Saturday, August 19, 2017

Six degrees of separation ... ?

During the Nineties -- shortly after acquiring my first MAC -- I caught the genealogy bug and dived into creating my family history.  It was all-consuming, and gratifying, and there was so much to learn through that process.  (See the Charbonnet Pages in the links in the Archives on the left, for paternal line and California Black Pioneers for maternal records.)

Started with my maternal line, with my great-grandmother, Leontine Breaux Allen.  She had been the mainstay of my family since it was in her little house beside the levee of the great Mississippi that my mother, her siblings, most of her aunts and uncles for several generations had their beginnings.  My mother's mother, Julia LaRose, died there when my mother was but 7 months old.  She was raised by my great-grandmother, as were her three half-brothers and a sister.  Mamma figured heavily in my childhood and adolescence.  She died when I was 27 years-old, married with children of my own.

One learns early in the search that names can be problematic.  Not only is this complicated by the fact that slaves generally took on the surnames of their owners, or the plantations upon which they'd spent  much of their lives before freedom came, but because of a lesser-known reason:  During the 1800s through the early 1900s most ordinary folks were pre-literate.  This means that schooling was not widely attainable, and less so for non-whites.  For enslaved black folks, to learn to read had to be a deeply-held secret punishable by the lash if discovered.

Therefore Leontine, born into slavery in 1846, and enslaved until freed by the Emancipation Proclamation at 19, spoke only a patois of French, and (as far as I can tell) never learned to read or write.

Public records such as the Census were conducted by scribes who had to be literate, but who were strongly dependent upon oral data in order to fulfill their requirements.  Many of those records were kept through the Catholic Diocese, and I'm grateful for that since in Louisiana, those church records go further back into American history than the public records of some States.  The Church was central to the lives of all, and those diocesan records at Baton Rouge are filled with history.  They held the dates and places of most of the people's rites and celebrations, and could be the most powerful sources for opening into hidden family histories otherwise unattainable.
Marriage certificate of slave-owner, Eduoard Breaux
to Leontine's mother, Celestine "of no last name",
dated  1963, the year of the Emancipation Proclamation

Since the people of the times were pre-literate, those records reflect the countries of origin of the scribes, and Louisiana had seen a successions of rulers from other nations over its colorful history.  It was settled by the French under Napoleon, taken over by the Spanish for a time, became the reflection of "the known World," long before this became a country.  New Orleans, Louisiana, and St. Augustine, Florida, were established cities long before we became a country, long before the Revolutionary War of 1776.

For instance, my maternal line started out in Loudon, France, when Vincent Brault departed for the new world and landed in Nova Scotia for a few generations,  when his first descendants traveled to Maryland, then -- with the consent of the Spanish governor of Louisiana -- landed in St. James Parish, Louisiana, where the Breaux settled for all time.  These were the Acadians, now called "Cajuns."

Those scribes -- collecting their census data each decade from pre-literate villagers -- entered those names as they could, phonetically.  One is warned that Breaux, for instance, might appear in census records as Bro, Braud, Brau, Breau, Brault, Breaux, etc., depending upon the native language of the scribe. (Bro, Spanish; Braud, German; Brau, German; Breaux, French, etc.).  This turns out to have been an important thing to know in building my family history, since -- depending upon which years I was tracing, our family surnames varied accordingly.
Imagine how surreal it became as I peered through the looking glass of my life down this rabbit hole when valiant star-crossed young Heather Heyer met her death fighting for her cause in Charlottesville last weekend, and I found myself staring into the face of her mother, Susan Bro, on the small screen of the television set in my Richmond, California, bedroom!

I know ... .

Full circle?


... surreal, but mostly because -- after hearing Susan's brief, uncompromising but prideful response to the tragic loss of Heather -- lovely and so dedicated to her cause of supporting "liberty and justice for all" -- it was clear that the two of us could easily sit down over a cup 'o tea and start our conversation somewhere in the middle of the 14th paragraph, probably the number of generations twixt Heather's and mine!

Were this another time, I might just glide over this coincidence muttering under my breath about "small worlds," but at 96 I've no time to waste, and with the last item now completed on my old bucket list, connecting with Susan Bro tops the new one.  I want to touch lives, somehow, with this amazing, courageous, and wonderfully giving woman on the chance that we are cousins but 6 degrees of separation apart, if that would serve the purpose of providing some comfort in this time of great sorrow.

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