Jacob was 21 when he traveled over 5 miles, in the swampy August heat, to publicly acknowledge Margaret as his lovely young wife. This was not their wedding day. I know this because Jacob further declared that he had been living with Margaret, as husband and wife, for 2 years. The couple’s relationship was being recorded in the county courthouse ledger that day in 1866, because North Carolina finally began to recognize Black Americans’ legal right to marry. Jacob and Margaret raised their four children, and loved their grandchildren together, in a union lasting over 45 years.
Everyone adores a great love story, but what do you know about your elders, and Ancestor’s relationships. What are the great love stories buried in the roots of your family tree? You might know the love story of your parents. Perhaps you know something about the relationships between both sets of your grandparents, or your great-grandparents. How about the grandparents of your grandparents? Since you have two parents, four grandparents, and eight great-grandparents, that means you also have 16 great-great-grandparents. Yet, very few people I’ve asked over the last three years can name all 16 of their great-great grandparents.
Before November of 2016, I hadn’t thought much about how meaningful the concept of family is to us. Social identity is defined as your sense of who you are based on your group membership. We use these communities to belong, connect, and understand ourselves. Companies, social organizations, faith-based communities and even sports teams refer to members as family. Who doesn’t have people we consider play cousins, or our chosen family?
Think about it. If the concept of family is so meaningful to us, why aren’t we more knowledgeable about the very first family we are born into? Yes, I know not everyone has a healthy relationship with their relatives. This challenge is more expansive than the immediate family member you can’t stay far enough away from, or that cousin that works your last good nerve. After awkwardly phoning a host of distant relatives to introduce myself, I’ve found one thing is clear – everyone is curious about family history and our connection to our Ancestors.
My #16Greats Challenge is for you to go have the conversations, ask the questions and do the research to identify the names of your 16 great-great-grandparents. What will you learn about yourself and your own love story, as you uncover your Ancestor’s names? What if your relationships were informed by genealogy the way some use dating app profiles and astrology?
My journey to learn the names of all 16 great-great-grandparents led me to this great love story of Margaret and Jacob, who are the parents of my great-great-grandfather. I wasn’t sure what to expect doing this #16Greats Challenge. African Americans were led to believe that any records of our ancestors’ identity prior to 1865 are rare. We’ve been raised to think the histories of free or formerly enslaved African Americans have been lost, More information than I thought possible was available, and easier to access that I ever imagined.
My journey to name all 16 grandparents of my own grandparents led me to other tremendous discoveries. I discovered an 1867 marriage certificate of Guansey and Abby. I may never know which proud, persistent, rule-bending individual insisted on doing the most, and squeezing the names of Guansey and Abby’s parents onto their wedding certificate. Whoever they are, I love them forever! As of today, I don’t know much more about Porrify, Jenny or Judy other than their names. But thanks to this document, I do know that Porrify, Jenny and Judy are the grandparents of my great-great-grandmother. Discovering that lineage in and of itself shifted something tremendous inside of me that’s hard to explain.
What about your family? What great love stories are written in your elder’s and Ancestor’s lives? Discover the truth of you Ancestor’s resilience and strength. What do you know about the relationships that blossomed in spite of the violence, racial inequities, and every day struggles your Ancestors endured? You come from proud, creative, resourceful, intelligent, courageous, and tremendously loving people. That’s not just wishful thinking, there are documented records to verity this fact.
Whatever indignities and injustices they endured, their love survived, as did their family. You stand here as evidence of your Ancestor’s love, joy and resilience. You are a continuing chapter in a great love story.
So how will you get started? I made progress in my #16Greats Challenge by having conversations, asking questions and doing the research, using free online tools and resources. The 16 greats challenge is a target but it’s not the purpose. I’m challenging you find the great love stories in your family tree. Begin learning more about who you are, where you come from, and the love you’re capable of. Notice what it begins to shift inside you to be able to call your ancestors by name. How might it shift the way you think about and love yourself?
Yes, I know you’ve got a life to live. I’m not suggesting you should have all these answers by tomorrow. My search has taken over 3 years to confirm 14 greats, and completely disrupt what the family had been told about the other two. However, I am challenging you to start sooner than later and share your great love stories with your family. Imagine what an amazing gift it is to show your relatives, and someday maybe your children, the courage, strength and beauty that they’ve inherited from your Ancestors.
I don’t know what insights this #16Greats Challenge will lead you to, but I hope you will begin this journey as a celebration of Black History Month. Discover the great love stories that led to you being who you are. Get to know yourself. Get to know your partner at a deeper level, as you write the chapters of your own great love story.