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One Family's Journey: A Conversation with Adele Logan Alexander

HUMANITIES, November/December 1999 | Volume 20, Number 6

When Adele Logan Alexander spoke recently with NEH Chairman William R. Ferris, they talked about her new book Homelands and Waterways and what family stories can tell about America's history. Alexander is a professor of history at George Washington University.

William R. Ferris: Your book, a family history called Homelands and Waterways, starts by describing your great-grandfather, John Robert Bond. Can you tell me how he came to the United States?

Adele Logan Alexander: John Robert Bond's arrival in the United States is a fascinating anomaly. He was born in 1846 in Liverpool, England, to a black father and an Irish-English mother, whom I assume was a refugee from the Irish potato famine. That was when the city of Liverpool, probably the world's greatest port at that time, was being inundated by Irish refugees. They took shuttle ferries across the channel from Ireland to Liverpool, and stayed there for a few weeks or months or years, and then took larger ships across the ocean to the United States.

Of course, England was the hub of the British Empire at that point. And in Liverpool, there were not only black people from Africa and the Caribbean, but Chinese and Indians and Burmese and Arabians and Turks and anybody else that you might imagine, and many of these folks were about to embark on a great adventure of immigration to the New World.

Ferris: Can you talk about John Bond's experiences in the Union Navy as a black man?

Alexander: My mother's oral history, which was very, very scant but turned out to be quite true, suggested that he came to the United States during the Civil War because he wanted to fight to help to free the slaves. This became more interesting and more realistic for me when I learned that many American abolitionists went to Liverpool. John Bond had been brought up on those abolitionist stories about slavery, I am sure.

During the American Civil War, he boarded a salt-cod trader, a fishing boat, and came to New Bedford, Massachusetts, which was the center of the whaling industry in the United States. He lived, and, I assume, worked there for about nine months, and then in 1863 he joined the Union Navy. We know about discrimination in the armed forces-but the Union Navy was, I would argue, somewhat less discriminatory than the Union Army at that time, and black sailors served on the same ships, right alongside other immigrants and white Americans and black Americans, some of whom were contraband-runaway slaves. My great-grandfather Bond served on the USS Lancaster. It was part of the Union blockade of southern ports. The blockade was trying to prevent the exportation of cotton and trying to prevent the importation of vital goods to keep the Confederacy viable. He was on the USS Lancaster when it became involved in a skirmish trying to stop one of these blockade runners. John was shot in the upper chest-shoulder area, and wounded, and almost died. He ended up in a naval hospital in Portsmouth, Virginia, where the course of his life changed when he met a young woman who was a contraband. She was supporting herself by selling fresh fruits to the sailors who were hospitalized. Homelands and Waterways follows their family through the next two generations.

Ferris: Now, that young woman whom John Bond married was Emma Thomas. Can you talk about her background?

Alexander: Emma Thomas had been born the same year, 1846, as John, but across the ocean. She had been born and grew up in Isle of Wight in the Virginia Tidewater region. I was able to find out a great deal about the plantation on which she was born and the slaves' lives of deprivation there. They were denied the opportunity to read and write. In fact, Emma was almost illiterate her whole life. She learned to read and write a little bit, but not much. Almost the whole slave population abandoned that Virginia county, as they did elsewhere in the South, as soon as they were able to during the Civil War. As the Union lines drew near and they had someplace to run to, as many as possible did exactly that.

Ferris: Your great-grandparents moved to Worcester, Massachusetts.

Alexander: Yes, they did. This was probably due to the influence of white northerners who had come down to help the contraband during and after the Civil War. I don't have any hard evidence about why Emma and John went to Worcester, but I do know that Quakers from Worcester went south to the Norfolk-Portsmouth area and that other former slaves from that area went to Worcester as well.

My great-grandfather Bond's status at that point seems to have changed from one of immigrant to one of a black person in America. He did not become part of the Irish-American immigrant community. He became part of the African American community. In the United States, any black person would have been considered a "colored" man, not an immigrant.

Ferris: John and Emma Bond eventually settled in Hyde Park, near Boston, where the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment had trained during the Civil War. Can you talk about how their lives changed in the North?

Alexander: Let me first talk about the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. Most Americans became familiar with that story through the movie Glory. The 54th Massachusetts was one of the first units of black soldiers from the North that was raised and put into battle. That group and the place from which they came-this tiny community in Hyde Park called Readville-took on a symbolic importance to a number of blacks who had served in the armed forces during the war. It is a very small enclave where there were not that many black people. But what I did find was a very high percentage of men who were Civil War veterans. That particular place seemed very significant to them.

