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We talk a lot today in the U.S. about the symptoms of poverty, but little about how families became poor in the first place. Edmund Hughes, my grandfather was not always a poor Black man in Camden, NC, but Old Jim Crow would see to it that his family would lose so much of what they had gained economically, that there wouldn’t even be enough cash for a family photograph. With that, Jim Crow robbed me for years of ever knowing the face of my grandfather, until a chance interaction with a female cousin, an Iraq war veteran from California in 2011. Upon receiving the photo of my father from my cousin via http://www.ancestry.com I printed it from a color printer and stored in a safe and dry place away from my dog and children, until the next appropriate context to share it with my father for his feedback.
Finding an Appropriate Context
The appropriate context for sharing is a key consideration. I have found it necessary to prepare to share and to anticipate what information I might receive in return when sharing sensitive family history information from my research. An emotionally charged context like a wedding, funeral, holiday, day of hospitalization, etc., tends not to provide the most conducive context for sharing sensitive new information in my family, such as the photo, at least not when that type of information is coming from me. So, while I wanted to send the photo to my dad immediately to check to see if it was his father, I waited for an appropriate context, which happened to be an innocuous moment during a planned visit.
Finding Family Liaisons
Another component of this strategy is finding family liaisons to communicate your intentions and the sensitive information that you are planning to share. Such liaisons tend to be the folks who are trusted and respected the most by the family member(s) with whom you are intending to share your sensitive family history materials. That family liaison can help you gauge the most appropriate context for sharing and they can help you anticipate the type of feedback you may receive. In the case of Edmund Hughes, the best possible family liaison was my mother. My parents have been married over 55 years and to say they understand the best and worst times to approach each other or to have anyone else approaching would be an understatement. With anywhere from a few minutes to one week of prior notice, my parents seem to be brilliant at preparing themselves and their spouses for sensitive family information sharing and at helping me anticipate what I may receive in return.
Anticipating Going Back to the Evidence and New Searches for Contextual Information
I wasn’t prepared for what my father would say when he saw the photo. When the appropriate context came, I said, “Dad, I went on the computer to a program that helps families learn about their history, and with that program, I met a cousin who gave me a picture of a man that she thinks is your dad, would you like to see it?” My dad, Jessie Hughes, Sr. replied, “Yeah, Yeah, bring it here.” Dad’s confused stare and momentary silence was deafening, and after a long 5-7 seconds of viewing the photo, he said something that neither I nor mom could have anticipated, “I know that’s my Aunt Becky, but I don’t think that’s my daddy…I don’t know who that man is….” I felt terribly unprepared in the irony that my well-planned sharing was failing miserably. Then, it dawned on me. To this day, my nearly 78-year old father shares one consistent historical narrative about my grandfather in several unplanned, but appropriate contexts each year that I can remember:
A victim of the Jim Crow racist farming debt system, his father was once a wealthy, ingenious and hot tempered man who lost the four fields that he once owned because the system charged extremely high interest rates to Blacks that would make it nearly impossible for them to ever repay any debt, small or large. Edmund Hughes found no other way to clear the family of 12 of the debt beyond paying the ultimate sacrifice, his life. When my father was a little boy, my grandfather committed suicide in one of the fields that he lost to Old Jim Crow. Soon after his father was dead, he had to quit school to work and he used to cry often, because he wanted to go to school rather than to work with adults in the fields.
When my father didn't recognize my grandfather 100% in the photo, I was compelled to go back to the historical evidence that I had collected to provide a historical context around the photo that may help me understand what had just happened. Each time I went back to the evidence with new answers and new questions. Additional searches at http://www.ancestry.com to augment the artifact from my cousin indeed provided further insight into the context of the photo.
From the 1940 census, I found my grandfather at 50 years old and my father at 4 years old. The death information for my grandfather suggests that he committed suicide near the age of 57. These documents together put my father at only 11 years old when his father died. My birth records note my father as having only been schooled to grade 6. It was beginning to make sense why my father recognized his aunt, but not his own father. First, his father and Aunt Becky looked to be in their 20s or maybe even early 30s in that photo. My father would have never seen his father at that age, because he would have been in his 50s and under extreme stress by the time my dad was old enough to really recall his father’s face. Second, Aunt Becky apparently aged quite well in Virginia Beach, VA and lived to reach a much older age than my grandfather, so my father saw her in adulthood more regularly and thus, could identify her easily in the photo. Third, my father was 76 years old in 2011, when I showed him that photo, which means he hadn’t seen my grandfather in 65 years. I thought to myself, “my peers and I temporarily forget faces we haven’t seen in 5-10 years, even the faces of family members, so temporarily forgetting a face after 65 years is certainly not only plausible, but probable.”
The good news related to this point was that the names of two of the three people in the photo had been labeled Rebecca (Aunt Becky) Hughes and Edmund Hughes, seemingly in Aunt Becky’s handwriting, in a space that was close to the person pictured in the photo. The third person was not named, but bore no resemblance to any other Hughes family member that my father knew and the names were not positioned, seemingly to name that third person. For me, the picture that corresponded to the name Edmond Hughes bore an uncanny resemblance to my father, particularly his very stylish pleated khakis and pressed shirt, his lean sturdy build, dark skin and the way he positioned his large, work-beaten hands on his lap. Once I put all of this information together in my head, I found a moment before bedtime, when the house was not so busy with people, to share it with my mother and father. Sharing this more complete historical context surrounding the photo eased my guilt from the initial sharing and confusion and it seemed to be actually quite well-received and appreciated by my parents, as well.
In the photo, my grandfather’s demeanor was the epitome of what Claude Steele describes as “a valuable person with good prospects,” and apparently he was such a person, until he met the cruel farming system of old Jim Crow. My findings trouble Jim Crow, because they tell me how the Hughes family became poor. It was not because they were invaluable folks without good prospects. It was not because they failed to be particularly ingenious or studious. It was not because they were lazy and dependent upon government assistance. The Hughes family became poor, because they were robbed. They were victims of dignity theft. They were victims of social identity theft and U.S. policies of the Jim Crow south sanctioned the robbery with little recourse beyond suicide and little Black male children who quit school to work.
My preparation to share and receive this sensitive artifact and related information was paramount to my willingness and ability to share it with the Hughes family and with readers today. The photo revealed a piece of the puzzle that continues to illuminate and clarify horrible episodes of death and dropping out of school in the Hughes family history. From my purview, suicides and dropouts are horrible episodes of any family history, and they are episodes that most people within my sphere of influence ignore, deny, or refuse to discuss publicly for fear of humiliation and suffering.
A critical family history/critical ethnography perspective supported my pang to confront and explore the sources of these episodes in the Hughes family. Somewhere along the road of confrontation and exploration toward these sources of pain, I was overwhelmed by the fact that I am still here and with the legitimized authority to share this story in this venue to an audience that may read it and hopefully decide that the current repackaged discourse on resegregation, privatization and separate-but-equal are welcoming invitations back to Jim Crow’s house. I hope sincerely, that readers can be inspired by my critical family history enough to embrace and act upon their own family histories critically and to receive and share the sensitive information from them in ways that keep troubling Jim Crow.
Dr. Sherick Hughes, MA, MPA, Ph.D. is Associate Professor with Tenure, and Founder and Director, Interpretive Research Suite & Carter Qualitative Thought Lab Graduate Program Coordinator/Chair, Cultural Studies & Literacies Program Founder and Director, Black Alumni of the School of Education (BASE), School of Education, University of North Carolina, CB #3500, Peabody Hall, Chapel Hill, NC 27599