1889-1921) in Greenwich, Conn.via John Sherman Merritt

“That just did something for me,” Mr. Richmond said. “That’s where the
story begins: St. Stephen, South Carolina.”

Mr. Richmond, now 26, a writer and substitute teacher, is the kind of
person who begins sentences, “I was born in 1995,” or “My father was born
in 1955.” When he thought about his grandmother having parents, who in turn
had parents, he was floored. “It blew my mind,” he said. “The seed was
planted. And I’ve been steadfast ever since.”

The study of genealogy conjures a pyramid, with a common ancestor at the
top and successive generations fanning ever wider into the present. But in
practice the pyramid is also inverted, with the genealogist a solitary
point at the bottom, tracing the connections upward through ever wider
generations (two parents, four grandparents, etc.). To the genealogist’s
question ‘Where do I come from?’ the answer eventually becomes: everywhere.
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For Dennis, finding his ancestors became a refuge from his school life,
where classmates bullied him both physically and verbally for his
studiousness and the way he carried himself.

It was also a plunge into a history full of painful chapters, including Jim
Crow and slavery. His father, Dennis Sr., had told him of riding trains to
the South as a child, seeing water fountains labeled “white” and “colored.”
But his father did not worry about what his son might find.
Dennis’ grandmother Joyce Marie Watkins, and she was born in 1937.via
Dennis Richmond Jr.

“We didn’t try to hide anything from him,” the elder Mr. Richmond said.
“Whatever happened in the past to the relatives, that’s what made him him
and me me. All of those experiences together made us as human beings.”
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The relatives on his father’s side had owned cameras for more than a
century, leaving a pictorial record of New England life going back to the
1890s. Dennis dug into Ancestry.com’s databases and then started visiting
local libraries and historical societies. A great-uncle shared with him a
family Bible that had belonged to his own great-grandmother, who was born
into slavery in 1865, just before Emancipation.

That’s how near the past was, Dennis realized.

“I knew, wow, I have slaves in my family, and I would like to know who they
are,” he said. “It was an amazing pastime for me. It kept my mind off the
fact that I knew that Monday morning I would have to go back to school and
get bullied again.”
Dennis Richmond Jr.Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

The search was not just for ancestors, but also for the stories they chose
not to pass down because they were so traumatic. Genealogy, after all, is a
study of forgetting — sometimes forced by circumstance, sometimes
protective. Dennis’s great-uncle, John Sherman Merritt, said it had been
very difficult to get information from his elders, especially the
great-grandmother who had been born before Emancipation and grew up during
Reconstruction.
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“She was a lady of very few words — ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ and that was basically
it,” Mr. Merritt said. “Back then, our folks were really quiet about what
happened. Nobody gave you a real answer about what happened, but I’m sure
she went through a lot.”

[Read about Dennis’ search
<https://nl.nytimes.com/f/newsletter/9ya8UW0sEfR4eEPBSp_GvQ~~/AAAAAQA~/RgRiHLmOP0TsaHR0cHM6Ly93d3cubnl0aW1lcy5jb20vMjAyMS8wMi8yNi9ueXJlZ2lvbi9ibGFjay1nZW5lYWxvZ3ktY29ubmVjdGljdXQtbWVycml0dC5odG1sP2NhbXBhaWduX2lkPTM3JmVtYz1lZGl0X3JyXzIwMjEwMjI3Jmluc3RhbmNlX2lkPTI3NTU1Jm5sPXJhY2UlMkZyZWxhdGVkJnJlZ2lfaWQ9NDI3NDA4OTcmc2VnbWVudF9pZD01MjQ2MSZ0ZT0xJnVzZXJfaWQ9MzkzOGYxN2Q4MTgyYTIyZmRlMTQ2N2ZmOWQwYmI1YzVXA255dEIKYDeONDpgx5bvAVIQbGltYUBnZW5lc2VvLmVkdVgEAAAAAA~~>
across genealogy websites and Greenwich, Conn., which in the 19th century
had both free and enslaved people of African descent, including his
father’s ancestors.]

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[image: Article Image]

Illustration by Jon Key
<https://nl.nytimes.com/f/newsletter/htDMB6G7fhC2LQT0mW_Pfw~~/AAAAAQA~/RgRiHLmOP0T0aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cubnl0aW1lcy5jb20vMjAyMS8wMi8yNC9tYWdhemluZS9hLXdvcmxkLW9mLWJsYWNrLWludGltYWN5LWF0LXRoZS1jYXJkLXRhYmxlLmh0bWw_Y2FtcGFpZ25faWQ9MzcmZW1jPWVkaXRfcnJfMjAyMTAyMjcmaW5zdGFuY2VfaWQ9Mjc1NTUmbmw9cmFjZSUyRnJlbGF0ZWQmcmVnaV9pZD00Mjc0MDg5NyZzZWdtZW50X2lkPTUyNDYxJnRlPTEmdXNlcl9pZD0zOTM4ZjE3ZDgxODJhMjJmZGUxNDY3ZmY5ZDBiYjVjNVcDbnl0QgpgN440OmDHlu8BUhBsaW1hQGdlbmVzZW8uZWR1WAQAAAAA>

Feature
A World of Black Intimacy at the Card Table

For the poet Hanif Abdurraqib, playing spades with his friends is about so
much more than the game.

