Discovering Grief And Freedom In A Family's History Of Slavery

Jan 14, 2014
Originally published on January 14, 2014 8:40 am

NPR continues a series of conversations about The Race Card Project, where thousands of people have submitted their thoughts on race and cultural identity in six words. Every so often, NPR Host/Special Correspondent Michele Norris will dip into those six-word stories to explore issues surrounding race and cultural identity for Morning Edition.

The wrenching film 12 Years a Slave, based on true events, re-creates the story of a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the 1840s. The Golden Globe-winning film has prompted an uptick in six-word entries concerning slavery sent to the Race Card Project, particularly from people who have tried to uncover their own family connections to slavery.

For many of those people, like Robert Goins of San Francisco, the search can be difficult — and the discoveries painful.

Goins was researching his ancestors in North Carolina a decade ago when he stumbled upon grief while going through a ledger on microfiche — hence, his six-word submission: "Found my ancestors and grief too."

"I found my great-grandfather's family and some notes held at the North Carolina archives," Goins tells Norris. "The family lived in Belews Creek — and Sauratown." Sauratown, Goins notes, sounds like "sorrow."

In his search, Goins found a ledger containing the name of the overseer of the plantation where the family members were enslaved, he explains. "When I first read it, it looked like 'Grief.' I actually think the overseer's name was 'Greif,' but I could not help but see it as Grief," Goins says.

"Grief is here. Grief will not let me go any further until I acknowledge it. Finding grief stopped me in my tracks," he adds.

Even 10 years later, the discovery still affects him, Goins says. He vividly recalls rolling his fingers across the microfiche image and seeing his ancestors listed among livestock and farm implements. He says he felt like a swimmer who needed to find air.

To get his head back above water, Goins kept digging. He needed to find some stories, he says, "that were not as difficult to handle. ... I needed stories where [my ancestors] were ... autonomous, they were doing things, they were living, they had children, you could see their movement. They weren't put on a place and [told], 'You had to stay here.' "

So Goins dug into another branch of the family, he says. And he found a very different document in "The Order Book," held at the Albemarle County Courthouse in Charlottesville, Va. The book, Norris explains, was akin to a government census used to keep track of free black people in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Goins found a reference there to his great-great-great-grandfather, Michael Goings, who was born in 1805 or 1806 in Albemarle County, Va., and lived as a freeman.

"He was a coal miner, he was a coal hauler. He lived to be 80. He moved from Ohio to Michigan during the runup to the Civil War and moved back to Ohio after the Civil War," Goins explains. "His wife died a few months before he did."

Discovering an ancestor who was born in a state where 90 percent of black people were enslaved — and who nevertheless managed to obtain his freedom — meant everything to Goins, Norris explains. "The fact that he worked and earned wages — that finally made him feel like his head was above water," she says.

As Goins describes it, "I felt grounded. I felt like, 'Wow, why didn't I know this all of my life?' This is what I needed. I needed this to help me in difficult times. I needed to hear that they survived and that I could survive as well."

Nevertheless, Goins still feels burdened by his discovery. The history he has uncovered is still difficult to talk about, he says, even with members of his own family. That's something the Race Card Project hears often in relation to personal stories about slavery, Norris explains — "especially when people go digging."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The movie "12 Years a Slave" thrusts slavery into the national discussion, and this morning, we're going to take that discussion a little further. For those who haven't seen it yet, the film is the story of a free black man from Upstate New York who was kidnapped in the 1840s and sold to a series of plantation owners.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "12 YEARS A SLAVE")

INSKEEP: That was Chiwetel Ejiofor, playing the lead character, Solomon Northup. The film is based on a true story, and it has brought more true stories to our attention, because it has increased the number of submissions to the Race Card Project, which we hear about regularly on this program. At that project, our colleague Michele Norris has received several six-word stories from people who've tried to uncover their own family connections to slavery, and we're going to hear from some of them this week. For many of those people, the search can be difficult and the discoveries can be excruciating.

ROBERT GOINS: My name is Robert Goins, and my six words are: found my ancestors and grief too.

INSKEEP: That's Robert Goins. Michele Norris joins us now to talk about Robert Goins' story. Welcome back, Michele.

MICHELE NORRIS, BYLINE: Good to be here, Steve.

INSKEEP: So, wow, found my ancestors and grief, too. I guess he's talking in a large sense here about grief.

NORRIS: It's a bit of a metaphor. But Robert Goins was researching his ancestors. He was going through a ledger on microfiche, and as he was going through that ledger, he quite literally stumbled upon grief.

