Do you ever feel the need to return home; to the place or places that produces nostalgia? Maybe, it’s a whiff of the food Grandma cooked that makes you wistful. You can still smell it, an aroma of savory and sweet wafting through her house when family gathered for the holidays. Maybe, it’s the memory of your childhood that makes you homesick. You can still hear the clucking of the chickens as you and your siblings chased them around the yard. Perhaps, it’s the relief you felt after a dip in the creek down by the old Loblolly-shortleaf pine tree on that hot summer day that does it for you. I’m sure it could be many things that make us pine for yesteryear.
But, what if the places you long for and call home are places to which you have never been? That’s probably never happened to you, but it has happened to me. I can recall the stories shared by my Elders who had since passed away. Just hearing them, I yearned to return to the places of their childhood. I know you’re wondering how I can talk of returning to places of which I’ve never been. Somehow, my imagination had recreated these places for me. It’s what I said in a previous article: “Their stories transported me, through my imagination, to times and places far off in the distant past, and only through their recitation could I travel there.” Eventually, all of my Elders who were sharing stories have been laid to rest with their ancestors. Yet, I am compelled to keep telling their stories, chronicling them for future generations. This calling, however, necessitated that I actually visit the places they talked about.
Through genealogical research, I’ve been piecing together my family tree. Branch by branch, leaf by leaf, I have recreated the lives of my once forgotten and unknown ancestors. And naturally, I have been compelled to stand upon the land where they once stood. I shared with my parents my yearning to visit the places our recent ancestors called home: Alabama, Georgia, and Virginia, just to name a few. So in the summer of 2018, my parents and I took a road trip through the American South, a journey that lasted two weeks and covered more than three and a half thousand miles.
The first place we wanted to visit was Austin, Texas, my birthplace. We started from my parents’ home in New Jersey and traveled through the states of Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and Tennessee. We spent at least two days in Tennessee visiting the cities of Knoxville, Nashville, and Memphis, where we enjoyed some Memphis BBQ and the sights and sounds of the famed Beale Street. Leaving Memphis, we crossed the mighty Mississippi River entering into Arkansas and then into Texas. We spent three days in Austin where we planned to visit Bergstrom Air Force Base. It’s where I was born. My father had been stationed there in the early 1970’s, but then my parents wanted to return to New Jersey. And so they had left Austin with my older brother and me in tow. Since I was just an arm baby when we left the place of my birth, I had no memory of Austin, Texas. So for me, it was as if I was visiting for the first time. However, once we arrived, my parents felt as if they themselves were visiting for the first time.
Other than my birth certificate and a few pictures of my father in uniform with his basic training flight, there is little evidence that we were once residents of Austin. The military hospital I was born in was now a large hotel near Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Bergstrom Air Force Base was gone. My parents’ first apartment in Austin had been replaced by a string of extended stay hotels, standing like sentries overlooking the highway leading into Austin’s downtown. Their second apartment—on a formerly nondescript street—was also gone, and the road was now lined with a few auto-garages and a small church building. Forty-seven years has a way of changing everything.
We resumed our travels from Austin to Houston and then on to the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. I must admit, traveling at night in the Delta was quite unearthing, pun intended. Knowing that we were just a mere few yards above swampy waters in some places instead of terra firma had its challenges. While in Alabama, we spent a few days in Mobile. There, we visited my Father’s youngest brother, his wife and their children. We even met new family members who were descendants from a common ancestor, my paternal 2nd great grandfather who until DNA was a person of fiction rather than fact. To tell that story, however, warrants its own blog. Stay Tuned!
In any event, there was no way I could come to Alabama and not visit the city of Evergreen in Conecuh County. Of what I could remember from the stories of my paternal grandparents and their siblings, few things seemed to have changed there. My paternal grandparents’ birthplace greeted us with the same dirt roads I heard them talk about—no doubt looking like they did almost a century ago. But to my dismay, not everything was the same. The sharecroppers’ house where my grandfather lived as a child was no longer standing. Over the years, my family has shared a lot of stories with me about this home. I had imagined I’d be able to hear the echoes of them talking and laughing in the kitchen. Maybe see remnants of a beaten path where they chased chickens in the yard if I tried hard enough. But the tiny house was not just silent and the yard covered over with weeds; it was nothing more than a heap of debris in the middle of nowhere.
