Thursday, August 19, 2010

Family tours farm where ancestors were once slaves

By Jenni Osborne
Todd County Standard

They traveled a dusty road flanked by nearly dried-up corn and beans, stirring tiny yellow butterflies from their afternoon repose, sweating as the sun loomed overhead.

But they could not complain as they walked the path that had paved the way for their future. These were the same fields their ancestors had worked, earth broken on the shoulders of those who came before.

The Russell family looked every bit the tourists they were, khaki shorts, sun hats and iPhone cameras clicking as they surveyed the D.N. Short farm on Allensville Road last weekend, looking for any connection they could make to the past.
The group planned a family reunion around the tour after learning they are direct descendants of the slaves once tethered to the land.

George Russell, whose father was from Trenton, and many members of his extended family hail from Indianapolis, Ind., but they’ve been drawn toward a piece of land in southern Todd County since George met Vanessa Short — whose father-in-law owns the farm — at the Todd County Library while they were researching their respective families’ pasts.

It turned out there was a major connection — specifically, the name Russell.

Vanessa’s husband Ashley’s ancestors — also Russells — owned slaves that kept the surname Russell after they were freed.

Those same slaves that worked what is today the D.N. Short land are Charlie’s forefathers, and when the two families realized it, they began to plan a get-together.

Charlie’s group of about 20 — some of whom hadn’t even met each other before — attended the Aug. 8 celebration in Allensville before gathering at the Short farm on a relentlessly hot day, the women carrying umbrellas as makeshift parasols and exclaiming over the biggest bugs they’d ever seen.

They were still conscious of how much worse it would have been, say, a couple centuries ago.

“As we’re walking, I’m thinking, our ancestors actually worked this land, and here we are with umbrellas!” said reunion-goer Carrie Russell Morris, whose father — the oldest living Russell at 88 — was originally from Elkton.
Ashley and Vanessa showed the Russells around as they stopped to remember a people to whom they owe much of their strength today.

But the real tour guide was Gillie Short of Hopkinsville, Ashley’s nearly 99-year-old grandmother who was dressed in pink and able to lend more insight to the Russells than any genealogical records.

Pausing for get-to-know-yous in a cabin the Shorts rent to hunters, the group’s attention turned to Gillie.

Charlie knelt beside her excitedly but reverently, ready to learn from this woman who had been born on the very farm some of his ancestors died on.

Turns out she was even more amped to meet him. “You’re the man with all the history!” she told him.

Charlie’s been researching his family — and, by extension, Gillie’s — for 20 years, but he still wanted to know what she knows, this woman whose ancestors “owned” his in a way that, as some at the reunion pointed out, we are just now able to talk about.

Cheryl Hall-Russell said it’s about time for gatherings like this. “We have finally gotten to a place in America where we can have these kind of conversations about slavery and what it was and what it meant,” she said. “It’s nice when you can get people who have been on both sides of it, because it is a shared legacy.”

And indeed, on this day, they scrambled for links in their own histories, for the moment their legacies coincide. The extended Russell family kept its attention locked on the tiny woman who might unlock the shackles of their past, the room nearly silent as they waited for names they’d recognize to tumble from her lips.

Does Gillie remember a George Russell? He was Charlie’s ancestor and was named in a Russell family will, as a household’s slaves typically were. Gillie remembered a “Georgie” — perhaps that was him.

Most everyone packed cameras and some videotaped her recollections, as if this ever were a day they could forget.
In the meantime, the youngest member of the Russell group befriended the Shorts’ daughter, Catherine, and the sight of the two holding hands resonated.

“I was just thinking about Dr. King’s words — the children of former slaves and the children of former slave owners playing together,” said Lauren Rochester, another extended family member. “So poetic.”

The kids saw something much simpler happening.

“I’ve made a new friend,” Alyssa Henderson announced as she climbed into the back of a Cub Cadet with Catherine for the tour of the grounds.

Gillie played cruise director — she remembers where the old slave quarters were, a cluster of cabins that have since caught fire, and the group followed her to the shady spot where their family once lived.

Marvin Russell, part of the Chicago side of the family, said he had searched records in Elkton the day before and found his great-great-grandparents’ marriage license from 1895.

Marvin explained that there were 14 kids who came from this farm, sons and grandkids of slaves, who make up the branches of his extended family tree.

One of them, Thornton Russell, is in his direct line, Marvin said. “It’s pretty crazy,” he said of his findings. “We were pretty excited.”

The Shorts also led the Russells on the 10-minute walk to an old sharecropper’s house with 1930s newsprint lining the walls.

“Whew — we don’t know how blessed we are!” was Robert Henderson’s reaction after emerging from the rickety shack.

Ashley showed the group — most of them whom admittedly aren’t that familiar with farming but are interested in everything about the life, asking which crops are which and how they’re planted – a tobacco barn and explained how their ancestors would’ve had to to do everything by hand.

Hall-Russell considered that long-ago struggle.

“It’s pretty emotional,” she said. “You take seconds of quiet where you imagine what their toil was like. It makes me very grateful for my ancestors.”

The pilgrimage concluded at a small family cemetery tucked in a corner of the cornfield. The Russells gathered around the final resting place of one of their own, a tombstone fallen over and nearly hidden in the dirt.

The land owners’ graves are still standing, but most of the slaves were buried in unmarked graves in the back.
Charlie helped brush some of the debris off the headstone and gently righted it to reveal that this one had a name — Cashy Russell.

“If people just knew the stories in their families, they’d be humbled by them — by the sacrifices that were made,” he said.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for a "good news" story that reminds us that not all news is bad. How wonderful that the Short family cared enough to not only give a tour of their farm, but also to have the grandmother tell the history she knew. It speaks loudly as an example to the rest of us about how we should treat others, without regard to race, gender, religion, or ancestry.
This story makes me proud to be from Todd County!

3:55 PM, August 19, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Absolutely a wonderful story, this should make state and national news to revive the hope that change can happend for the good.

11:56 AM, August 20, 2010  

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