By Hanif Abdurraqib
<https://nl.nytimes.com/f/newsletter/htDMB6G7fhC2LQT0mW_Pfw~~/AAAAAQA~/RgRiHLmOP0T0aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cubnl0aW1lcy5jb20vMjAyMS8wMi8yNC9tYWdhemluZS9hLXdvcmxkLW9mLWJsYWNrLWludGltYWN5LWF0LXRoZS1jYXJkLXRhYmxlLmh0bWw_Y2FtcGFpZ25faWQ9MzcmZW1jPWVkaXRfcnJfMjAyMTAyMjcmaW5zdGFuY2VfaWQ9Mjc1NTUmbmw9cmFjZSUyRnJlbGF0ZWQmcmVnaV9pZD00Mjc0MDg5NyZzZWdtZW50X2lkPTUyNDYxJnRlPTEmdXNlcl9pZD0zOTM4ZjE3ZDgxODJhMjJmZGUxNDY3ZmY5ZDBiYjVjNVcDbnl0QgpgN440OmDHlu8BUhBsaW1hQGdlbmVzZW8uZWR1WAQAAAAA>
[image: Article Image]

William & Mary
<https://nl.nytimes.com/f/newsletter/Hbno6TEn0i70Oat_WF-7LQ~~/AAAAAQA~/RgRiHLmOP0TjaHR0cHM6Ly93d3cubnl0aW1lcy5jb20vMjAyMS8wMi8yNi91cy93aWxsaWFtLW1hcnktYnJheS1zY2hvb2wtbm9ydGhhbS5odG1sP2NhbXBhaWduX2lkPTM3JmVtYz1lZGl0X3JyXzIwMjEwMjI3Jmluc3RhbmNlX2lkPTI3NTU1Jm5sPXJhY2UlMkZyZWxhdGVkJnJlZ2lfaWQ9NDI3NDA4OTcmc2VnbWVudF9pZD01MjQ2MSZ0ZT0xJnVzZXJfaWQ9MzkzOGYxN2Q4MTgyYTIyZmRlMTQ2N2ZmOWQwYmI1YzVXA255dEIKYDeONDpgx5bvAVIQbGltYUBnZW5lc2VvLmVkdVgEAAAAAA~~>
University
Finds 18th-Century Schoolhouse Where Black Children Learned to Read

The Bray School, which taught Christianity and reading to free and enslaved
Black children, was found tucked inside a campus building at William & Mary
in Virginia.

By Maria Cramer
<https://nl.nytimes.com/f/newsletter/Hbno6TEn0i70Oat_WF-7LQ~~/AAAAAQA~/RgRiHLmOP0TjaHR0cHM6Ly93d3cubnl0aW1lcy5jb20vMjAyMS8wMi8yNi91cy93aWxsaWFtLW1hcnktYnJheS1zY2hvb2wtbm9ydGhhbS5odG1sP2NhbXBhaWduX2lkPTM3JmVtYz1lZGl0X3JyXzIwMjEwMjI3Jmluc3RhbmNlX2lkPTI3NTU1Jm5sPXJhY2UlMkZyZWxhdGVkJnJlZ2lfaWQ9NDI3NDA4OTcmc2VnbWVudF9pZD01MjQ2MSZ0ZT0xJnVzZXJfaWQ9MzkzOGYxN2Q4MTgyYTIyZmRlMTQ2N2ZmOWQwYmI1YzVXA255dEIKYDeONDpgx5bvAVIQbGltYUBnZW5lc2VvLmVkdVgEAAAAAA~~>
[image: Article Image]

Brandon Thibodeaux for The New York Times
<https://nl.nytimes.com/f/newsletter/_N6rxARwR2jBk7HXKEQ-Ug~~/AAAAAQA~/RgRiHLmOP0TqaHR0cHM6Ly93d3cubnl0aW1lcy5jb20vMjAyMS8wMi8yNC91cy9wb2xpdGljcy9jaGVyb2tlZS1uYXRpb24tYmxhY2stZnJlZWRtZW4uaHRtbD9jYW1wYWlnbl9pZD0zNyZlbWM9ZWRpdF9ycl8yMDIxMDIyNyZpbnN0YW5jZV9pZD0yNzU1NSZubD1yYWNlJTJGcmVsYXRlZCZyZWdpX2lkPTQyNzQwODk3JnNlZ21lbnRfaWQ9NTI0NjEmdGU9MSZ1c2VyX2lkPTM5MzhmMTdkODE4MmEyMmZkZTE0NjdmZjlkMGJiNWM1VwNueXRCCmA3jjQ6YMeW7wFSEGxpbWFAZ2VuZXNlby5lZHVYBAAAAAA~>
Cherokee
Nation Addresses Bias Against Descendants of Enslaved People

The tribe’s Supreme Court excised language from its constitution that
limited the citizenship rights of descendants of Black people who had been
enslaved by the tribe before the Civil War.

By Mark Walker
<https://nl.nytimes.com/f/newsletter/_N6rxARwR2jBk7HXKEQ-Ug~~/AAAAAQA~/RgRiHLmOP0TqaHR0cHM6Ly93d3cubnl0aW1lcy5jb20vMjAyMS8wMi8yNC91cy9wb2xpdGljcy9jaGVyb2tlZS1uYXRpb24tYmxhY2stZnJlZWRtZW4uaHRtbD9jYW1wYWlnbl9pZD0zNyZlbWM9ZWRpdF9ycl8yMDIxMDIyNyZpbnN0YW5jZV9pZD0yNzU1NSZubD1yYWNlJTJGcmVsYXRlZCZyZWdpX2lkPTQyNzQwODk3JnNlZ21lbnRfaWQ9NTI0NjEmdGU9MSZ1c2VyX2lkPTM5MzhmMTdkODE4MmEyMmZkZTE0NjdmZjlkMGJiNWM1VwNueXRCCmA3jjQ6YMeW7wFSEGxpbWFAZ2VuZXNlby5lZHVYBAAAAAA~>
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