In this blog, I am sharing how my interest in family history began after watching the 1977’s T.V. series Roots by Alex Haley.
I was so inspired by Mr. Haley’s storytelling of his family’s history that my mom bought me an Ebony Jr., family research kit to build my family tree and a cassette tape recorder to record my family interviews.
I scheduled my first interview with my Great-grandpa Jarrett Ervin. Ervin is spelled E-R-V-I-N. I am pointing out this spelling because it has changed over the years. Great-Grandpa was in his 90s. He lived in Columbus, Ohio, with his oldest daughter Mary, who was my maternal Grandmother. Grandpa Ervin’s bedroom was at the end of the hall.
His room had an armoire, and not a closet.
He was a widower by seven years. His wife Great-grandma Sarah Grimsley Ervin passed in 1970.
I asked him my first question, “Grandpa Ervin, What was it like living in Alabama?”
As he opened his box of photos, he answered slavery. He handed me a picture of a woman standing in a field of cotton. He pointed that’s my sister.
I couldn’t focus on the photograph because his answer confused me.
Grandpa Ervin, you were not born in slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation was during the Civil War. I explained.
He repeated that it was slavery. Then he signaled for me to return his photo and proceeded to close his box, escorted me out of his room and shut the door.
I was a young, inexperienced ten year -old interviewer. Since my first interview, I understand to ask follow-up questions rather than to correct someone’s experience.
When Grandpa Ervin shut his door, he shut down my interest in family history too.
Recently, family history piqued my interest again. Ancestry.com has made researching easy. In their database is where I found them. I found Grandpa Ervin’s dad with his parents, his sister, his grandparents, and cousins by the dozens living together in the 1880 census. It was a great discovery.
I called my mom on the telephone. I described to her their beautiful names, Boston, Luke, Mariah, Julia, Moses, Prophet, and Shepherd. Another thing about their names, their surname was spelled I-r-w-i-n.
How did I find this census record?
- I visited my Grand Uncle Michael. Great-Grandpa Ervin’s son. I asked him what were his Grandparents’ names. I called my mom’s older sister and asked her who were Great-Grandparents.
- I visited Ancestry.com. I went to their search tab and typed in their names that were given to me, and the location.
- I sorted through the list of populated hints. I noticed their last name was spelled five different ways, Irwin, Irving, Irvine, Irvin, and Ervin.
- I looked at the community on the census record. I looked at their neighbors. I recognized other family names, the people the Ervins married.
- Lastly, DNA confirmed extended family relationships.
Today I will highlight my Cousin Shepherd. When I see the name Shepherd, I think of someone responsible, law-abiding, and brave.
According to the census records, Shepherd was born 1862. I smiled. I thought he did not have to pick cotton for free.
Shepherd and my great-great-grandfather Boston (Jarrett’s father) were first cousins. They were a year apart in age. I can imagine they were like brothers like their fathers Luke and Moses. Luke was Boston’s father and Moses, Shepherd’s.
How do I know Boston and Shepherd were first cousins?
- There were 20 family members listed together.
- A 5th – 8th cousin range DNA match sent me a message asking if his ancestor came across my path.
- His direct ancestor was Shepherd’s brother Huey/Hugh Irving.
- Our 5th cousin relationship fits our direct common ancestors.
The next document I would find for Shepherd would be a convict’s record. This find would be a shock to my soul.
How do I know for certain that it’s Shepherd
- I confirmed the dates, location, and family on the document.
- I searched other online sources for any other activity for Shepherd.
Shepherd broke the law…
He was convicted of robbery on March 2, 1899, and sentenced for 25 years. He would have been 27 years old. The record does not fit my notion of someone with the name Shepherd. The file does not provide details of what was stolen. I doubt it valued 25 years of Shepherd’s life. My Great-grandpa Ervin was 12 years old during this time.
To paint a clearer picture of Shepherd’s conviction, I must go back to 1865 when the 13th amendment abolished slavery. The Southern states suffered financially due to the loss of free labor. As a result, Southerners concocted black codes and city ordinances to restrict the newly freed Americans’ freedoms. African Americans found themselves falsely accused of crimes and bogus violations. There were trials, but not trials judged by a jury of their peers, but all white male jurors.
As an Alabama inmate, Shepherd worked at Pratts Mills, a textile company – cotton. Alabama prisons had a practice of leasing their convicts. They arranged for prisoners to work for private companies or individual planters. These agreements covered the inmates’ food and housing.
Shepherd more than likely worked in the picker house to haul the boxes of cotton to be cleaned. Something I thought Shepherd would not have to experience picking cotton without pay. In my opinion, an incarcerated person working in a picker house hauling cotton is the same as an enslaved person working in the cotton field. It is forced labor without pay. We understand today that convict leasing is coined “slavery by another name.”
Even the great Confederate cavalry genius Nathan Bedford Forrest, his regiments eviscerated by four years of war, was swept aside with impunity. Wilson crushed the last functioning industrial complex of the Confederacy and left Alabama in a state of complete chaos. Author Douglas A. Blackmon, “Slavery by Another Name.”
Many times in the convict leasing settings, these inmates were unsupervised. Arguments would become physical. No one in authority was there to stop any brawls. Sometimes these fights would end in death. I believe that was my cousin Shepherd’s fate. The record described his injuries as left eye out, scar over the eye, and a scar on lower left chin.
On December 22, 1900, another inmate took Shepherd’s life.
My Great-grandpa Ervin would have been 14 years old. Old enough to attend a funeral, old enough to listen to grown folks talk about what happened to Cousin Shepherd, and old enough to understand that after the North won the Civil War, President Lincoln proclaimed emancipation, and the 13th amendment abolished slavery, he was living in slavery.
Great-grandpa Ervin described to me his Alabama experience correctly.
It was slavery.