A cousin told me that the house of my 3rd-great grandfather, Squire Gandy (pronounced square), was still standing back in the woods. He said there was even a portrait of Squire’s brother, Houston Gandy, hanging on the wall. But no matter how much I was going to try, I would not be able to imagine hearing Squire’s voice or gazing at a faded portrait of Uncle Houston because the house was also no longer standing. The thickets that had overgrown the property was a sad reality that the visible proof of my 3rd great grandfather having ever lived in Evergreen, Conecuh County, Alabama was in some sense erased.
With each stop, nonetheless, our journey became more historic, especially when we visited the Second Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Owassa, Alabama. The white building sat about a hundred yards off the road. The church’s African American cemetery, which dated back to the nineteenth century, holds nearly three-hundred graves. Two-hundred are identified and marked with unnamed slabs. From what I was told, the unidentified graves were transplants from another nineteenth century African American burial site, land that was needed to build a highway. I have many family members in my paternal grandfather’s family that are laid to rest there. As I walked through that cemetery and saw the names on the headstones identical to the names on my family tree, I felt overwhelmed, as if I had met these people before. And although I hadn’t, I knew I needed to make sure their names would never be forgotten.
Unfortunately, time did not allow us the opportunity to visit the African American cemetery of my paternal grandmother’s family. Still, before we left Alabama, my uncle and his children in one vehicle, and my parents and I in our vehicle visited Africatown. I had read about Africatown in the book by the award-winning author Sylviane A. Diouf, “Dreams of Africa in Alabama – The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Story of the Last Africans brought to America.” A historic community, Africatown is located three miles north of downtown Mobile, Alabama. In 1860 the last known illegal shipment of enslaved Africans to the United States were brought to Mobile in a ship called Clotilda. Of the hundred and ten individuals who made up the Clotilda’s shackled human cargo, a group of thirty-two had formed Africatown where, until the 1950s, they had retained their West African customs and languages.
Driving through Africatown, there was not a sound from anyone. Somehow we knew the moment was too surreal to be interrupted by anything we could utter. The long standing homes that line the streets in Africatown were sitting atop cinder blocks. Most of the homes we saw were rather small. It’s residents had facial features that were undeniably West African. Looking at their eyes as we slowly drove past them, I imagined the stories they could tell, stories passed down to them from family members who were able to say where they had come from in West Africa, which ethnic groups they belonged to, and what their African birth names were.
We eventually stopped at the Old Plateau Cemetery Africatown Graveyard. There is a historic plaque at the entrance introducing you to its silent inhabitants of enslaved Africans, African Americans, and a Buffalo Soldier. The plaque also communicates that Old Plateau Cemetery Africatown Graveyard is their “final resting place.” The burial site dates back to 1876, sixteen years after Africans arrived on the Clotilda. I will never forget the somber expression on the faces of my parents. My mother’s eyes welled with tears, and my father was profoundly affected. I remember just watching him stand in utter silence. It wasn’t just his respect and reverence for the people buried there, but the realization of their resilience. No human should ever have to endure the horror of being kidnapped from their homes and families, brought to a foreign land, sold to slavers, forced to work as enslaved individuals from sun up to sun down, have their new families ripped apart from them, and whipped and beaten until they forgot their language, and in some way, even their identity. Africa Town is a grim reminder that the lives of Africans were considered worthless. And yet, through it all, we are still standing!
In Part 2, I will share how the second leg of my journey with my parents through the American South became an unforgettable connection to my ancestors.
Di Shawn would love to hear about your journey of discovering your ancestral roots and heritage. You can keep up with Di Shawn J. Gandy on his Instagram, @dishawnjg. You can also see more of his work on his YouTube page, and read more of his blogs on his website.