Hyde Park was also significant because several notable abolitionist families lived there, most notably the Grimké-Weld family: Theodore Weld, Angelina Grimké Weld, and Sarah Grimké. The Grimké sisters were feminists, suffragists, and abolitionists as well. They were among the few people who actually incorporated into their white family some of their nonwhite relatives, among them Archibald Grimké, a noteworthy civil rights leaders, and his daughter Angelina, who became a well-known poet. Hyde Park was a working-class community. It was an immigrant community that reflected the waves of immigration across much of the country: the Irish, the Germans, the Italians. In many ways, it was a microcosm of the country.

Ferris: You describe Boston's black elite as very stylish, well educated, and almost exclusively light- skinned. Many of your own family have been light- skinned, and, as you mention, were able to pass as white. What are the dilemmas that this poses within the worlds that these families faced?

Alexander: Before I even address that, one of the things that we must remember is that in both custom and law in the United States, and particularly in law-and this is one of the fascinating dilemmas of race theory in the United States-race became a legally and socially constructed reality. Race is not a biological reality. Regardless of how successful, regardless of how well educated you might be, what some state laws called "a drop of African blood" condemned you to being a second-class citizen. The better-educated segment in the African American community, the more affluent-and we have to understand that their affluence is only relative-these members of the African American community who sometimes were lighter skinned were bound not only by their own inclinations and sense of responsibility to help those of the race who were less fortunate, they were also bound by law to remain part of the African American community. For the most part, I think they welcomed that association. Passing is a phenomenon that we see all over American life, and people of all backgrounds do it for all kinds of reasons. Often it is inadvertent. It is simply a matter of, "I'm not going to get up this morning and say to these people who don't know who I am that I am, in fact, black, even though I look as white as they do." So, very often passing was and is inadvertent.

On the other hand, sometimes it is deliberate. I would argue that when it is deliberate-and we see examples all the time-it is done by people who would only be hired for a particular job because those who were doing the hiring wouldn't hire a black person. Some light-skinned people would pass because they only had the opportunity to live someplace if they were considered white.

One of the places that we see passing, for example, is in the military. Here, a young man is headed into a new, unknown environment, and he can either decide that he is going to move onto that line where he knows that he is going to have abuse, disrespect, the worst jobs, or you say-and I'm not arguing that war is not hell for everyone-"All right. In this particular circumstance, I am going to be a white man because my life will be considerably better than it otherwise would be." Those are realistic dilemmas.

You asked about the problems associated with the differences in skin color. In a few instances, I saw this in my family, where the very light-skinned grandchildren in one part of the family seemed to have wanted nothing to do with their dark-skinned grandmother and cousins, who lived in the same town. These are sad stories.

Ferris: John was a fairly worldly British man. Emma came from a more narrow world. What kind of cultural differences did they have to deal with in their marriage?

Alexander: I wish I had been able to find out more on that. I think that John had a more worldly view in that he had traveled across the Atlantic, he had been a part of another culture. But he definitely came from a lower-class background in England. And, it was not until he was in his thirties, when he wanted to become a United States citizen, that he learned to read and write. The evidence shows that he, like Emma, did not learn to read and write as a child. Class differences in England were such that it was more a question of class than race there that kept the lower classes from learning to read and write. So we historians always have to maneuver along these lines that delineate class and race. Both are important, but we must be careful not to confuse class with race, particularly in the United States.

Ferris: What role did religion play in their lives?

Alexander: The Bonds' religious lives were quite fascinating to me. John was christened in the Church of England, as were the vast majority of English people at that time were. When he came to the United States, that translated into a solid, generations-long devotion to the Episcopal Church.

With Emma, the first evidence I have of her religious life is that she joined the Baptist Church in Norfolk after she left the plantation where she had grown up. Indeed, most African Americans have traditionally affiliated either with the Baptist Church or with one of the Methodist churches. When John and Emma Bond went to Worcester, I find evidence of their involvement with the Episcopal Church. Certainly when they moved to Hyde Park, they belonged to an Episcopal church.

