Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Finding the Right Amanda and her story: The Rewards & Value of Pursuing Oral History

Telling the Stories of the Past

When beginning an ancestral quest---we all  know that oral history is part of that process.  
Speak to the elders, and speak to them often.  

I was so fortunate when I decided to research my mother's line, to have one living cousin who would share stories of my mother's maternal line the Young family from Ripley, Mississippi. This was the family of Amanda Young.

My mother had a cousin, Frances Swader, who lived in Chicago most of her life. But she was born in Memphis and she grew up in the household with several women--including her grandmother, Amanda Young.  This same Amanda was the gr. grandmother of my mother Pauline.  Amanda was Grandma Harriet's mother.
My connection to anything about Amanda would be through Cousin Frances, with whom I had started talking in 1991, by phone and then met in 1994, while visiting Chicago. 

Frances Swader, 1994
Chicago, Illinois

She was a gracious woman who spoke to me about Amanda, any time I called. She talked about Amanda's  role in the community where they lived in Memphis and she would mention that Amanda moved there from Mississippi in the early 1900s to live with a grown daughter.  Cousin Frances would later give me some information that would connect me to the rest of the family story when I shared with her something that I found.

Facts Known about Amanda Young
 I knew only a few facts---Amanda was a slave in Ripley Mississippi. She had sisters Nancy & Paralee. She had many children, but the only two whose names I knew were her daughters Harriet and Violet.  They too, were slaves of William Tandy Young, of Ripley.  But no more facts were known. 

Now, Cousin Frances did not know much about Amanda's life as a slave, nor her  years after the Civil War.  She only knew Amanda during the years in Memphis.  But she knew more about the daughters and her own early years in Memphis before she moved to Chicago. She shared with me stories of how people in Memphis who knew Amanda, in Mississippi would come to visit her and how she would sometimes help with old remedies when someone was ill. Amanda was the heart of the family and it was her love that all of her grown daughters flocked to.  Cousin Frances spoke about Amanda, and where they lived, in Memphis, and her burial at Zion Cemetery.

My question was---could more be found about Amanda?  

My mother Pauline was raised by her grandmother Harriet---Amanda Young's daughter. Grandma Harriet would often speak about her mother Amanda and their life in Ripley, and when I began researching for my mother's  line, I had one goal: I wanted to find Amanda and tell her story. 

The Search Began
I went step by step and combed through census records in Ripley Mississippi, for months---No Amanda Young.  There were Amandas and there were Harriets---but no Amanda Young  and no Harriet  Young.

But then----another genealogy suggestions was made to me---look for the people---not the family name---look only for Amanda, and Harriet and Violet.  Perhaps I could find 3 people in the same family with those names in that community of Ripley Mississippi.

The 20th century census records did not reveal any such names---nothing from 1930, 1920, 1910, nor 1900.
Ok, perhaps 1880 would hold something since there was no 1890 record to examine.  

But then, I noticed a family in Ripley Mississippi, in the 1880 census---There was a man Pleasant, with his wife by the name of Amanda, and two daughters were there as well----Harriet and Violet!!  My heart skipped a beat!!!  Wow! Had I found them?  But their name---it was not Young---it was Barr.  

Pleasant Barr & Family in 1880

Who were these people?

I phoned my mother and asked if she recognized the name of Pleasant Barr.  "Pleasant who?" she asked.  "Barr", I said.   She did not.  

Enter Cousin Frances again.  Frances Swader was my mother's 2nd cousin who lived in Chicago. She was a delightful woman, a retired nurse and, she was the last person living who actually remembered Amanda Young.   Amanda was her grandmother. 

Cousin Frances was also Grandma Harriet's niece, so maybe she might know something, especially since she was raised in the house where Amanda had lived, the last 20 years of her life.

So, I phoned Cousin Frances and told her, about finding a family with Amanda and Harriet and Violet in the 1880 census ---but they were not listed as the Young family, but as the Barr, family.   

She paused and ever so sweetly said, "Well....I wonder why they did that.  Elijah was the only one in the family who was a Barr."  

"What?" I asked.  "Who?"  And she repeated it, "Elijah was a Barr, but Grandma was a Young."   

Wow!!!!!!  So Barr----WAS a name connected to our family!!! ( Thank you Cousin Frances!!)

I asked her to hold the phone while immediately ran to my census binder to look at the 1880 record.  I hoped that there would be an Elijah in the household---and sure enough---there was an Elijah in the family!!!   

Family of Pleasant Barr 1880, Ripley Mississippi
[Source] Year: 1880; Census Place: Ripley, Tippah, Mississippi; Roll  666; Family History Film: 1254666; Page: 492D; Enumeration District: 194; Image: 0126.

Close up showing Elijah enumerated in 1880

Running back to the phone, I asked her, "Who exactly was Elijah?"  "Well,  that was Grandma's last child.  She had him after the war."   

