Back in late October, I wrote a story about 17 photos of black Victorians who showed how history really looked.
I scoured various online archives, historical records, and so forth to dig up what I could about the subjects of these stunning photographs, which I hoped would challenge people’s historical perceptions of race, fashion, and social norms.
The reader response was tremendous.
Hundreds of thousands of people read and shared the story. People love to warn you not to read the comments (and sometimes rightly so), but in this case, the comments were downright inspiring.
The most remarkable comments came from readers who shared photos and stories of their own relatives who lived through that same era.
Today, I’d like to introduce you to some of those folks.
1. Isabelle Norris’s great-grandparents emigrated from Africa to the United States by way of Haiti.
Her great-grandmother came from Guinea while her great-grandfather was Egyptian. They encountered many obstacles on their journey, but they made it after all. To this day, their descendants maintain strong familial roots across the U.S., the Caribbean, and Europe.
“I hesitated before posting [this photo], and I was pleased to see that there were only positive responses,” Norris said, “I find the idea of sharing part of our history interesting in that it could maybe help solve some of the mystery surrounding it and others involved in it, who knows?”
2. Rev. Cicero Chambers was born a slave in Texas and worked tirelessly to free himself and his wife, Jerlene.
According to his great-great-granddaughter Kim Guillaume, Chambers served for 22 years as moderator of the Cypress Baptist Association and helped to found several Baptist churches across eastern Texas as well as the historically black Bishop College, originally located in Marshall, Texas.
3. Andria Lonye has researched her family all the way back to 1825, including her great-great grandmother, Linny Ellis Roberts.
Roberts was born in Colorado in the late 1800s and attended the historically black Oakwood College in Alabama. In fact, her descendants still have copies of all her notes from school. Her father owned a farm in New Mexico, and Roberts herself later owned and operated a grocery store along with her husband, Fred Douglas Roberts.
“Most of this ancestral line I have researched lived in the deep South, specifically Tennessee and Georgia,” Lonye added about her family history. “In the census, they were recorded as either mulatto or black, but they almost always owned their property free and clear. Their neighbors were also mostly white. Not only that, but they were all literate, even though some of them were born before slavery ended.”
Lonye also admitted that it was hard to know the exact context of her ancestors’ lives. Still, the records she found were further evidence of the other untold stories of black lives throughout U.S. history.
4. Angela Brazil’s family research led to the discovery of her oldest living relative, her great-great-grandmother Elizabeth Curry.
Brazil’s journey into her ancestry took her on an actual trip from St. Louis, Missouri, to Cleveland, Ohio, where she had the opportunity to meet members of her family that she didn’t even know existed until then.
In the photo, Curry’s hair is wrapped in an updo, but according to family lore, Brazil’s great-great-grandmother’s beautiful locks fell all the way down to the floor.
5. Amy Noel Longmire shared a photo of her great-great grandma, Louise Burroughs Grandison of West Virginia, born in 1860.
According to family lore, Great-Great Grandma Grandison was an excellent seamstress, and the outfit she’s wearing in the photograph was made entirely by her own hands. Her second-born son, Dr. Joseph Meredith Grandison, was one of the first black doctors in the state of West Virginia.
“I wonder how perceptions inside and outside our culture would have changed if the narrative was more robust (and accurate) than poverty, slavery, and civil rights?” Longmire said about her dive into her family history. “We owned businesses, held advanced degrees, and succeeded in the face of real tyranny. Ours is a story of more than survival, but one of success. To see these stories ignored is frustrating.”
Remarkably, after sharing the photo on Facebook, Longmire ended up connecting with another commenter who was also a Grandison from West Virginia, and the two are now trying to figure out if they’re related.
6. Booker T. Brooks was born in Jackson County, Tennessee, in 1864.
His great-great-great-granddaughter Sarah Mason shared that he married a woman named Daisy Chappin and passed away in the same county around the turn of the century. There was little else known about him — but he sure knew how to dress.
Why did these photos resonate with all of us so much? Because the truth has been erased from history for far too long, and these people deserve to be a part of the narrative.
As one commenter so perfectly put it, “I’m standing in the Union Square subway station in NYC bawling my eyes out. This world has tried so hard to erase us from existence — hide our accomplishments, sweep our ancestors into closets, pretend we’ve only been slaves and maids. Those people lived life! I’m living life!”
That’s the power of seeing yourself reflected in stories, in history, and in the world around you. What else is there to say?
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