Sunday, September 27, 2015

And Betty's ... .

About the time that my distant cousin, Paul, was searching out his family history on Ancestry. com I was engaged in the same process on the West Coast where I'd grown up in an extended family of Creoles of Color, re-settlers from the early days in the Tremé of old New Orleans.  My own family had been uprooted by the great floods of 1927.  Unlike Paul, who had access to records left by his grandfather, Joseph Numa Charbonnet, my search had abruptly ended upon reaching the bewildering and forbidding slave curtain somewhere in the mid-1800s.

Though there were surely ancestors before those years, I'd hit a psychological roadblock caused by self-imposed prohibitions -- something nearly every African American has experienced in attempting to trace their beginnings.  The thought of trying to connect my family with their white ancestors simply didn't occur to me.  My history ended with my great-grandfather, Dorson, for whom my father had been named.  It was as if his had been a virgin birth.  I didn't even allow myself to wonder past his birth or who his parents might have been.  It seems curious now in retrospect, that I wouldn't have been curious to delve into his mysterious beginnings.  The word illegitimacy would hardly have come up except in those early conversations spoken only in that patois of French the grownups resorted to when necessary to protect family pride.  So one just didn't go there, even as I grew to adulthood.

Eduoard's signature and Celestine's "X"
It was at this point that I closed the books and returned to exploring my maternal line which offered little more.   The earliest record unearthed from the Diocese of Baton Rouge was the marriage certificate of my enslaved great-great grandmother, Celestine "of no last name"; the paper  that radically changed the nature of her relationship to her owner, Eduoard Breaux, in 1863 (a story for another day).  Both my maternal and paternal lines ended somewhere just after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed.  Notice that their marriage papers were written in French, an official language both of the State of Louisiana, and the Catholic Diocese at that time.

I was satisfied that both ancestors of color would have to serve as the beginnings of my story, that is, until I received a message from this stranger, cousin Paul, reaching out with warmth and acceptance from the white side of our family.  He was seeking to identify a list which held the names of my father's siblings.  This would become the onset of the possible coming together of the great American Charbonnet family narrative that would unite black and white relatives after centuries of separation.  Our story is America's story -- a story lived by most of us as the result of a still unprocessed history indelibly marked by slavery and the cruel national tragedy of the Civil War.

Our standing together at the burial place of our ancestor-in-common, (white) Amable, closed the circle with us both inside.  That moment still stands as one of monumental importance in a lifetime of incompleteness, a feeling that I didn't recognize until it was gone.  I'm still adjusting to the exalted feeling of being whole that was born that incredible day as we stood together beside Amable's beautiful marble tomb in St. Louis cemetery.
Paul's story:

This is Betty Charbonnet Reid Soskin, my 4th cousin 3x removed. We met over the internet as I reached out to distant cousins to begin building my Ancestry Family tree.  Betty is enchanting.  We both grew up in New Orleans but we have been separated by an age difference of 26 years, 3,000 miles, and racial boundaries.

Yet, Betty and I were sealed by our common stories of Out of France and St. Dominique.

We descend from my 7th great grandfather who lived in Southern France. His two sons left for  Louisiana about 1760.  Antoine became a successful sugar cane planter in Louisiana, but Jean raised his family in the French Caribbean island of St. Domingue, now Haiti.  The slave rebellion of 1802 and Jean's death in 1803 motivated family evacuation to Louisiana.  I descend from Antoine.  Betty descends from Jean.  Our conversations uncovered generations of relationships and warmth that neither of us had understood as children, but that now we are able to connect.

Antoine stayed in New Orleans as have many of his white descendants.  Jean’s son, Amable, evacuated to Louisiana about age 10, joining his uncle and cousins in New Orleans. There he met a lovely young slave.  Through Ancestry, we believe we have her bill of sale to Pierre Beaulieu  in St. James Parish (another full set of stories).  She took her owner's last name as her own.

