Ooh this is something that I’ve pondered before, and most of us remember this exercise from elementary school. So, I will take a spin with it again. The first thing that comes to mind happens to be my 5x great grandparents on my mom’s side, and more specifically, her father’s family line (on his maternal side). My 5x great grandfather is listed in historical documents as an FMC, Free Man of Color. He was born when George Washington was President and Abraham Lincoln wasn’t even alive yet.
The family he was born and raised into were the Bowie’s—of the infamous James “Jim” Bowie (Alamo legend) that everyone swears has a story about his Bowie knife that his brother designed and had made for him. I’m still researching the particulars but somehow, my great grandfather was a free man, owning his own plantation (yep, and slaves) and even conducting business with Jim and his siblings, as well as other white men.
If I could be a fly on a wall…
But it’s not just that moment in time, it’s also the moment where my 5X great grandfather made it possible that his wife, who had been purchased by the Bowie’s (after being bought and sold 5 times by other owners), was freed. Yes, in 1818 he bought her from the Bowie’s and in 1830 he has his own plantation where they raise their 8 children. I saw the court document where all of their children were free. They never knew a day, enslaved, like their parents and grandparents. This was before the emancipation proclamation. This was before the Civil War.
That had to be empowering yet terrifying.
If I could stand in that moment and watch the weight of years being lifted off of my 5x great grandmother, hearing that for the first time since being born, she was no longer someone’s property, that no more would she be bought and sold, raped, and possibly bred like cattle. If I could witness the drafting and signing of the documents making it possible for our branch of the Bowie tree to be freed from one of the ugliest histories this country and the world has ever seen and experienced, oh how my eyes would fill with tears of joy, and I too would breathe a sigh of relief.
I’m still researching my grandfather’s FMC status and at what point he was freed by either the Bowie’s or through the British overhaul when they outlawed slavery in all of their territories, forcing slaveholders in the Caribbean to declare each enslaved person, their country of origin, and the name of the mother (of the enslaved person) if known.
There is an enslaved person with my grandfather’s name, same age and approximate date of birth, listed on an 1817 British registry. Which means he had been in the colonies (specifically, Louisiana) and then at some point taken to the Caribbean, and then later by decree legally freed and returned to Louisiana.
This could be his storyline. I’m still digging. If he and the man on the British registry are one in the same, that too is another event that I would relish witnessing. Seeing his face when the reality of his new life settled in his mind. When he returned to Louisiana and walked on the plantation as a FMC, wowsers, the shift it would’ve caused.
I’m still very much curious about this tight knit relationship with the white Bowie’s, I mean, I know they share the same blood (either Jim’s dad or uncle was the father of my grandfather), but I mean, jeesh, there was a closeness so intimate that even free, my grandfather is listed as a resident on his father (or uncle’s) land for 13 years (as a free man), and he even transacted business deals with them, even sued one of the Bowie brothers, and used his residence for a hearing when the state of Louisiana was looking at removing one of the Bowie brothers from public office. One the Bowie’s even owed him money, and had a debt repayment document notarized in 1824 (6 years before my grandfather even owned his own land). Clearly, he was acknowledged as kin, but how do you reconcile the years they had him enslaved?
My grandfather had influence and wealth…in the early 1800s! A black man. In the south. The sitting President was James Monroe, the last President from the Founding Fathers. By then, my grandfather had lived through 6 Presidencies.
I’m in awe. Let’s explore more tomorrow!
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