The Survivors

Charles T. Hudson
Charles T. Hudson

Another factor that enabled us to become “first” was our ability to survive, combined with a propensity for risk-taking. I have to thank my implant dentist, Dr. Richard Niego, for this insight. He said he thought researchers would someday locate a gene for gambling/risk taking and for leaping into the unknown. Despite the fact that several of the women in the family died young of tuberculosis, our family certainly did survive.

Charley Houston, Anna’s brother, learned survival skills at an early age. The Civil War was still raging when he caught a boat to New York, walked into a recruiting station, and enlisted with the illustrious Lincoln Cavalry.

Charley told one niece that he was escaping cruel treatment as an apprentice carpenter. “How am I to get away without their knowing. Have you a bedstead in your room? I’ll be on the ground. You let down a cord. I’ll tie it to a rope. you tie it to your bedstead then down you come.”

My mother often repeated the story of how Uncle Charley changed his name from Houston to Hudson when he enlisted. What she didn’t say was that he also lied about his age – he was fourteen, not nineteen. And of course neither Mother nor Uncle Charley ever mentioned that he was a black kid riding with an all-white regiment.

enlist copy

People ask how he managed this feat. Here’s what I think. It was December 1864 when Charley walked up to the clerk in Brooklyn. The Lincoln Cavalry had seen combat since the beginning of the war. It defended Washington in 1861. Just weeks before it had come off a punishing campaign in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. So when Charley showed up – maybe a little young, maybe a little dark, and just barely tall enough, all they saw was a healthy, able-bodied guy who could ride a horse. He suffered a bullet wound to the thigh six days before Appomattox and received a disability discharge. Mother saved and treasured his enlistment and pension papers.

The Painters

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The family of Rebecca Primus had been in Hartford since the eighteenth century. When the older James children were young, she had recently returned from teaching freedmen. Professor Farah Jasmine Griffin has written a fascinating book about the letters exchanged between Primus and a local servant. Beloved Sisters and Loving Friends: Letters from Rebecca Primus of Royal Oak, Maryland, and Addie Brown of Hartford, Connecticut, 1854-1868, was published by Ballentine. It offers a portrait of life North and South with generous doses of insight into the women’s personal lives. Rebecca’s brother, Nelson, became a portrait painter and migrated between Boston and Hartford.

Peonies in a Bowl 1885
Peonies in a Bowl 1885

Another artist, who lived in Hartford and Rockville as well as Paris, was the still-life painter Charles Ethan Porter. Samuel Clemens was his patron for a time. He gave the two oldest James girls paintings as wedding presents. He and Willis were also acquaintances, perhaps friends, of the Clemens family butler, George Griffin. All three men attended Hartford’s A.M.E. Zion Church. It was probably through Griffin that my grandmother was able to collect the autographs of the entire Clemens family.

And finally there was the Wheeler family. Robert W. Wheeler was the minister of the famous Talcott Street Congregational Church (now Faith Church). He performed the wedding ceremony when Anna and Willis’s oldest daughter married. And the Wheelers’ daughter, Laura, was the same age as the youngest James girl. Laura Wheeler Waring became a world-renowned painter. She gave Anna and Willis’s granddaughter – my mother — one of her paintings as a wedding present. [I had a slide of her water color but it did not reproduce well.]

 

More Lecture

Willis S. James
Willis S. James

My great-grandfather, Willis James, was born the enslaved boy Sam on a Virginia plantation. He ran during the Civil War. Details of his life before his arrival in Connecticut are sketchy. Family stories say that he went to New York where he married Hannah Darby or Derby and then traveled to Canada. We know they were living in Hartford in 1866 because their son, Charles, was born in a residence on Farmington Avenue. Hannah died and in 1874, Willis married Anna Houston.

So what were the benefits of their early arrival in Connecticut? They inculcated the steady habits of their white neighbors by working hard and saving money. As a result they became among the first African Americans to purchase property in Hartford’s North End. Number 6 Winter Street remained in the family until the 1950s.