Amable had a son, Dorson. By law, Dorson was a free man. White father’s of those days rarely acknowledged their mulatto sons, but assumed the obligation to school them in the military or
apprentice them in a skilled trade. Amable married a wealthy French woman and he died a relatively
young man. His white son, also named Amable, left Louisiana and returned to France with his mother . . .we have not yet connected with our French cousins.

my grandfather, Louis Charbonnet's, business card
Betty grew up in a strong, professional, mulatto community, Her father and my grandfather were builders of homes, churches, schools, mills, and offices.  The highly-skilled mulatto craftsmen were well paid in Uptown homes under supervision of my father and grandfather.  In exchange, my family worked with Betty's to obtain land, permits, city improvements, legal matters,and financing for less expensive homes built in the 8th and infamous 9th wards along Charbonnet Street ... but that's another story.

In 2012 at age 90, Betty spoke at the WWII museum in New Orleans and stayed with us in our home.
We had a goal of locating the tomb of Amable. We learned from Ancestry that he was interred in the St.Louis #1 Cemetery in the French Quarter. After a hot day of searching, the cooler evening descended in the cemetery. On our last turn, along the wall, we found Amable resting with his young daughter, a victim of yellow fever.

Leaving the cemetery, Betty introduced me to her cousins, Louis and Armand Charbonnet, operators of the Charbonnet-Labat Funeral Home a few blocks away. The two Charbonnet brothers are well-known for staging the Jazz funerals. Despite having spent their lives professionally in the business, both were unaware of the link to Uptown Charbonnets, Amable, who rested nearby in a beautiful, well marked, Parisian tomb.

Through Ancestry, Betty and I have linked the two branches of our great Southern family. Times have
changed. Ancestry calls us to build family ties even when we have to reach beyond the boundaries of the past.
Upon hearing that the country's demographics are showing a surprising new trend ...

... it occurred to me that this probably deserves our attention.

The assumption  has been that the nation's fastest growing minority would be among our Mexican and South American brothers and sisters; the "Brown" folks.  Recent polling would suggest this is no longer true.  The greatest growth is in the "Other" category; those who are now of mixed parentage, crossing the lines of racial separation in its many variations.  Small wonder that we're seeing the polarity in this country harden as those who are frightened by that possibility are increasingly alarmed.

As a member of that group, and knowing so many others of mixed race, this had the ring of truth.  And, I'm guessing that we're living proof that miscegenation may indeed enhance the human gene pool and not befoul it as some might have you believe; an interesting possibility, though eminently debatable, of course.

A day or so after I read that surprising statistic -- by coincidence -- I received a request from distant (white) cousin, Paul Charbonnet, inviting my participation in an proposal with him.  It would entail our (together) submitting our truncated family story in a recently announced Ad campaign.  Paul lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and I'm far away on the Left Coast here in California.  It would have to be done by long distance without comparing notes except sketchily and through cyberspace.

A few days later he sent along his first draft of the result of his years-long research with the invitation that I submit my version for his son to combine into a single story to submit for consideration by Ancestry.   This happened only last week, and the first drafts have been exchanged for approval (each by the other) before submission.

I enlisted the help of one of our staff who could do the technical work and with an improvised background we prepared a short video as requested, with me reading a hastily-prepared 400-word script.  It was fun -- probably because it was a first draft and would probably undergo several edits before being entered into competition with others.

Both Paul and I have felt that the Charbonnet saga was worth, at least, a mini-series simply because the history is so colorful and so "American."  Though we'd only spoken about it in jest, and never with any serious intent.  But this kind of nibbled at the edges of that silent speculation that we both pretended didn't exist.

I'll post both scripts (one pagers) here so that you can see how one family -- separated by the racial barriers -- has begun the act of unification after more than 20 generations of only tacitly acknowledging the relationship on occasion over many decades.

I suspect that ours is a colorful example of many American stories, and that by sharing it here, others might see themselves somewhere between the lines ... .