GOINS: I found my great-grandfather's family and some notes held at the North Carolina Archives. The family lived in Belews Creek and Sauratown. Sauratown sounds like sorrow. I found a ledger with the name of the overseer of the plantation written in it. When I first read it, it looked like grief. I actually think the overseer's name was Greif, but I could not help but see it as Grief. Grief is here. Grief will not let me go any further until I acknowledge it. Finding grief stopped me in my tracks.

INSKEEP: Stopped him, but it sounds like he probably went on. He forced himself to go on.

NORRIS: But it was difficult. And this was one of the submissions that actually stopped me in my tracks. And I should say, just from the outset, Steve, this was a really difficult conversation for him. He made these discoveries 10 years ago, and it still affects him.

INSKEEP: You can hear it in his voice.

NORRIS: He's having a really, really hard time with this. And he went back and described that moment as he's rolling his fingers across this microfiche and looking at the names of his ancestors, men and women who are listed there along with livestock and farm implements. And the level of detail was really difficult for him. And maybe to understand better the way it affected him, it might be good for you to actually look at this. We have something here that we brought into the studio. And perhaps you want to read a bit of what he discovered.

INSKEEP: OK. This is from a record that I gather that he found, and it's just a description. And it says a man of color personally appearing in court and producing satisfactory evidence of his freedom. It is ordered that the following be entered as his register: to wit, aged 23 years, five feet, eleven and a half inches high, of light complexion. No scars. No marks perceivable, all of which is ordered to be certified. Which is, in its way, a horrifying document. Even though this is a certification of freedom, this is someone who's going to have to go through extraordinary lengths, maybe, at some point soon, to prove his freedom to somebody.

NORRIS: Right. And you don't imagine going to any sort of government building and being subjected to that kind of examination.

INSKEEP: Yeah, yeah. So, what did he do with this information?

NORRIS: One of the ways that he coped with the difficulty of finding these details - I mean, it was difficult for him because of what he found, because of how it affected him and because it was all so much more complicated than he expected it to be. He knew there were probably slaves in his background, but we're seeing the details that really affected him. And one of the things that kept him going was almost this - he was like a swimmer who needed to find air. He needed to keep going until he could find air, get his head back above water. And so he kept digging and kept digging until he found the story, the narrative that literally met his psychological needs.

GOINS: I needed stories where my family wasn't the slave. I needed stories where they were, you know, they were autonomous, they were doing things, they were living, they had children, you could see their movement. They weren't put on a place and said you had to stay here.

INSKEEP: Did he find what he was looking for?

NORRIS: He did. And that record that you read earlier was evidence of that. He found an ancestor - his three-times great-grandfather, who was born in Virginia, lived as a free man there. He found quite a bit about this in something called The Order Book, which was almost like a government census to keep track of free black people in the Commonwealth of Virginia. And in that portion that you read, you learn something about his physical presence, but he learned quite a bit more about what he did for a living, all kinds of things. Let's listen.

GOINS: His name is Michael Goins. I wonder about him all the time.

NORRIS: What do you know about his life?

GOINS: He was a coalminer. He was a coal hauler. He lived to be 80. He moved from Ohio to Michigan during the run-up to the Civil War, and moved back to Ohio after the Civil War. His wife died a few months before he did. He was born in 1805 or 6 in Albemarle County.

NORRIS: And he went on and talked a little bit more about his life. But, Steve, that discovery of an ancestor who lived to a ripe old age - 80 - was significant at that time. A lot of people didn't live to the age of 80. And lived in a - was born in a state, the state of Virginia, where 90 percent of black people were enslaved, and yet who managed to obtain his freedom. That meant everything to him, the fact that he worked and earned wages, that finally made him feel like his head was above water.

GOINS: I felt grounded. I felt like, wow, this is - why didn't I know this all of my life? This is what I needed. I needed this to help me in difficult times. I needed to hear that they survived, and that I could survive, as well.

NORRIS: Steve, it's not exactly a happy ending, because he still feels burdened by this discovery. He still knows it's difficult to talk about this. He wants to share this with some of his family members. They're probably going to hear this on the radio, so, you know, it's interesting that that's how they might learn about it. And it's something that we see in these submissions to the Race Card Project concerning slavery, especially when people go digging. Tomorrow, we'll hear from someone wrestling with this from the other side, upon discovering that her family members purchased slaves.

KATE BYROADE: It's really hard to bring it up in conversation. Oh, my ancestors, they owned slaves. You know, what an icebreaker.

INSKEEP: Well, we're going to break that ice tomorrow with Michele Norris. Michele, thanks for coming by.

NORRIS: Always good to be here, Steve.

INSKEEP: She curates the Race Card Project. And this week, we are having conversations on the history of American slavery. And on Thursday, by the way, we're going to speaking with John Ridley, the screenwriter of "12 Years a Slave."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And on Sunday, the movie won a Golden Globe for Best Drama. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.