Nonfiction by LaTanya McQueen
“So I guess we’re related,” I say light-heartedly to her on the phone.
“Yeah, how about that? I guess we are.”
Earlier this afternoon I’d received an email from a woman who’d read one of my essays. I believe I am someone you’re looking for, her response read, then she explained how the woman I’d written about in the essay, Leanna Brown, was also one of her ancestors.
One night over thirteen years ago, I’d decided to browse through a genealogy forum where I’d seen this post — Seeking information on the mixed or african american siddle family. Possible starting with a Billie Siddle. I’d replied to the message and hoped for a response, but nothing ever came. Nothing, that is, until this email in which she explains how she is the person I’d tried contacting all those years ago.
She’d listed her number at the bottom of the email in case I wanted to get in touch with her. I wrote back almost immediately. Yes, how about today? What time works best for me to give you a call?
Now on the phone I listen to her try and map out the link between us. She goes through the line, rapidly listing off each of the names. “Which one of her children do you come down on again?”
“The boy,” I tell her. “Willie. He would have been my great, great grandfather, I guess.”
“Okay, so, let me see,” she says, pausing. “That would make us third cousins, I think. Yeah, that’s right. We’re third cousins.”
“You did that faster than I ever could have.”
She laughs. “Yeah, well, it’s not that hard when you’ve had a little practice.”
There is a story I once believed, and it begins like this — a woman named Leanna Brown was a slave to Bedford Brown, Senator of North Carolina. Sometime during her enslavement, she had a relationship with a white man who lived on a neighboring farm, and the results of their relationship produced three children, one of them my ancestor.
As I hedge closer to the truth, I know some of those pieces are incorrect. Yes, she was a slave, and most likely she was a slave to Bedford Brown, although in looking at his slave population schedules, there are none listed fitting her age and description. She had a relationship with someone that produced three children. In looking at the 1870 census, the next one taken after the war, she’s living with David Swift and his family, and so perhaps a reasonable assumption would be that maybe he is the father, that maybe he had an affair, and I would consider this possibility except one of those children, the boy, took the surname of a white man by the name of Siddle.
The Siddle family knew the Browns, this I am sure. They bought close to five hundred acres of land from Bedford Brown’s estate after he passed away. “Proximity,” I’ve often told my godmother when I lament about my search. “The closest I seem to get is establishing proximity, but nothing beyond that.”
“It’s a start though,” she’d say, her response always managing to prompt me back toward looking.
While I can assume Leanna and Willie had a relationship, it is the particulars of it that I have questioned, just like the particulars of Leanna’s life. It is because these are the pieces I’ve yet to learn that I’m unable to let it go, believing somehow if I go a little further, if I just dig deeper. I look at the name passed down and it is a fact that I can’t explain. If they were not married, if she was not his slave, then how did this child come to take his name? How did these children come to exist?
For a while I’d stopped thinking about all of this. After a series of red herrings and false starts, I told myself I needed a break, pushing all of what I’d found to the side. I have to go to my desk and search a moment to find all of the notes I’ve collected. There’s a corkboard on the floor I’d used to try and map out the genealogy and I lift it up to look at what I’d written.
The woman on the phone tells me she is a descendant of the third child, the youngest, the one Leanna lived with right before she died.
“Lillie,” I say, remembering and I imagine her on the other line nodding in response. I look at what I’d written on one note card — Lillie Bedford, mother Leanna Brown. Father, John Smiley. “I just have so many questions. Maybe you can help me out with some of them?”
I ask her about Leanna’s death, the largest piece of her story that’s bothered me, and she says it was a house fire. “She’d been living with her daughter and her husband, and she was getting old, so you know. It was very tragic,” she tells me. “That’s all I know, all that was told to me.”
“But she was a fighter,” I say, feeling the need to clarify. “She lived for a month with those burns.”
“Yes, she did.”
She too had tried researching about Leanna, and she tells me bits and pieces of what she’s learned. While most of it is about the daughter, every now and then she offers another anecdote about the son. “Willie was one of the witnesses to Lillie’s wedding,” she says. “I always found that nice. That both him and Leanna were there.”
“So you saw the actual record?”
“Oh yeah, you know there are always mistakes. It said on one of the census records that her father was a man named Smiley and that’s incorrect. You never know. So you have to go and look at the actual thing.”
I’ve found this out the hard way when I searched through census records. Leanna, Leak, Lena, Leah. So many variations of the same person. So many errors. So many ways in which a person could easily disappear if one weren’t careful in their looking.
I pick up the note card I’d written with Lillie’s name. “So John Smiley is not the father?”
“No, that name is incorrect. That’s not her father.”
“I know the family always wondered if she was actually Willie’s daughter,” I say. “The story was that because she was born later, closer toward when Reconstruction was sort of falling apart, that maybe Leanna lost whatever right she had to getting that child the same name as the father. But I’ve looked at the records and it seems as if neither of the women have his name, only the male child.”
“That would make sense when you think about it. It’s the male child that carries on the name. Maybe that’s how she convinced him to do it. So she would have some link, and the children, back to who they were.”
“It’s a decision that took an incredible amount of foresight,” I say.
She tells me stories about Willie her family told her. Anecdotes I’d never heard before. “He was likable,” she says, interrupting my thought. “He was also very thrifty. When he went to work in the coal mines, he always saved his money. Every penny. You know they would get their allotted rations, their pork or whatever, and one time he accidentally burned his, and he ate it anyway. He was careful with what he’d been given.”
“Because he saved that money and ended up being able to buy a lot of land that he built their house on. It was close to three hundred acres.”
I stop myself from continuing, thinking of the family he raised, how after he died, his wife, now a woman alone with several children in an area surrounded by the Klan, was one day greeted with men who’d asked for her deed. She’d offered it and when it was given back to her the acreage had been altered. Their land lost — stolen.
Like Leanna she did the best she could with the circumstances surrounding her life. Like Leanna she was given a difficult situation, and even though my first instinct is to fault her for letting go of the deed, I’ve learned that sometimes this world will present itself with a singular choice.
Which is why when I think of Leanna, I wonder. She somehow made a different choice. She had ’em up, my family used to say. She took that man to court so he would acknowledge what he’d done.
“Leanna,” I say, shifting the conversation back. “Tell me what you’ve heard.”
It is easy to frame Leanna’s life under tragedy. There is an entire history that propels this conclusion to the forefront. While black men could be lynched, castrated, or imprisoned for even the accusation of rape, white men faced no legal ramifications for sexually assaulting black women. Black women were not women according to law, and so they were raped and abused while their stories of victimization largely went unheard.
I know the stories of fancy girls, light-skinned women and girls who were sold off as concubines. I’ve learned of Thomas Jefferson’s sexual assault of fourteen-year-old Sally Hemings, an assault that produced six children. I’ve read about Harriet Jacobs and the house her master built to rape her in.
Even within these stories there are examples of survival. Harriet Jacobs escaped from her master’s sexual advances and hid in her grandmother’s attic crawlspace for seven years. Harriet Tubman, our Moses, who followed the North Star toward freedom, who then shepherded hundreds more to escape.
Then there is Celia, a nineteen-year old slave girl who was raped for five years by her master before she finally decided she’d had enough, clubbing him one night when he came to the cabin and burning his body in the fireplace.
It is these stories of survival I hold on to, these moments in which these women reclaimed their agency. They are a reminder to me of the strength of women, the same strength, I hope, that runs through me.