Did she know Elijah? It turns out she did.  He was much older than she, and had once been married and later divorced, she recalled.  Cousin Frances also remembered when Elijah died in 1919.  He had been in a sanitorium, when he died, and she recalled how Amanda kept saying how she had not lost any children since the War, and now he was gone and how it had touched Amanda so much. Elijah was her youngest---her son with Pleas. 

So----Elijah was a cousin! 

Noting that Cousin Frances was born 1911, she would have had no knowledge of life for the family in the 1880s.  She probably knew nothing about this man Pleasant Barr, who was enumerated with wife Amanda, and the other children.  

AND---now knowing that this was probably my Amanda---it was clear what had happened.  

Amanda remarried after the Civil War, to this man called Pleasant Barr.  

She had other children, who actually used the name Young, but when enumerated in the 1880 census, the head of the house was listed and the others were listed with his surname of Barr. And Elijah was their child after this marriage.

What about 1870?  I looked and there they were again---Amanda and Pleasant Barr, and Elijah and others.

Pleasant and Amanda Barr 1870
Source: Year: 1870; Census Place: Ripley, Tippah, Mississippi; Roll  M593_750; Page: 152A; Image: 311; Family History Library Film: 552249.

  Harriet & Violet were living nearby with a white doctor and his family, as live in servants.  
Harriet and Violet were enumerated with Dr. J. B. Murray in Ripley. 
They were servants in the household.
Source: Year: 1870; Census Place: Ripley, Tippah, Mississippi; Roll  M593_750; Page: 151A; Image: 311; Family History Library Film: 552249.

I realized that the circumstances of their lives were so different from what I had expected, and were different from what oral history had stated.  

But----the oral history was not wrong---it was simply just not complete.

The rest of the story would become clear when I began to look into 1 other mystery----if Pleasant Barr was her second husband, who was her first husband?  

I had heard only 1 story from my mother about some of the men in the Young family.  One story was that we had an ancestor who served in the Civil War. I was thrilled to hear that!  I had longed to find a member of the US Colored Troops in the family.  When my mother mentioned this, of course my question was, "what was his name?"   "I don't know, they never said" she said. 

 There was also an uncle who disappeared--her Grandma Harriet's brother.  "What was his name," I asked.  "I don't know, " she said.   So close---yet so far from knowing.

I was happy to have found Amanda---but---Amanda Young, who was now a Barr---and the descendants only called her Young---hmm.  I was never sure what to make of it.  I printed off the documents and tucked them away in my binder.  I also admit that I was never certain 100% that this was the right Amanda---but the first names matched, even though there was always a tinge of doubt and wonder.

But----if this was the case, following oral history, Amanda was at one time a Young. And she had a husband with that name.  But what was it?  And the children older than Elijah were probably children from that first husband called Young.  

One day, I decided to try to see if I could find a soldier called Young. There were quite a few black men who had enlisted in the Civil War from that community.  Could Amanda's husband have been one of them?
And how about her son---Grandma Harriet's brother he might have been one as well.  I did know that there was a USCT index at the National Archives, which yeilded  hundred of black soldiers with that surname. 

I decided upon a strategy. 

On each Archives visit, (I made a trip at least 2-3 times a month) I would look at the Civil War Pension Index, to see if the name of a soldier who might have served in a unit around Ripley or northern Mississippi could be identified. From there, I would narrow my list down and pull their files periodically, and read them.

So--my next quest began---------As the heavens would have it----I was so blessed---with thousands of soldiers to read---and having no first name---I started with "A" for Aaron Young--expecting to go all the way through "Z" for Zebediah Young, looking for a clue.  

Well I got to the letter B in the index---and something caught my eye!  One document was for a man called Berry Young, with a widow Amanda Young.  Then another notation directed me to a soldier called Berry Kirk--aka Berry Young.   And this Berry had a widow applying for a pension---her name---Amanda Barr!
I had to order the file right away! Both of the documents somehow directed me to the same very thick pension file.  

Berry Young aka Berry Kirk---was a soldier who had a widow Amanda applying for a pension for a  young child.  The mother was Amanda.  Amanda Barr!!!  Amanda Barr!!!!   

Was this Berry Young the ancestor, whose name was long forgotten by generations of women, who had not seen him since 1864?  

Could be possibly be my gr. gr. grandfather? 

The index indicated that there was only an application and no pension awarded---but would the file contain papers to unlock the history of the family?  Was this my Amanda, and was the name Berry, really the name of my ancestor? Was Berry Young my gr. gr. grandfather?

He was! The pension file was rich---so rich and so full.  Berry was Amanda's husband.  Her first husband.