Now, one of the fascinating stories that brings in the American story coming out of the Civil Rights Movement is that my grandfather, Percy Bond, who was John and Emma's oldest child, was also a staunch Episcopalian. He and Georgia Stewart, the woman he ultimately married, went from Boston to Tuskegee Institute, Alabama, the famous school of Booker T. Washington and the scientist, George Washington Carver. Percy and Georgia went down there, and then moved to Birmingham, which was the largest city in Alabama, and had a black Episcopal church. But after that, they went to a much smaller town in Alabama's black belt, called Selma. We remember Selma as one of the places where the sagas of the Civil Rights Movement played out most dramatically, and Selma had no Episcopal church for African American.

One of the things that my mother told me- and again, we pull in oral history-was that her family had gone to the white Episcopal church in Selma at the height of the Jim Crow era, 1910-15. About 1960 she showed me an article in the New York Times which talked about her church in Selma, and how it recently had been desegregated. Further down in the article, there is this little sentence that says, "Surprising to tell, there were a few blacks who worshiped in this church in the early part of the century," And my mother said, "Oh, that was us, that was us!" So in 1912, here we have this single African American family in the white Episcopal church in Selma, Alabama, a bastion of segregation, and I think that we legitimately can ask ourselves, why and how did this happen? We have heard the old story about Sunday morning being the most segregated morning of the year. Well, I confirmed my mother's story with information from the church archives. There were my grandfather and grandmother and mother's names as members of that all-white church.

When I ask myself how that happened, I think it was a combination of factors. I am sure that the white Episcopalians knew that letting one "colored" family come to their church, wasn't going to bring down upon them an inundation of black people, because most black people had, and wanted to have, their own churches. Another factor that my mother considered was that Episcopalians were so snobbish that they didn't want to let any one of their members, regardless of race, be lost to what they considered the "lower" denominations-the Baptists or Methodists. In any case, that was what she told me.

Another thing that I think was probably a factor-and we don't want to forget the importance of the individual when we look at the larger trends of history-is that the minister at that Episcopal church in Selma seems to have been, as his daughter-in-law told me in a interview, more a humanitarian than an orator. He evidently believed in the basic Christian tenets concerning the equality of all of God's children-unusual perhaps at that time. My mother said that her family would sit down around the dining room table at this man's house with his family, and that my grandfather became a lay reader in the church.

I have every reason to believe that their minister probably vouched for my grandfather Percy Bond and allowed him to become one of the very, very few black men who could vote in Selma in 1912. The revised Alabama constitution of 1901 had removed so many black men from the voting roles that when my grandfather became a registered voter in Selma the number of black male voters there was only 1 percent of what it had been just a decade earlier.

Ferris: John and Emma's younger son served in the Spanish-American War. Can you tell me about the tradition of military service in your family? Is that an unusual tradition?

Alexander: I hope that Homelands and Waterways will make a lot of readers more aware of the military traditions in their own families. When I say military traditions, what I'm talking about is how one serves one's country. Certainly John, Sr. and his son, John, Jr., whom everyone called Bob, both served. In the era of the Spanish-American War, Bob joined the United States Navy.

Polls have been taken as recently as the early 1990s which show that a majority of white Americans still believe that blacks somehow are less patriotic, less willing and able to serve their country. That was one of the reasons that I wanted to tell these stories about African Americans in the military.

In the first generation, we had the father; in the second generation, we had the son; in the third generation, there was a young man who married into the family, who was not in the navy, but was an army officer in World War I, and spent eight months in the battlefields of the Argonne in France. This service on behalf of one's country is a recurring theme in Homelands and Waterways, and it's one that is very important.

One of the things that I want to stress in this book, and I try to stress in my teaching, is the enormous divergence between the American dream-the remarkable American dream as epitomized in the Constitution-and the reality for people who were and are not of the more educated classes and who are immigrants, who are religious minorities, who are Native Americans, even women, but especially those who were and are African Americans. For African Americans there has always been a wide a divergence between the dream and the reality.

It is important for us to remember that black people have been patriotic and have fought for that American dream in every American war. In my family, wartime experiences of these three generations have epitomized what this is all about-fighting for country, believing in country, believing in the Constitution, believing in the American dream, the possibility of the American dream, not wanting to emigrate to Africa, but wanting to be part this country.

Ferris: Adele, as you know, we are starting a family history initiative this fall called "My History is America's History," and we are encouraging people to look into their family stories through photographs, a letter, a memento of some kind. What inspired you to delve into the history of your family in this book?

