With a week left before I had to fly back to South Africa, I decided that another trip to Davistown, KY would be in order. When would I have this opportunity again? God and the ancestors had extended what was supposed to be a seven week sojourn to collect my daughter into a three-month long expedition of discovery and reconnection with family roots. Plus, I’d missed my new friend K* whose quiet humor and serenity resonated with spirit.
Would you like to have lunch with me? I asked K* in a hastily fired off email. I’ll be back in Ohio for a few days…
She seemed taken aback that I’d drive 3 hours to spend an hour with her (which is exactly the sort of thing my husband used to tease me about, but now has accepted that this is how I do life) but what is a 3 hour drive compared to excellent company? After confirming that I was indeed serious about my offer, K* suggested that we might take a drive around Davistown – where it turns out she’d grown up just a stone’s throw away from – and grab a quick bite at Garrard County’s must-eat-at spot, Marksbury Farm. I was particularly excited because she’d said that her department manager had seen my third great-grand uncle Commodore Dunn’s headstone once when he’d visited Davistown.
Davistown is a settlement in the truest sense of the word. Originally a Negro settlement and named after W.M. Davis who owned the property, the land was divided into subplots for Black veterans after the Civil War. When I’d visited a few months prior I didn’t see a soul that looked like me, so I’d assumed I’d had chanced upon the wrong Davistown. (A historian from the University of Kentucky warned me that there were several Davistowns/Davis Bottoms in the State.) As luck and Maps would have it, I had turned up in the right place after all. If this was a Negro settlement, where were all the Negroes? The area was exclusively white now.
“Communities change,” K said simply in response to my observation.
Still, I had to wonder HOW this community’s racial makeup had been altered so drastically in the few years since my grandfather had lived there. What was the driving force behind the total absence of Black people? Were they driven out? How were all these descendants of The Great Emancipation displaced from this patch of land? Those questions would have to wait for answering. For now, it was enough to know that they had once lived here, and by the accounts that K had shared with me, had thrived and built functioning (and hopefully happy) lives.
When I told my Uncle Gary that I’d be going back to Davistown, he saddled me with yet another one of his cryptic assignments.
I heard that one of the girls disappeared, read the SMS.
What was her name? Do you know about when this happened?
Mary? Martha? Shit if I know. Just see what you can find out, Sherlock!
My uncle (the one who is currently in possession of the The Great Negro Library) is very excited that I am digging into our family history, but is scant on details. There’s some information he simply won’t share until he’s dead and in the interim has given no indication how one such as myself might unearth these family “secrets”. He has more faith in my sleuthing skills than I do.
I should trust my uncle more. Using a myriad of tools (Ancestry.com, Garrard County census records and good ol’ fashioned Google) I DID discover that one of the girls disappeared, who she was and where she went. My second great-grand aunt, Jennie Belle left Kentucky in her early teens, moved out west, passed for white and wasn’t heard from again. Until now.
Looking through the 1880 census records, I noticed that Peachy Dunn and several of her children were listed as mulatto. For anyone reading who might be unfamiliar with America’s caste system, people classified as mulatto were bi-racial…usually. Phenotype and physical characteristics also lent a hand in these racial classifications. It is estimated that there were over 200 qualifications that American of European decent used to identify buy, sell and ship people of African descent in the era of race-based slavery based on skin color, hair texture/color/ eye color and facial features. The principal ones that are most familiar today are mulatto, quadroon, octoroon and creole. I do not know how light Jennie Belle’s skin was, but I do know that her mother was registered as mulatto, that her father (Samuel Davis) was a Black man and that she was light enough to leave bluegrass Kentucky and convince a white man named Wherry who lived in Missouri to marry her at age 18 in 1897. This was a time when miscegenation laws which strictly prohibited mixed marriages were in full effect.
Did my second great-aunt ever reveal her secret to her husband? Did she ever tell her kids? Would her friends and community have welcomed a woman of Black descent into their community in 1897? Doubtful. She died a white woman as listed on her death certificate.
I find this all fascinating – and heartbreaking – because just one month before this discovery I had just finished reading Brit Bennett’s incredible book, The Vanishing Half, which shares the same premise. A Black girl light enough to pass for white does so and is never heard from again. Her disappearance all but destroys her mother and twin sister whom she’s abandoned.
I think about Jennie Belle’s vanishing act from her mother’s perspective. Peachy Dunn was emancipated from slavery at age 11. She would have possibly had friends and hired out for long periods of time, or worse, sold away never to be seen again. I imagine that she suffered many losses, or bore witness to loss. At last she’s been given the gift of freedom and with this gift, has determined to start a life and a family with Samuel Davis. They have survived the Civil War and take advantage of the opportunity to farm on land provided by a man who shares the same surname. The couple have 6 children raised in a place that few people move away from. It’s not a perfect life, but it’s idyllic enough. Future census records reveal to me that 3 generations lived in the home that Peachy and Sam Davis built.
But one day, everything changes. One of Peachy’s girls leaves. All children fly the coop at some point, but at another point they do return. Not Jennie Belle. She won’t be back. Neither taken by war, nor disease or death, she simply chooses to vanish and become…someone else. Someone inaccessible. Someone Peachy can never claim publicly as her daughter because the consequences for her baby would be disastrous, possibly deadly.
I wonder how long Peachy grieved.
I wonder if Jennie Belle ever regretted her decision.
I wonder how I would feel if one of my babies assumed another identity that would sever me from their lives forever.
These are all questions that will need answering at a later date.