Friday, April 2, 2010

The Night the Stars Fell - My Search for Amanda Young

This is a story of how two interest's of mine, merged. I love family history and learning more about the stories of my ancestors. I also am an amateur quilter. My grandmother and gr. grandmother were quilters and I have several of their hand made quilts in my possession today. Imagine my surprise when my love of quilting, would reveal a small piece of data that would help me tell the story of an ancestor and to learn about an incident in her life.

Many of the interviews with ex-slaves taken in the 1930's often spoke about "Night the Starts Fell" and this story is also part of my own family's Oral History. Fortunately, for me, while on a trip to Chicago, I met and visited with an elderly cousin, Frances Swader. As a girl, cousin Frances heard the family matriarch, my gr. great grandmother, Amanda Young, speak about this same event--the night the stars fell.

Cousin Frances, told this story to me and I place it here for further generations to read about and to know of as a pivotal event in the lives of many 19th century slaves.

Since Gr. Gr. Grandmother Amanda continally told this story, I have, as a result, been able to make a more accurate estimate of her birth year for she was about 7 years old when this happened. The story comes from Tennessee, on the estate of Robert Campbell. Amanda was born a slave on Campbell's estate, in Maury County, Tennessee, not far from Columbia. Amanda said she was a small girl, when one night while sleeping in the quarters, someone started screaming outside. Her story continues in the manner in which she told it and how it has been passed down:

"Somebody in the quarters started yellin' in the middle of the night to come out and to look up at the sky.

  We went outside and there they was a fallin' everywhere! Big stars coming down real close to the ground and just before they hit the ground they would burn up! We was all scared. Some of the folks was screamin', and some was prayin'. We all made so much noise, the white folks came out to see what was happenin'. They looked up and then they got scared, too.

"But then the white folks started callin' all the slaves together, and for no reason, they started tellin' some of the slaves who their mothers and fathers was, and who they'd been sold to and where they took 'em. 

The old folks was so glad to hear where their people went. They made sure we all knew what see, they thought it was Judgement Day."

Unfortunately, it would be many years before Amanda would be free from enslavement, and she and her parents remained slaves until the Civil War ended. Her husband and son left and joined the Union Army with the US Colored Troops. Her sister shortly afterward emancipated herself and went to a contraband camp in Memphis. But Amanda remained behind waiting for family to reunite. The turmoil of war took her back to that night, when the stars fell.

Perhaps the white slave owner's fear of Judgement Day may have been the one thing that kept Amanda and her family together and not sold apart, but that will not be known. But she was fortunate to have stayed with her family, and her children were never sold from her. But this incident and the events that later brought freedom stayed with her. When she spoke of the past, she would start with the night the stars fell.

My Story, Years Later
Only a few years later, while reading a book of African American quilt makers, I learned about a slave woman called Harriet Powers. She made some of the most unusual and her quilts now hang in the Smithsonian. One of the panels of her quilts described in the book, told the story of the Night the Stars Fell. I was immediately excited to see this referenced!

I quickly took note of the footnotes that gave a detailed description of the Leonid Meteor shower of 1833, and thus the real date of this event was learned. Between November 10th & 12th in 1833, for 3 consecutive nights, North America was witness to this dramatic shower of stars from the heavens. Amanda was only a child in the fall of that year. Her exact birthdate has never surfaced in any records, but this historic reference to a spectacular astronomical event, in addition to our oral history of the Night the Stars Fell, somehow made an estimate of the time of her birth more realistic. Since she was a young girl when this event occurred, I have approximated her age to have been between 7 & 8 years.

This would put her year of birth to be approximately 1826. The Leonid Meteor event of the 19th century has been recorded in many astronomy journals as the most spectacular meteor shower to have been recorded over North America to this date. It was also the most vivid memory of Amanda's childhood, which she spoke of, over and over till her death, in 1920.

Every year on the evening of November 12, in honor of my ancestors I drink a special toast to Amanda and to her family, and to her spirit that continues in our family today, and then I go outside, and watch the stars.

Addendum,  I shared that story with a number of genealogy buddies on the AfriGeneas mailing list.  Some had read slave narratives about the same incident as many former slaves would refer to the night the stars fell. That night that astronomers said would be the best viewing night, several of us bundled  up after midnight and made our own private toasts and prayers to the ancestors.  The meteor shower was indeed spectacular and getting a chance to see what our ancestors saw was a moving experience. We got to see what our ancestors saw and to this day if the skies are clear on the night of the 12 of November, I still go out and watch the stars.


DearMYRTLE said...

An incredibly moving post.

From a practical standpoint, this is a prime example of the logic genealogists employ, particularly where no single document answers the research question.

Inferring your ancestress' birth date from other documents (the published reports of the stars falling) substantiates her oral history (witnessing the event as a young girl.)

The event was startling, but even more startling is the story of the white slave owners essentially realizing their sin. How terrible they chose to forget their fear of God and resume normal activities the next day.

Unknown said...

Many years ago back in the Prodigy Days, I remember posting a question to the AfriGeneas group about a tape received from a cousin that he had interviewed. He felt what she was saying made no sense about the "Night the stars fell". Her story was of the night the Stars Fell and how Henry Rosser the last slave in our family ran outside then came back in yelling "the stars are falling". You responded about the stars falling and your family story that helped me along the genealogy journey. It has been many years ago and I just want to say "Thank you".

Unknown said...

As a recently discovered family member THANK you for this moving post! We always knew there were OTHERS out there, but didn't know where our how to find them.

I look forward to connecting with you and others in the family.

Angela Y. Walton-Raji said...

I am always thrilled to share this story of Amanda and her narratives of the falling stars! I am happy that others have also embraced that story as theirs, for it is theres. Keith, your new presence among the circle of cousins is welcomed.