Alexander: Virtually every time I've talked about this book, I have thought about and mentioned the Endowment's initiative on "My History is America's History" because that is absolutely what this is about. America's history is a compilation of millions of individual stories and family stories. That is what you're trying to do and that is what I'm trying to do. In a larger sense, family history provides a wonderful lens for us to look through and try to understand America's past. I encourage my students at George Washington University to do this, to look at individual stories, to break down stereotypes, but also to put those individuals and their stories into the context of the larger scheme of things in American history.

As far as my own work is concerned, I love the fact that you can start with these tiny scraps of stories. You can start with a photograph or a letter. All of us, I hope, have talked to members of the older generations to try to preserve a little piece of our history. With all the talk that we're hearing now about moving into the new millennium, perhaps it seems even more important than ever for us to understand where we have come from. Family history is a good way to do that. In fact, I started thinking about this book, Homelands and Waterways, not as a book but as an essay. Shortly after my mother died I was thinking about things that she had told me about her grandfather and about her own views of being an American, how she perceived being an American of color, being an African American, her views about country.

One of the things that was central to her life was voting. When you realize the extent to which African Americans were deprived of that right to vote until the 1960s, when you realize that women were deprived of the right to vote until the 1920s, that is really very recent history. My mother would tell me how her own mother believed in those rights and has been a suffragist.

Those things were very important to the Bond family. They were part of my growing up and they were the ideas that I tried to pull together when I started working on this book.

Ferris: You write about the lullabies that your mother sang to you. Can you tell me what they were and where these lullabies led you?

Alexander: When I write history, I try to incorporate as broad a spectrum of cultural history as I can. I do remember the songs that my mother sang to me when I was a child, which she again sang to my children when they were little. I have pretty well been able to identify a song that seems to be indigenous to the slave population of southeast Virginia, where her grandmother Emma Thomas Bond had grown up. My understanding was that her father, Percy Bond, sang that song called "Kemo Kimo." When I was growing up, none of my New York friends knew it, so it seemed uniquely my own. But I didn't know where it came from until I started my recent research. The African American tradition coming out of slavery is one piece of this history.

Another piece in my family history is a song that came to my mother from her father, which seems to be an English-derived sailors' song, and both of these traditions intertwine in my family.

The songs that we hear are very important. The food that we eat is very important. I've tried to incorporate food lore and food stories and food preferences that contribute to this all-American stew. Certainly, there is a lot of regionalism in food, there is a lot that has to do with race, there is a lot that has to do with where people originated. In most American families these things seem to get mixed up and combined. Food is very important to history.

Ferris: I would certainly agree.

Since your book has come out, I'm sure you have had a lot of public response. Have you found common threads with other family stories?

Alexander: Family stories seem to make history viable, seem to make history approachable for a lot of people. Nobody necessarily defines family the same way, but those who nurtured us always seem to have told us some of their stories.

A second theme that concerns these intertwined family legacies that we are talking about. People want to talk to me about how their Native American ancestry combined with their African American ancestry. They have heard stories about a black family who came from England or one that came from the Caribbean and therefore were immigrants. A lot of historians are trying to debunk the idea that the Atlantic was just the conduit for white immigration. Well, it was, but it is a much more complex story than that. I look at the people of different races like my great-grandfather who came to New Bedford from all over the world, who came from Liverpool, who came from the Caribbean, and traveled back and forth across the Atlantic. This is something that seems to have a lot of relevance to people when they ask and talk about this book.

Ferris: What surprised you most about the research? What did you learn that was particularly unexpected or interesting?

Alexander: Perhaps it was the interconnectedness of the oral history and the documentation. I teach American history, so I can't just operate the way a memoirist does. I can't simply say that these are the stories my family told me. I must back those stories up with facts.

This little scrap of oral history that I spoke of earlier, which set me on the track of finding my great-grandfather, was an unlikely story. My mother said that he was born in Liverpool to a white mother and a black father and came to the United States during the Civil War because he wanted to help free the slaves. Could that possibly have been true? Well, I found a lot of documentation that shows that it is true. My mother told me her family was the only-at that point she would have said-Negro family who belong to the white church in Selma, in 1912. So I go down and peruse the parish records and find that, indeed, they were members of that church. A lot of people who wonder whether these stories that members of their families tell are true, may have to correct the history a little bit, but the stories that come down through families usually do have at least a very, very solid kernel of truth. It's like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. You start out with a lot of blanks, but often you can fill them in and the picture begins to make much more sense. That is what I've tried to do, to put these people against the backdrop of the larger scene in their communities, in their cities, and in the whole country during this period.