While we encountered some hostility and racism, the effect was minimal. The numbers of black people in Hartford were too small to represent a true threat. For example, in 1880, out of a total of 42,000 within the city limits, there were fewer than 1,300 “Negroes,” about three percent of the population.

Those small numbers included middle-class people who served as models for Anna and Willis’s children. They were from families that had arrived even earlier. They were teachers and preachers. Oddly, several of them were artists, specifically painters.

More Lecture

Anna Estelle Houston
Anna Estelle Houston

Here’s the next chapter of the Wasch Center lecture, continued from the departure of many African Americans from Connecticut in the 1850s

The James family was already here, and that is one of the factors that made us different and enabled us to achieve these “firsts.” They included timing; a propensity for survival/risk taking; an emphasis on education; and a reliance on Frederick Douglass’ “truth.”

We arrived some sixty years before the Great Migration began and settled in Hartford during the 1870s.

My great-grandmother Anna Estelle Houston, together with her mother, Mary Ann, and her younger brother, Charley, arrived in Connecticut from Alabama sometime in the 1850s. We don’t know exactly when, but Mary Ann died of tuberculosis in New Haven in 1857. Charley and Anna were living in Cheshire in 1860 where she worked as a servant for a Congregational minister. The Rev. David Root had been kicked out of a parish in Guilford because of his abolitionist views. He had gone as a missionary to Georgia in the 1820s and came away with a horror of slavery, which his parishioners did not share. After the war, Anna worked as a servant here and in Massachusetts, then moved to Hartford.

Writer Within, Part 3

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ADVICE FROM THE BEST

In the chapter in At Home Inside about the source for my mother’s ideas, I wrote,

“A major source for her material, to which she paid homage, was her subconscious mind. She had a firm belief in its ability to guide everyone through life and to help solve problems. I thought I had been working on a problem in my sleep. She wrote, “You really were, at least your subconscious was. The subconscious is a wonderful part of the mind. It can be the most incredible friend and ally (solve problems, create anything and everything) or it can be the deadliest of enemies (spreading depression, causing diseases or making them worse) – I try to give mine problems to work on while I’m asleep – and I send messages about good health – and so far it has worked.” [Letter to me March 8, 1980] “Muddling” ideas around in her subconscious contributed to her success. “If I have a knotty problem that I can’t solve I think about it for a few minutes before I go to sleep. The chances are that when I wake up the next morning, I will have the answer. If not that morning then in a day or so. My subconscious, much more creative, brilliant, difficult to control than my conscious mind, will have worked on the problem during the night and come up with the solution.” [Draft of speech]

She thanked our ancestors for her ability to access her subconscious.

We are a people of great open spaces, freedom of movement – swift moving – a people of spears and sand – hunters – fishers – swimmers – users of boats we built with our own hands – familiar with the great – magnificent animals of Africa what Loren Eiseley called “a lion country of spears and sand” somewhere in the depths of our unconscious that great free continent still exists … uprooted, enslaved, managing to survive against enormous odds + in this country increasingly moving into cities – trapped there – in concrete – brick – steel – old-law tenements …

[Undated notes]

Writer Within, Part 2

RECOMMENDATIONS

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  • Keep a journal in which you record not just the day’s activities but reactions to things and people you encounter. Examine why you feel the way you do.
  • Carry a notebook and a pen or pencil with you always. If that seems cumbersome, use the notes or voice memo on your phone.
  • Listen to others and most of all to your inner voice.
  • Read as much as possible in as many genres as possible.

 

The Writer Within

It was a glorious day at the HeArt of Inner Peace and an honor to be a presenter. Over the next couple of days I’ll post the handout I gave for the writing workshop.

 Resources

brande

Brande, Dorothea. Becoming a Writer. New York: Tarcher Perigee, 1981. (Intended for writers of fiction, Brande’s insights apply to all types of writing and will help anyone gain a better understanding of herself.)

newlove

Newlove, Donald. Painted Paragraphs: Inspired Description for Writers and Readers. New York: Henry Holt, 1993. (You will examine the world through fresh eyes – and perhaps reveal learn about yourself as well.)

