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The Other Side of the Family

From an old posting:
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The Other Side of the Family

By Neil Henry

The Warren County Courthouse is a magnificent old stone structure
rising from a steep hill in downtown Vicksburg, overlooking the
Mississippi River. From every mildewed corner, the building seems to
throb with history. Guarded by Civil War-era artillery pieces on its
front and sides, it features Greco-Roman granite columns supporting a
pyramid-shaped roof and an imposing bell tower with clocks on all
four sides.At the height of the Civil War, the courthouse was a
defiant symbol of one of the last great stands of the Confederacy --
the siege of Vicksburg.For my family, too, the building held history.
I come from an African American family proud of its heritage and its
race. My great-grandfather was an escaped slave who attained almost
mythic success as a large-scale farmer in Illinois after the Civil
War. My father was a pioneering black surgeon in the Pacific
Northwest in the civil rights era. Yet my great-great-grandfather was
a white man, an English immigrant. His Confe! derate artillery unit
had fought Grant near this very place in defense of Vicksburg.

Now, nearly 135 years later, I was about to embark on a different
kind of siege. I felt certain that somewhere in the old ledgers,
deeds and microfilms were clues to the whereabouts of his white
descendants -- the missing part of my American family.I entered the
courthouse at 8 a.m. and found the office of Gordon Cotton, archivist
and curator. Inside was a pale, gray-haired man in his fifties seated
at a delightfully cluttered wooden desk. The office was filled from
floor to ceiling with old books, rare maps and other ancient
documents perched on wooden shelves anchored against the walls."So
you're doin' some investigatin'?" drawled Cotton, dressed in faded
jeans and a plain plaid shirt."I'm stuck in the year 1914," I told
him. "I know the Beaumont family was living in Vicksburg then, but
that's as far as I've taken the trail."Cotton rose from his creaky
wooden chair and pulled down a ! 1914 phone directory from a wall
full of books."These are the Vicksburg city directories from the
period you're interested in. Telephones were pretty new back then,
and the directories only began in 1905. They list pretty much
everyone in town, even if they didn't have a phone."The pages were
fragile and yellow with age. He carefully opened to the B's and
stopped at page 128. He turned the book to me."That's them, isn't
it?" he asked.I nodded in fascination, staring at the listing:
"Beaumont, Arthur W." This, I knew, was the sole surviving son of
Arthur J. Beaumont, my great-great-grandfather. The listing also
showed his wife's name, Anna, in parentheses and described him as a
"foreman" for the Gotthelf Coal Co. The family's address was 728
Dabney.Cotton returned the volume to the shelf and came back with the
issue of 1918, four years later.

The listings showed the Beaumonts residing at the same address. But
in the 1919 volume the Beaumont name did not appear. Cotton! grabbed
1920, 1921, 1922, 1925 and 1929. No Beaumonts.

The family seemed to have vanished."Maybe there's something in the
Fisher Funeral Home records," Cotton told me, reaching for a
leather-bound tome. "These records go all the way back to 1854. If
you had a little bit of money back then and died in Vicksburg,
chances are Fisher put you in the ground."He opened the old ledger
and scanned the B's. Page 10 showed the record for the June 15, 1914,
funeral of Mary Ann Beaumont, my great-great-grandfather's widow:Age
57. One black broadcloth casket and box, $140.00; embalming remains,
$25.00; ladies burial robe, $15.00; telephoning to Natchez, 40 cents;
candles and hack to train, $3.00 -- $183.40.I made photocopies of all
the information before Cotton escorted me across the street to the
new county offices. There I searched the probate, property, marriage
and other civil records in hopes of finding more clues.But I was
feeling stumped again, my head filling with doubt. ! Where did the
family go in 1918? Why was Beaumont's son working for a coal company?
What had happened to the business, the plantation, the fortune that
my great-great-grandfather had amassed?I found probate records for
Mary Ann Beaumont, case No. 5680. They revealed that Arthur J.
Beaumont's widow died without a will, that her estate totaled
$394.76, all of it in cash at a local bank, and that her son was her
only heir. One document showed that most of the money in the bank
went to pay for hospital fees at the Vicksburg sanitarium where the
widow had spent a month before her death, and for funeral and court
costs.I struggled to comprehend what I was seeing. The white family,
whose lives by all appearances were so prosperous and comfortable
before the century's turn, appeared virtually penniless barely 15
years later, offering little more than a trace of their very
existence.I couldn't help reflecting on my black family's history
during the same period. Its unlikely rise ! was commencing at the
same time that the white Beaumonts seemed to be in full descent.