Ferris: I imagine that every family has skeletons in their closets. What happens when you come across a family secret that you wish you didn't know?

Alexander: This is a hard question, and it's one that I had to answer a few times in Homelands and Waterways.

The difficult conclusion that I came to was that these stories should be told. In my case, it was made a lot easier because in the particular lines in my family that had these problems, there are no living direct descendents who might be hurt by anything that I wrote.

As a rule, I would say that the stories should be told if they serve to illuminate, if they serve to help us better understand an individual and a situation. We are not just talking about washing the dirty linen for the sake of any prurient interest or scandalmongering. But is the unpleasant or controversial story essential to understand the way a person behaves? Is it essential to understand the way that he or she may interact with others within the family and without?

Ferris: If you're studying the history of a nation or an era, there is a sea of information to go through. But in looking at one's family, do you get to a point where you say, "Enough is enough. There is nothing more I can discover about this part of my history"?

Alexander: Any historian has to do that. You have to decide what is extraneous and what is central. There is always more to tell. If you want to have a finished product, at some point you have to say "enough."

Certainly, a lot of genealogists start doing this sort of research and just keep on going and keep on tracking that family tree back as far as they can. But I think of myself more as a historian than a genealogist. I'm not just looking, as the Bible tells us, at the "begats." I'm trying to put these people into the context of their place and their time. Ultimately a historian has to put together a cohesive work. That doesn't mean that your curiosity is ever totally satisfied.

I wrote an earlier book about family called Ambiguous Lives in 1991, and from time to time over the last eight years, people still call out of the blue, and say, "I think I'm related to your family," or you run across something in an archive that gives you information that you didn't have before. You really can go on and on, and that's one of the things that is going to be so rewarding about the Endowment's "My History Is America's History" project.

Ferris: Now, Adele, you come from a family of strong women as reflected in Ambiguous Lives. How did you decide to shift your focus from the women in your family to the man, your Mr. John Robert Bond?

Alexander: That was probably not as deliberate a choice as it might seems. His is the fabulous image that stares out at you from the cover of the new book, but with Homelands and Waterways, the time span that I look at, 1846 to 1926, reflects the life span of Emma Thomas, the woman whom John married. It is her presence and that four-score lifetime that really shapes this book. The women are enormously important.

One of the things that those of us who are looking at women's history and lives-and I consider that one of the mainstays of my research and teaching-one of the things we know is that it is more difficult to research women's lives than it is men's. There has always been a tendency-race notwithstanding-to believe that women's contributions have been less important than men's contributions because women are usually less public people. When we look at women, we have to look at the significance of their work in a different way from the way we look at it with men. Women have more often worked within the home, working equally as hard, I would argue, but not always out there where they're counted, not always up there in the labor unions, certainly not in leadership positions. We can't look at women as voters, or as full participants in American democracy, until the 1920s. For all kinds of reasons, it is more difficult to track women's lives. Women's words have simply been considered less important, so they have been preserved less often. When you look at women of color, it is especially difficult to document their lives.

Ferris: I have to say how thrilling it is to meet a historian who is mining the rich field of your own history, doing great historical research, but looking at it in the most personal way.

Alexander: Well, thank you. I think that one of the ways that Americans will come to want to look at history is by looking at their own families' histories, and how those stories relate to the larger picture of American history. Then it is no longer abstract. Then it becomes a story that really means something to us as individuals.

Ferris: I think that often we have felt that if history was personal, it couldn't be objective or real or valuable. It was something that no one else would be interested in. You're showing that family history is the most interesting in many ways, that it is the most meaningful study that we can do personally, but it also has great appeal for others.

Alexander: I hope that that is going to be the case with my work and other similar efforts.

I have to throw in on a personal note that I didn't like history when I was in high school. I didn't study history when I was in college, none at all, and only started to do graduate study when my children were going to graduate school. What first intrigued me was this desire to understand my family and put it in the context of American history. That makes history so appealing and so central to what I am trying to do. That is what I think can make it exciting for a lot of others. And, of course, as a teacher, part of my business is to make history exciting.

Ferris: Well, although many of us can't be in your class, we all are thrilled with this wonderful gift of Homelands and Waterways that you share with us. Alexander: I hope that it generates other similar stories, so that many people can read and enjoy them and better understand themselves and where they came from.