Monday, February 8, 2010


Samuel Mordecai Turner, circa 1885, Montague County, Texas -- my mother's mother's father

I stayed up til 2:00 despite being very tired, but slept 8 hours. I didn't get done yesterday what I wanted, I got sucked into the genealogy hole, chasing a new approach to getting around an old family brick wall: The Turner/Smith lines.

My cousin Sally (mama's sister's daughter, four months older than me) has also done some genealogy and likewise finds this bunch interesting. She's a convert to Judaism and her theory is that the Turners emigrated from England to near Memphis in part because they were Jews. Family naming tradition and a few photographs make this idea plausible. A single frail record states our great-great-great- grandfather Joseph Turner was from England, and a couple of scanty census records plunk him in Fayette County, Tennessee in 1830 and 1840, where he had a son (Joseph Turner II) before apparently dying just as the 1850 census would have given us some real data on him.

Joseph Turner II married in 1841 to one of the more emotionally powerful women in my lineage, Matilda Clementine Smith. They had two sons before Joseph died, again before that magic 1850 revelation point. Matilda went on to remarry twice, have two more sons, migrate to new land in Arkansas, and establish herself as a solid property owner and community leader. She outlived three husbands and all but one of her sons, extremely rare for a woman in that place and time. She also never owned slaves in constructing her middle class security, again rare for the place and time.

Her sole surviving son, Thomas Joseph "Tom" Turner, married a doormat he bred into an early grave, came back from the CSA with a mean glint in his eye, and had trouble finding one of his many children willing to take him in during old age. He died penniless, but his son Samuel Mordecai Turner (my great-grandfather) was beloved in the community, married a brilliant and outgoing woman, and is part of the "good line" on mama's side.

For a couple of generations, all we knew was Tom Turner's name and his claim that his father had been born in England. Turner is a surname as common as Jones in the South, and it took me a very long time to find him as a fatherless child on the 1850 census, living with widowed young mother Matilda, her father Jabez Smith, and no doubt the next of Matilda's husbands already stopping by for dinner. Adding the surname of Smith to the mix didn't help one iota.

Fayette County, Tennessee is one county over from Memphis and borders Mississippi. It's Delta land, flat, saturated with extreme racial oppression, white class stratification, and not much civic wealth to go around. Records available from a distance were extremely scarce, and remain so even now with the internet because they weren't created in the first place except to document ownership of property.

So, in 1985, I included Fayette County on my family history research tour. It stands out in my memory for how shut down its white inhabitants were (generally, the more a rural place had once relied on slavery, the more hostile its white people were now, I discovered on that trip). I spent one day digging around before fleeing back to Memphis to sleep.

I went to the courthouse first, to find a marriage record for Joseph Turner and Matilda Smith. I was lucky that the courthouse had never been burned -- about half of all Southern courthouses were deliberately torched by Union troops during the civil war as part of community disruption and terrorism. The marriage records didn't begin until 1840, which is common for the South away from the Eastern seaboard: Southern genealogy holds piecemeal records for whites, much less for blacks and natives. But 1840 might be early enough to find Joseph and Matilda, I hoped. The register had never been indexed, so I began looking through the dusty, oversized pages one by one, standing at a corner counter, glared at by the Mary-Kay-aspiring white women who worked as clerks there.

No luck. I went on until 1860, tediously copying all the Smith and Turner marriages into my notebook, but with no hope they'd connect to my line. As I was closing the ledger, I noticed a couple of loose partial pages at the back which had fallen out of the binding. I pulled them out to look at them -- I am thorough -- and there it was: Mr. Joseph Turner to Miss Matilda C. Smith, October 21, 1841 The paper was crumbling but I made a gentle copy, told the clerk about the possible loss of precious data if the pages weren't cared for, and went outside into bright sunshine for an exultant break.

I decided to walk a block away, to an old grocery store within view, for a snack. What happened next is an incident I wrote about almost verbatim in Ginny Bates, an episode of revelatory racism that I failed to address to anything like my satisfaction. [Excerpted at the end of this post.]

When I eventually returned to the courthouse, my connection to my ancestors had been altered. I found no further solid records on my people that day -- they had been tenant farmers, owned nothing, their deaths were not registered, and in a decade everyone migrated westward into stolen Indian lands whose soil was not yet played out. What I got from Fayette County was the marriage scrap and a hint of black/white relations as they must have been when Joseph and Matilda lived there -- all in all, what I most needed to be given.

Thus yesterday, when I found a hint on how I might follow the Smiths despite inadequate records, I was off and running. I did manage to accumulate a fair amount on Matilda's cousins, but in the end this foundation was not a springboard further back. That's what usually happens in this kind of research, you leave nothing undone in retrieval and collating but the bigger mystery remains. So I still don't know where the Smiths came from, beyond "North Carolina", or why the Turners came from England to the Delta in 1830.

I think I have Sam Turner's eyes, though, and his love of community. I have Matilda Smith's perseverance, and if either of them are guiding my curiosity, maybe further glimmers will come my way. Today, however, I'll focus on the 21st century.


Excerpt from Ginny Bates referred to above. Background: Myra is the main character loosely based on me, a working-class white lesbian. Her partner is Ginny Bates, a middle-class white Jew. Her best friend is Allie, a working-class black lesbian raised in the South. Myra and Allie have gone back to Mississippi to research Allie's ancestry with Myra's genealogical expertise. The location and events in this episode, however, are drawn entirely from my own experience in Fayette County, Tennessee, one county north of Mississippi.

