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Well Kept Secrets in Plain View

Well Kept Secrets in Plain View



I once read a scholarly text in which the author suggested that residents of a twentieth century urban city ought to at the very least research the histories of street names and, then, maybe consider changing them. Certainly, many street names in towns and cities that have experienced demographic shifts have in fact been renamed although this time-making act may or may not be the result of studying the background of persons so honored. It wasn't that long ago that I myself exercised a good degree of unconsciousness when it came to knowing the background of street names no matter if many of them have existed in my mind for decades as spatial and even temporal markers. I might recall for instance the two intersecting streets where my mother grew up in Detroit--Hale and Joseph Campau. It's been only a half dozen years that I've known that Campau's family, among the early settlers of Detroit, owned slaves. For all I know even at this point, where two generations of black children played "Little Sally Walker" might be the same place where slave children helped their mothers boil the Campau family laundry in big heavy washpots over an open fire. The thing is we cannot see Campau's ghost or other ones that haunt the fair city. But what we can see are street signs bearing the names of early colonizers, and it would be a good history lesson for all concerned to simply ask, "who are the people whose names are immemoralized on city signage?"

I must admit however that I do not come to this question in just this way. Rather, I have learned something of the early families of my current part-time residence, and this has led me to recognize that the former slave owners--probably of a good percentage of the African American population of our town--are hidden in plain view, passed by hundreds of cars daily, their drivers on the way to work in office parks and hospitals of nearby suburbs. Today, in the twenty-first century, no less than in the twentieth, the signs offer only simple assurance that one has not lost his way home rather than offer meaningful pointers to the past.

In this post, I have placed together three images, street signs in Holly Springs, Mississippi. As it turns out, all three are connected to me, which is to say to my families of origin and of marriage. The names are Minor, Maury, and Gatewood.

I have told the story of my connections to the Minors in an earlier post, so I'll keep the explanation short here. It is worth saying that because of oral history, a very distant relation was convinced that the Williamses (my paternal family of origin) and the Minors were connected way back. It took years of research for me to prove him correct, but I eventually learned, through obtaining the will of one Elizabeth Herndon Hull that indeed both my second great grandparents and said relative's ancestor, Davy Minor, had all been owned by Elizabeth and were later, in 1844, bequeathed to her children. The transfer of property was after the Hull's migration from Spotsylvania County Virginia to Marshall County, Mississippi around 1839. Prior to that, while they were still deeply entrenched in Fredericksburg society, their relationship to the Minors of Caroline, Orange, Louisa, and Spotsylvania counties in Virginia, and possibly Baltimore County, Maryland was well known and one of deep commitments. Elizabeth Hull's father, Joseph Herndon, married Mary Minor while the son of Dabney Minor, Sr. (Mary Minor his sister) would marry Elizabeth Hull's daughter Jane and migrate with the family to Marshall County. According to the distant relative who tipped me to the fact that the African American Williamses and Minors had a shared history, his own ancestors came into the Hull family by way of marriage. It was through the same that his family would end up migrating farther to DeSoto County even while mine remained, before the war, in Marshall. In any case, Dabney Minor, a planter and an attorney, was well-known in Marshall County and had his office in Holly Springs.

As prominent as the Minor family name is, anyone who claims to know Virginia's history and society is acquainted with the name Maury. To be sure, I do not mention this because I belong to such society though my black ancestors certainly were connected to it as enslaved people. In short, the infamous Commodore Matthew Fontaine Maury married Elizabeth Hull's sister Ann Herndon. The Maury name has lived on through Maury High School (which newsman Ed Schult recently let America know he attended and through Commodore Maury's nephew, Dabney Herndon Maury, himself a Confederate general whose name bespoke all of the family's connections including to the well-known Dabneys. Gen. Maury ironically fought valiantly in the very battles--Pea Ridge, Iuka, and Corinth--that fortunately led to the further opening of Mississippi that would in turn lead to my own family members' exodus from the state during the war.

And then there are the Gatewoods. I have written of them also in an earlier post. To this very day, Marshall County and Shelby County (Tennessee) are teeming with descendants of this family's former slaves. Some of these descendants of Gatewood slaves are aware of the fact; some are not. There is a regular reunion of African American Gatewoods in Memphis; many are known to have lived in North Memphis in the last century. I met two right on the Rust College campus, neither of whom knew the origins of his name. Those of the youngest generation are not to be faulted for not knowing their family's past; neither did my own spouse recall that his first great grandmother was a Gatewood. She was born in Marshall County, near Slayden, a stone's throw from the Hulls and other large planters in the northern region of Marshall. He maybe is beginning to understand the significance of the Gatewood name, how it places his great grandmother in time and space even though he is maybe not very moved to investigate the connection further. As for me, I can never walk any street with the same present-focused head I once enjoyed. I can no more walk by these street markers without deep and complicated thoughts as I can walk by the color purple without engaging its depth and complexity. I suspect that visuals such as I provide here might aid a project of reorienting Americans in general--and African Americans in particular--to human-designed landscapes and to history. This goal makes me quite excited about all that is going on in the field of mapping and other visualization applications. This is political work as important as any other.


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