Updated: May 31, 2022
“When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground”. – African Proverb
Life is a series of stories, and we are the authors. Our stories are filled with beginnings and endings, peaks and valleys, sunrise and sunsets. The memory of our stories is etched into our hearts and stored in millions of synaptic connections in our brains.
In 2008, I embarked on a genealogical journey to discover the history of my father's family. My research began in the clay soils of Georgia, leading me down a path of discovery that I never expected. Unfortunately, I did not conduct this research with Sherlockian ease. It took patience and determination to keep pushing forward, even when I felt like giving up.
I started my journey in Jackson, Georgia. I walked through overgrown graveyards, visited an old family church, flipped through dusty records in the colored section at the courthouse, and walked door-to-door searching for distant relatives in the area. My family album had become a genealogical tapestry of art with census records, newspaper articles, marriage and death certificates, and dog-eared photos of my ancestors.
Each genealogical record had a voice that told its own story. It is the voice of my ancestors whispering their stories to fill the gaps in my imperfect life with ancestral knowledge. This knowledge would not only lift my head but keep it raised with pride. During the course of my research, I read the stories of my ancestors, but I needed more. My ancestors needed a witness. Who would speak for them? Who would bear witness to their stories? After fourteen years of genealogical research, I missed the most important repository of history right in front of me, my family members. Oral history is an African tradition that many people overlook until it's too late. Although most of my family's patriarchs and matriarchs have passed on to glory, all is not lost. In 2012, I began my genealogical research on my mother's side of the family, but I never really explored their history thoroughly until recently. Fortunately, there are still a few griots in my family who are willing to share their experiences. As I interviewed my elders for this blog, I prepared myself to listen to the ancestors speak.
The following story was told to me by my mother about her father, Adolphus Souder, Jr., who is also my grandfather. She tells the story of the courageous act her father took to defend his property in Jonesboro, Georgia. The story takes place in the late 1950s when my mother was nine years old. The following is her version of events.
"It was late one summer's night, and the Klan came down our street. It was about 10 or 15 people. They were riding on horses, and they had on the white hoods with torches in their hands. The torches were on fire. So, what they did was they burnt a cross in front of our house in the churchyard. I was a little girl then, a very young girl. It scared me to death. I remember my dad telling my mother, "No matter what happens, don't come outside. Stay on the floor." So, we got down on the floor. I was scared, and I could tell that my dad and my mom were scared. So, if both of them were afraid, I was, too. My dad went outside, and he pulled the door behind him. Now what he said to the Klan people, I don't know, but I could hear them talking. My mama kept telling me to be quiet. I wasn't talking. I was trying to hear what the people were saying. One of the men that was talking sounded like the man that used to bring vegetables to our house. I knew his voice, but my mother kept telling me to be quiet. When my dad came back inside, nothing else happened. But it was just the fact that they set the cross on fire, and I could see it out the window. It was a big cross. They had put it in the ground in front of our house. They were trying to get us to move from Mill Street to the other side of town, which was over by Watterson Street in Jonesboro. They were trying to do that because there were no other Black people on that side of town where we lived. It was just that one street, which was Mill Street. Most of the Souders lived on Mill Street. Other than that, there were no other black people on that street except a few families over on Smith Street. My thought was, "Why don't we just move?" I guess my parents might have thought, "You can't make us move. This is our property. This is our land." As a little girl, the cross-burning scared me to death. Even to this day, when I see it on T.V., I can imagine how people felt just seeing that because it's scary. But we still lived there [Mill Street], and people still live there up until now, and it's 2022. They still live on that street. Now a lot of the street is becoming industrial, and I think people will be moving out eventually. Like the children that grew up when I was there, are still there. A lot of the elderly people have passed on now. People don't remember it at all, but the people that do remember are deceased now. I just remember it because I was so afraid. I'm sure there are some other people around, that's my age that would remember it, but they were young too like I was. They might not be able to recall it like I have because our house was directly in front of the church. Back then, our house was closer to the street. Now our house sits further back from the street. Nobody ever talked about it again. It still bothers me to this day to think about it."
When we discover our ancestors' stories, we gain a better understanding of why we think, act, and believe the way we do. In essence, we are our history. Our history is a part of us. Oral traditions from living descendants allow us to relive those "front porch" moments we missed when our ancestors were alive. Everyone should sit at the feet of the griots in their own families and listen to the untold stories that have been passed down from generation to generation. It's time for us to hear those stories. It's time to let the ancestors speak.