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Johnson, Wendy. Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate: At Work in the Wild and Cultivated World. Random House, 2008. (A magical voyage through Green Gulch Farm complete with gardening instructions and recipes).

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McMillan, M.E. Betsy. A Mystery in the Mailbox. CreateSpace Independent Publishing. (An inspired example of what can happen when a writer listens to her inner voice).

Next up: Recommendations

 

 

 

 

 

The Lecture, Part II

Jehiel Beman
Jehiel Beman

The lecture bore the title An African American Family in Connecticut: From Slavery to Triumph. I wanted to make clear that our family was never enslaved in Connecticut. That “distinction” belongs to New Jersey, Virginia, and Alabama. All of us were free by the time we arrived. In fact, few living here can trace their ancestry to anyone held in bondage. I’m aware of only one extended family in this area that can trace back to slavery. It includes descendants of the Bemans, who lived in the Triangle on the other side of the Science Center and founded Cross Street A.M.E. Zion Church, and of Venture Smith, who bought his freedom and settled in East Haddam.

There are a number of reasons for this lack, but two stand out. Poor recordkeeping and records lost or destroyed were a chronic problem. Most early settlers were too busy putting clothing on their backs, a roof over their heads, and food on the table to concern themselves with recording the lives of their bondsmen and women. Unlike Virginia, Connecticut did not breed people for sale, so there was little incentive to keep studbooks.

The second reason was the Fugitive Slave Law. At the time of its passage blacks all over the country felt under threat as kidnappers seized free people and shipped them to plantations in the Deep South. Solomon Northup’s story graphically shows one such instance, but kidnappers struck here, too. Providence Freeman of Hartford (who is tangentially related to us) signed an affidavit saying that his son William “now in a Baltimore jail” was born in Connecticut a free man. It’s not clear whether William was ever released.

These depredations resulted in the flight of vast numbers of black people. Most of today’s African American residents have parents or grandparents who came North between 1915 and the 1960s.

Mama Is Happier

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Mother has officially forgiven all efforts to promote the family. I spent a delightful afternoon at the Wasch Center talking about the family. No lost jewelry, no falling pictures, no foggy trip. It covered enslavement in Virginia, Alabama, and New Jersey, to becoming “first” – African American women and men who bought property in Hartford’s North End, secured pharmacy licenses, ran businesses in Saybrook, and produced Ann Petry.

Engaged, lively, and curious, the audience consisted of retired Wesleyan faculty and others. With all the talk about challenging the aging brain, I can’t think of a better way than to spend time with a community of people who are still learning and still wanting to stay on top of issues in the world.

The center is named for Susan B. and William K. Wasch, who donated the funds to create the center and guided it to the oasis that it is. Bill remains active by suggesting topics and speakers, as well searching ideas for expanding the center.

On and off, I’ll post bits from the talk, which was titled “An African American Family in Connecticut: From Slavery to Triumph” and dedicated to the memory of Susan Wasch.

This lecture will serve as a preview of the documentary film about our family, working title For Dear Mother’s Sake: The James Family Letters That Shaped Ann Petry. We have received a planning grant from Connecticut Humanities to explore how a black family rose from slavery, triumphed over racism, and produced a number of “firsts.” They include shaping the life of Ann Petry, the first African American woman to sell more than one million copies of a book.

The family’s story appears in Can Anything Beat White?: A Black Family’s Letters. It is based on some four hundred letters written between 1873 and 1910 mostly to my grandmother that she saved. The originals are at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

With the film, we hope to introduce these fascinating people to a wider audience and to draw attention to a period largely ignored in history books. It included an epidemic of lynchings, the takeover by the United States of a country whose leader sought to maintain control, and the annexation of Hawaii. All of these incidents had an impact of the lives of the James family and helped them become who they were. I’d like to note that Bill and Susan made an extremely generous contribution to the film fund. We are eternally grateful.

Thank you, Bill Wasch and Karl Scheibe, for inviting me!