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Annie's Tribe: Part 1

Human Identity and the Power of Name

Names matter. Whether or not we are aware of it, they impact our lives. My first name is said to be British by way of France with roots in the Hebrew word “Yochanan” which loosely translated means God is merciful. It proved to be prophetic. But it’s not really all that deep.

My mother simply liked the name, and vowed she would name her first daughter Janet. My surname, also old English, came as part of the package of patriarchy and American slavery. Regardless, should any of my descendants come looking for me after I’m gone, I’ve left a digital footprint and body of work that will make me relatively easy to find.

A Past Obscured by Slavery

What a striking contrast to the onerous task today when trying to reconstruct the stories of ordinary women from our past. Although the lifelines of their families and communities, they’re rarely mentioned in history books. When they do appear, it’s typically as appendages of the dominant male figure in their life.

Presenting yet a far greater, and profoundly more heart wrenching, challenge is finding the women whose lives were disrupted by almost 400 years of legalized slavery. It took me nearly 40 years to gain insight into the life of my maternal great-great grandmother, who had been enslaved as a child.

African American Ancestry: A Complicated Search

I first met my 2nd great grandmother through stories from my mother's childhood memories. She was introduced to me as a woman called Annie, but my mother could not recall her surname. Annie's daughter, Mamie, married a man named Washington Wiley. Her maiden name was Campbell but my mother remembered her great-grandmother having an unusual sounding last name, ending in "bo."

Even with oral hints, advancements in technology and greater access to genealogy databases, finding African American ancestors prior to 1870 is a daunting task. This was the first time African Americans were officially counted in the U.S. Census. It was also the first time African Americans appeared in an official document by a first and last name.

Records, including official ones, of the enslaved and formerly enslaved are often illegible and fraught with misspellings. Legally regarded as property along with the farm animals and equipment before the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, Black men, women and children were not always identified by a first name. They often were simply recorded by generic descriptors such as “Male Negro” and "Mulatto" in the tax records and business documents of their enslavers.

The Tricky Business of Slave Names

Some enslaved people were given names to belittle or mock them to the amusement of the plantation class. The names of their slaves and their quantity were status symbols among the so-called “master and mistress plantation class”. Thus, slave names like Hagar and “Cesar” often reflected their desire to show off their familiarity with the Bible and literature, misspellings and misappropriations notwithstanding.

Diminutive and nicknames were often given. Mimie and Team, the first names of my father’s maternal great grandmother and her husband, respectively, offer an insight into this practice. They both were born into slavery. Mimie is a nickname of Jemimah, a biblical character. She was the eldest of the three daughters born to the Old Testament prophet, Job, later in life when the Lord blessed him with renewed health and prosperity.

It’s easy to begin to see the self-serving motives behind the slave names selected by white supremacists. Further underscoring racism’s ability to corrupt everything it touches, including otherwise perfectly good names, Jemima (sans the h) was also the old brand of famous pancakes with the stereotypical mammy image on the box. Efforts in recent years to update the brand featuring a modern Black female face failed.

Ultimately, the public backlash forced the white-owned company to drop the name and stop using the stereotype image. As for my paternal male ancestor's unusual name Team -- perhaps as in the expression, “strong as a team of mule”─ it underscores the practice of naming enslaved men and women based on their physical features and characteristics.

Cracking the Cold Case of Annie

My breakthrough finding my great-great grandmother finally came in early 2000, when I met my cousin, Viloria Arttaway, from Philadelphia for the first time at the one and only formal family reunion I've ever attended to this day.

Members of my mother's maternal side of the family, the Wiley's, organized the event in Augusta, Georgia. Viloria's father was the son of William Davis Wiley, my grandmother's brother. In other words, Viloria and I discovered we were the grandchildren of siblings. As fellow family researchers, we formed an immediate bond.

Her interest in learning more about her grandfather embarked her on a journey of investigation and discovery, including traveling South to conduct oral interviews and wading through documents and records on and other genealogy portals. Following is the report on our great-great grandmother she graciously shared with me:

While information about Anne's mother is still being researched, according to census data, she was born in 1858 in Georgia. Her father, Garrison, was 38. On November 8, 1877, at the age of 22, Anne (aka Annie) married Lindsey Cambo, 28, in Richmond County, Georgia, where the couple lived on a farm with his father, James Cambo, according to the information in the 1880 U.S. Census. The birthplace of Anne’s fathers-in-law is recorded as Africa. The Cambo name is spelled several different ways in later official documents related to James, the couple and their daughter, Mamie, my great-grandmother, who at the age of one can also be found living in the family household in the 1880 Census report.

Anonymous no more, Anne is a vital thread in my maternal narrative of resilience and faith in the face of grinding poverty and oppression. A comforting and protective figure in my mother's early childhood, the former "little slave girl" was part of a church community founded on a plantation in Hephzibah by a group of enslaved people. That community, which her descendants served, nurtured and protected my mother. The Historic First Ebeneezer Baptist Church, celebrated its 200th anniversary in 2012.

It is a symbol of my ancestral and spiritual heritage as well as my family's survival of the horrors of enslavement. God is merciful.

Resources for African American Ancestry Searches:

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Wow what a beautiful story and really amazing article about your ancestors..I loved it. Thanks for sharing.

Replying to

Thank you, my beloved sister in Christ and friend, for joining me on this storytelling journey!

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