This was not the way I had expected the saga of two American families
to unfold. It was not the kind of story that conventional wisdom and
stereotypes about race in our country would ever tell.It was close to
4 p.m. when I finished, and I was filled with far more questions than
when I had started. Gordon Cotton sensed my confusion and
disappointment when I returned to his office."No luck, huh?" he
asked."I moved it up to 1918," I said. "But then the family simply
vanished on me again."Cotton walked me to the courthouse door. "You
never know, Mr. Henry," he said. "One thing we've learned around here
is that skeletons have a way of rattlin' their bones when you least
expect it. Keep the faith."Arthur John Beaumont left his home in
Kent, England, when he was 17 years old to sail for America, one of
200,436 immigrants recorded as arriving in this country in 1856. A
thin, pale-looking f! ellow with wispy dark hair and soft,
penetrating eyes, he was called "A.J." by his friends and family.
Like many young immigrants, he apparently came here with little in
his pockets but with a heart overflowing with dreams of fortune and
happiness.To a large extent my great-great-grandfather seemed to find
what he was looking for. Soon after his arrival in America, the young
man settled in a small town called St. Joseph about 40 miles south of
Vicksburg on the Mississippi River in northeastern Louisiana, where
he found work as an overseer on a cotton plantation.After his
military service in the Civil War, he returned to his beloved adopted
town, and over the last quarter of the 19th century, from
Reconstruction into the Jim Crow era, he became a respected and
admired figure: plantation owner, merchant, town father and civic
leader.I knew these details largely by way of a faded newspaper
clipping that had been passed down in my family since its publication
in the weekly T! ensas Gazette on May 3, 1901. That was the year
Beaumont died, at 62. The clipping, a very fragile thing about eight
column inches in length, was his obituary and had been inherited by
my mother and preserved in the top drawer of a bureau in her clothes
closet, along with a letter he had written and his photograph.But
what had always fascinated me most about that brittle strip of
newsprint was the story it didn't tell about A.J. Beaumont's life.

This untold tale was his legacy as the inadvertent progenitor of an
unusual black family -- my family -- that has endured proudly over
the century since his death. We were the ones, as my mother's
brother, Uncle Sonny, sometimes said, who were "born on the wrong
side of the blanket" long ago -- descendants of Beaumont's post-Civil
War sexual relationship with a freed slave, Laura Brumley, who became
our ancestral matriarch.Beaumont was always something of a mystery
figure in our family's story -- a white man remembered only vaguely!
and somewhat reluctantly through a faded old photograph and a
newspaper clipping.

By contrast, Laura was a beloved and memorable figure. Her brilliant
1890 portrait and that of her beautiful mixed-race daughter, Pearl,
my great-grandmother, hung proudly in the entryway of my house
throughout my boyhood in Seattle.These three people -- A.J. Beaumont,
Laura Brumley and their daughter, Pearl -- were at the trunk of my
black American family tree. And ultimately they were the inspiration
for the story that follows, a personal history and narrative about my
quest, nearly a century and a half after Beaumont's arrival in this
country, to piece together the murky details of my family's racial
past, a mixed ancestry with hidden branches not unlike that of
millions upon millions of African Americans.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A39434-2001May3.html">Continue
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18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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