Getting back a piece of history
WASHINGTON ‹ "The way his sassy daughter tells it, Maj. John Hammond Fordham, 'too slow and aristocratic to say good morning too loud,' would stroll at a regal pace from his law office to the house for dinner, which was on the table at 2.
"This was during the major's ample middle years, the first few years of the new century. On some days the sunlight would glint off his mahogany skin, highlighting his sharp cheekbones. On days when it rained he would approach through the gloom as slowly as ever, refusing to hurry one bit.''
Please excuse my self-indulgence in quoting myself. That passage is the opening of a piece I wrote for The Washington Post's Outlook section in 1981 about the house where I grew up. The man who built that house Maj. Fordham, my great-grandfather was born in the 1850s, when the "inalienable rights'' of freedom and liberty did not extend to people with brown skin. When human bondage was still the American way.
I've been thinking about family history all week, since we learned of the antebellum connection between the families of the Rev. Al Sharpton and the late Strom Thurmond. That connection was ownership a mind-boggling concept to apply to human beings.
Slavery ended long ago. A descendant of slaves is secretary of state, occupying the post once held by slave owner Thomas Jefferson. Descendants of slaves wrote the soundtrack for the American Century, from ragtime to jazz to rock 'n' roll to Motown.
Slavery ended long ago, all right, but somehow we haven't fully shaken off its legacy. I'm talking less about concrete effects than the psychological impact of not knowing exactly where you came from not knowing exactly who you are. I feel it, and I know that other black Americans feel it too.
It's difficult for most of us to know as much as we would like about our ancestry, because at a certain point records become hard to follow; eventually, they just disappear. Every fact we can learn, every date we can pin down, every character we can flesh out from our past is precious.
I feel honored to be able to trace one side of my family my mother's side back to the decade preceding the Civil War. Some of what we know comes from searching old records, but most came from the steel-trap memory of my grandmother, Sadie Smith, who was born in 1886 and lived to be 98.
She's the one who told that story about her father, Maj. Fordham, and how his wife Louisa would tell him he had looked like a fool strolling home through the rain, and how he would answer, "Not as much of a fool as I'd look running through it.''
We know that Maj. Fordham his rank was in something called the Carolina Light Infantry did very well for a black man who had been born in South Carolina before the Civil War. He was a lawyer, a federal tax collector, a very minor landowner and something of a politician. He had nine children.
But we don't really know how my great-grandfather built this life for himself. How did he maintain his position after Reconstruction was brought to a halt and Southern states were allowed to put black people back in their place? Why did he move his family from Charleston, the cosmopolitan port city, to Orangeburg? Even his birth date is open to some question one source says 1854, another says 1856.
And beyond the major, we know almost nothing. His father was apparently a blacksmith in Charleston, but was he still chattel? Or had he somehow bought his freedom? Did he have to wear a tag certifying his right to circulate freely on the streets? Or could he circulate freely at all?
It's as if a part of me a part of us always will remain a mystery. DNA tests notwithstanding, no one can give me my history back.