Myra showed Allie the ropes, how things were organized: It was the same for every county in the South, seemed like. Allie wanted to begin with marriage records, which thankfully here had a bride as well as a groom index. But there were separate indexes for whites and "colored" prior to 1960. Allie's lips tightened again. Myra decided to take on the deeds, which tended to be tedious and full of bad handwriting to decipher.

It was peaceful in the basement. Full of lovely old paper and massive bound books, with light from an airwell at the side: Myra began to have fantasies of a study this sequestered and quiet. But, she noticed after using her inhaler a second time, it was also dusty and likely had a high degree of ambient mold.

"Al? I need to go up into the air, get something to drink, I think" she said.

"Is there a break room in the courthouse, you think?"

"Well, on the square near where we parked, by the corner, was a little grocery store -- looked like something from the fifties. I'll walk down there, you want to go with?"

"No. But bring me back some orange juice, and something to snack on" said Allie, her eyes glued to the index on the table in front of her.

Myra told the clerk on her way out "I'm going for a Co-Cola, back in a bit", noticing how she had pronounced the word. There was a cluster of cars near the tax assessor's office, and one in front of a discount store. Otherwise, the square was empty.

The grocery store had high stamped tin ceilings obscured in shadow. All of the dairy cases were behind thick glass doors. She got Allie's juice, then found a case containing chilled soft drinks in real glass bottles, including RC Cola in a bottle shape she hadn't seen in over a decade. She grabbed two.

The candy aisle, disappointingly, did not hold vintage favorites she had hoped for -- no little wax bottles full of colored liquid, or Blo-Pops. She got a bag of Tom's peanuts for herself, roasted cashews for Allie, and headed for the front.

There were only two registers, one empty and one with a teased-hair white woman at the register. Another customer was ahead of her, a frail-looking black man in faded slacks and neatly-pressed tan shirt, buttoned up to the collar and at the cuffs. His hair was a snowy frizz, and when looking at his skin, she instantly remembered the line from Zora Neale Hurston that Allie quoted often: "High yaller, yaller, high brown, vaseline brown, seal brown, low brown, dark brown". Myra would guess him to be seal brown.

He had just done his shopping for at least a week, maybe two weeks. It was the 30th: Just got his Social Security check, she bet. With trembling, knot-knuckled hands he was carefully lifting items from a wire cart to the counter -- no conveyor belts here. A 10-pound bag of white rice, big can of Crisco, smaller can of blackstrap molasses, bag of chicken necks and backs, 5-lb bag of Gold Medal, bottle of light Karo (If he's got a pecan tree, that's a pie, thought Myra), baking soda, can of Maxwell house, quart of sweet milk, two cans of evaporated milk, pound of bacon, box of Spic'n'Span...No veggies or eggs, which means he's got a little bit of land, thought Myra.

She had been standing respectfully back and had apparently not been noticed by the woman at the register. When the old man asked for a can of snuff, however, the woman changed position enough to see Myra.

"Here, now" she called out sharply. "You come on up here, I'll check you out first."

Myra began to protest as the woman shoved aside the old man's last few items, saying "Oh, no, I'm not in a hurry and he's almost done -- "

But the old man shrunk even smaller into his already shrunken frame and stepped back from the counter, pressed into the corner. He didn't look up. Myra froze in horror.

"Give me what you've got there" commanded the woman, her voice not at all friendly. Myra's eyes were on the old man, willing him to make contact with her, as she numbly complied, dropping her bottles onto the counter. The woman voided her register with the push of a button and began punching in Myra's prices.

"I'm sorry" Myra said to the old man. He didn't acknowledge her at all.

"He can wait" said the woman shortly. She took Myra's money, counted out change, and bagged her items in impatient silence. Myra said "thank you" to her and then to the old man, but only the woman responded, saying "You're very welcome" before picking back up the Crisco and starting his checkout again.

Out on the sidewalk, Myra fought the impulse to vomit. She tried to find a way to believe that what had just occurred wasn't what she thought it was. She pulled out one of her RC's, only to discover she needed a churchkey to open the top. Well, she wasn't going back into that store, that's for sure. Maybe the car glovebox would have something to open her bottle.

No luck with the glovebox, but she had a dim memory from her teenage beer-drinking years that led her to find a leverage spot inside the open car door, popping off the cap on the second try. She drank down to the shoulder of the bottle, poured the peanuts into the neck, and sat down inside the car, closing the door as a kind of shield against the square itself. She glanced back at the store: The old man wasn't visible yet.

When he emerged, she could idle up and offer to give him a ride home. But she suspected that would send him into complete panic. She wasn't sure what the rules were, so how to intelligently break them was beyond her. She couldn't believe this was 2004, that his instant subservience could be still happening. If he was in his 70s, then he had been born maybe around 1930 -- well, if he lived through the Depression here, with his parents, that told her a lot.

She took slow sips, crunching a peanut or two with each drag, savoring the mix of syrup and salt. She didn't know how to back in and face Allie. She had a strong urge to see Chris walk up: She could tell Chris about what had just happened, and if Chris chewed her out, got mad at her, it would help ease her guilt.

But that urge made her feel even more guilty. Leaning on one woman of color to deal with her guilt about another woman of color. Nope, she had to deal with this on her own. Well, and with Ginny, when she got that chance.

She finished her drink and put the empty bottle in the back floorboard, along with her second RC. She hid Allie's snack inside her pack and returned to the courthouse.

Copyright 2010 Maggie Jochild.


Margot said...

What a lovely, androgenous looking person young Samuel Mordecai was. No wonder women were able to "pass" in those days.

And what a sickening experience in the store.I hope the intervening quarter century has made a difference in those places...

Blue said...

Just wow.