#MyNameMatters: Queen’s Chronicles: Black Herstory Journey of a Gullah/Geechee
One of the many things that I truly enjoy about Facebook is the memories from previous years that it provides you. This allows me to have my life flash before my face electronically. I often find myself looking back over the years and giving thanks that my living is not in vain.
Part of the blessings of my life have been seeing the places that I have been able to go to and the stories of the women of African descent that I am led to know about. Each year I tend to go on these journeys during historic preservation month and I tweet and post along with thousands of others #ThisPlaceMatters. However, as I looked back over the memories of today just after doing research on a name hidden behind a bust that I just saw days ago, I could only think #MyNameMatters.
For hundreds of years African people had their names changed, forgotten, or simply not called. Don’t be in a position like mine and run into those that have envious intents in their hearts because they would rather die before calling your name since your title would be a part of it! Yet, #MyNameMatters!
My Gullah/Geechee upbringing causes me to be adamant about respecting peoples’ titles and calling them by the appropriate names. So, when I am looking into the eyes of other women of African descent, I want to know their names. I find that when I am looking into images of ancestors, that urge to know their names is even greater. So, when I looked into the eyes of Mum Bett, I needed to know her name and her story.
Last year, I made my way to the property on which Mum Bett’s legacy was being “interpreted.” Mum Bett was born into enslavement in New York state around 1742. When the wife of enslaver, John Ashley attacked her at the site of her enslavement in Massachusetts, Bett appealed to a local abolitionist-Theodore Sedgwick. Sedgwick who was an attorney, and later became a U.S. Senator, brought her Brom and Bett v. Ashley case to court. Bett was granted her freedom and 30 shillings in damages in 1781. She used these funds to obtain her own place in which to raise her family. I was thankful to stand on the land where she stood and look into her eyes and sense a spirit of freedom.
That sense of freedom I felt this year as I looking into the eyes of a bust at the South Dakota African American History Museum. I wondered about the photo sitting on the floor below it of a prideful and strong looking woman of African descent as well. As I moved my head around trying to peep around things that were not correctly placed in the display, I could see that there were words behind the bust, but no words were near the photo. I could only make out “Aunt Sally,” but everything else was hidden.
I was annoyed by the fact that the words that were crucial to me knowing who this woman was that was important enough for someone to make a bust of her and to have that bust placed in a museum. I was annoyed by seeing a proud looking woman and not being able to know who she is! I said out loud, “I would love to curate this for these folks!” Her name matters and who she is matters!
For the last couple of days, I have called Aunt Sally’s name and tonight I went on to search for details on who she was. The bust depiction of her reminded me of Aunt Jemima and my spirit was not settled with that. As I dug and dug, I found out why.
On my westward journey, I looked up information about people of African descent and South Dakota. I found out that any non-native person was classified as “white.” This meant that people of African descent were listed on legal papers as “white” in South Dakota in the early days. I found that intriguing in and of itself. I also knew as a historian that that would only add confusion to people’s ancestral searches. It made it clear just how much race was simply a construct though.
This fact that I had uncovered about classifications in this part of the midwest came into play when I finally got the information that I needed about Aunt Sally. She was a woman of African descent which made her non-native and therefore, her territorial paperwork listed her as “white.” However, in Kentucky on July 10, 1823 when her mother Marianne gave birth to Sarah who later came to be known as “Sally,” she would have been classified as “Negro.”
Marianne and all her children where to be manumitted upon the death of her enslaver. However, like many others during chattel enslavement, she did not live to ever see that day. She was illegally held captive long after he died. Her daughter, Sarah decided that was not going to be how she would live nor die. Therefore, the year after her mother died, 12 year old Sally filed an “unlawful detainment” suit against Henry Chouteau and with the aid of an attorney won her lawsuit and her freedom in 1837. She received a single penny in damages.
Sally had a similar energy and mind for freedom like Mum Bett. For years she worked on steamboats and even met her husband in that line of work. She eventually came to be known as “Aunt Sally” as she continued to be enterprising and hard working.
By 1873 Aunt Sally was a widow and she moved to Bismarck, Dakota Territory where she claimed seven lots and operated a private club, did laundry, and was a midwife. She was not simply content with the hard domestic labor which is what was primarily open to women during that time. So, during Custer’s Black Hills Expedition in 1874, she and 20 other Bismarck residents formed the Custer Park Mining Company and staked placer claims on French Creek.
When the Black Hills Gold Rush began in 1876, Aunt Sally moved with other speculators to Crook City and Galena which were both mining towns on the western border of modern-day South Dakota. She continued to work as a cook and a midwife while she prospected for gold and silver. Eventually, the Alice Lode silver mine in the Black Hills proved valuable and she made a profit from it. Fifteen months before she passed away on April 10, 1888, she sold it for $500.
I am sure that Aunt Sally who was actually pioneer, “Sarah A. Campbell” would join me in saying #MyNameMatters. Thankfully, I could see her name in the distance and comprehend it and that I could feel her spirit in the eyes of her sculpture urging me to know her name, speak her name, and tell her story. This is the same thing that I felt when I first read of Mum Bett and the push to do so increased when I stood on the land where she stood and fought. I pray that when I am gone, someone will look into images or sculptures of me and see in my eyes a message that let’s them also hear in their souls #MyNameMatters and that they too shall speak my name and keep the story of my journey alive!
“As long as a man or woman’s name is called, that man or woman never dies.” #MyNameMatters