“Sarah Mae Flemming (2nd from left) is joined by Julia E. King and attorneys Lincoln C. Jenkins & Matthew J. Perry.The photograph was taken by John W. Goodwin, a Columbia [S.C.] photographer.” (Caption and photo via Columbia SC 63 Twitter)
For the past three months, I’ve fallen into a hole of sorts. Fallen… or actually, jumped.
Back in August, I tested my Mom’s DNA through Ancestry (I’ve tested it before, but that other company turned out to be pretty shaky, and a quick Google search turns up a slew of angry customers… I’m not sure if it’s still even in existence), and received the results back in September, just in time for her birthday. To our shock, I was matched with a few 1st and 2nd cousins, and far more shockingly, I spoke with cousins who filled us in on my mom’s birth mother (Mom was adopted as an infant).
I’m not going into that full reveal here, but trust me when I say it was, and still is, amazing to me to know after 69 years, part of the answer to how my mom came to be born. And how sweet it was to see a picture of my grandmother’s face, and to know, finally, where I get these dimples from.
Since then, I’ve scoured Ancestry’s catalog to pore over census records, public listings, slave schedules (hell yes, they’re scanned in, too), birth, marriage, and death certificates, all towards the goal of finding my roots. I certainly did not expect to find I am descended from Pilgrims (Let us all pause here to marvel at the fact that I, random 21st century Black woman from NJ, can now draw a direct line back to people who hightailed it out of merry old England to settle in Massachusetts nearly a century and a half before there was even a United States… have you laughed yet? Good.). In this process, I began building up some of my dad’s family tree, even without the DNA, turning up a lot more info then I had ever been told. In the past couple of weeks, I was contacted by one of my paternal cousins who had come across my tree building backlog. He had noticed there was a lot of crossover between my branches and his, and after a couple of messages, I was able to ascertain that we share a common ancestor (great-great grandfather).
We quickly became Facebook friends, and on Christmas, he gave me an awesome gift: information on our cousin Sarah Mae Flemming, who waged a legal battle against segregation, eventually being represented by Thurgood Marshall. My jaw dropped learning that my family had taken an active part in fighting and bringing down Jim Crow. Not once had I heard about Sarah, even though she was a first cousin of my grandfather. My cousin had made a post about Sarah and tagged me and other relations. Eventually a long comment thread appeared under the original post, and one of my cousins questioned all of this digging for roots. I initially thought her hesitancy was based on DNA company privacy concerns; I was wrong. She wrote:
“My concern is sometimes we don’t invest enough time in building and maintaining the relationships with the family we have right in front of us, let alone searching to expand and add relationships.”
Days later, her comment is still with me. In conversation with K tonight, I wondered aloud, “Why am I more comfortable with digging into the past? Talking to people I don’t actually know?” As I sat staring at nothing, I answered myself: “I feel more comfortable with dead family. Easier than dealing with live ones.” K looked up from his laptop, which broke my vacant stare. My eyes met his, and then his returned to his screen. I got up and walked out the room.
A street sign honoring Sarah Mae Flemming in Columbia, South Carolina. Seriously, I knew NOTHING of this. (via Deep South Magazine)