When a Union Army raid came through the area from Corinth, Mississippi, able bodied black men went with them---so Berry left to join the Union army.  So did her son, John---the long lost brother of Grandma Harriet---whose name was also forgotten. And so did her father--also named John.  

Goodness!!!  Amanda's husband, her son and her father----they all left together---and horribly----they never returned after the war.  None of them!

As she said on one of the many depositions in the file----"we never see'd them no more."

Oh what heartbreak!!!   She lost all of the men in her life--- her husband, her father and her son!!   

Freedom came in the middle of all of that chaos---but how bittersweet it must have been!  

No joyful reunion, no loving embrace---just a new status and no husband with whom she could share her joy.  
Just several young children and now no place to go!

But-----the file told the rest that story.  She survived somehow, her older daughters were hired out as servants---serving once again---though on paper they were now "free."   

After 2 years when it was clear her husband was never to return, she met an older man, who was alone--from South Carolina---Pleasant Barr was his name.  

Sketch of an Unknown elder man after the war.  
(No image of Pleas Barr has yet been found)

He had been sold away from his family---somewhere in South Carolina several years before the war--and he too,was now alone, and he too needed a companion. With no way to get back to South Carolina---where would he go? Many families were devastated by the war, and his own family might have relocated to places unknown if he were to go back looking for them.

He saw Amanda, a God fearing woman raising children  with no husband, nor sons nearby to assist.  He visited her often and in 1870, he and Amanda Young decided to share their fate and put their lives together.  
They married in 1870,  I learned after I locating their marriage record, and---they would have 1 child together----Elijah.

More chapters to this story unfolded from that file---but this first chapter came to an end---because I had found Amanda, I had identified her husband Berry, learned of her earlier life in Tennessee, and learned about the painful years after the war. 

The men in her life--all whom she had loved had gone, but I found a woman of courage, who dared to love one more time, and she, Amanda Young---- took our family into the next century.

The Lessons I Learned:

1) I learned how important it is to talk about what you do.  Had I not shared my quest with Cousin Frances and mystery of the Barr family---I might not have ever heard the words, "Well.....Elijah was a Barr."

2) Explore all statements from oral history. Cousin Frances, was adamant that Elijah was a Barr but the others were Youngs. So I decided  upon her insistence, to look for a soldier called Young. I found Berry's file and in it, I found the story of Amanda.

3) Study the history of the region. The search for Amanda & Berry, took me on a journey to learn about the history of the area around Ripley Mississippi. I learned about the recruitment of Black Union soldiers from the area when Gen Rosencrantz sent a raid from Corinth.  I learned about the lives of the refugee slaves who remained behind, and the research exposed me to other stories from the community.

So many more stories came from Amanda's story.  
 -Amanda's earlier life  in Tennessee 
 -Survival of slaves in Ripley after the war.
 -Amanda's sister taken to President's Island, contraband camp in Memphis  
 -The connection of Pleasant Barr to SC and his family left behind
  -The Spight Family of Ripley Mississippi
 -Amanda's connection to the family of William Faulkner, the writer.

Other stories I learned from fellow researchers (Thank you, Melvin Collier, for finding Pleasant Barr's home.)
  -The Barr-Reid family history of South Carolina
  -The founding of St. Paul's United Methodist Church in Ripley.

And a wonderful experience----And in 2006, I had the wonderful experience of making an historic trip to Abbeyville, South Carolina, to visit the origins of the Barr-Reed family.  

I joined Melvin Collier when the Reed/Barr/Puryear clan traveled to Pleasant Barr's homeplace.  You see---Melvin Collier is a descendant of Pleasant Barr's family in South Carolina!
To Pleasant Barr---I owed it to him to travel with Melvin's family, because it was Pleas, who provided family structure once again to Amanda and her children, and so I journeyed with them, to pay him some respect.

More adventures still await me, but I know now, thanks to Amanda's story, and thanks to Cousin Frances, and perhaps some thanks to intervention of the Ancestors---I am ready to undertake the next quest---to find the descendants of Elijah Barr. 

This journey to document Amanda' life and history has taken me down so many paths, and I hope to share many of them here.  

I am grateful to Cousin Frances Swader, now deceased, who spoke to me as often as I wanted to talk to her, sharing snippets of history with me about the life of Amanda Young, my great great grandmother.  Our talks opened doors once the right questions were asked.


Kristin said...

This is such an interesting story and parts of it parallel my search for my great great grandmother Eliza. I love the way you told it. I think you got more then a little help from the ancestors!

Angela Y. Walton-Raji said...

Thanks Kristin,

It is one of those complicated stories that had complicated routes to find the answers.

I still find that there is so much to learn as I continue to research this line. I hope someday to find the descendants of her sister Nancy, and Paralee and others.

And of course there are Elijah's children. Where oh where could they be?


Kristin said...

maybe they will read this and get in touch.

Melvin said...

Love it! We are going to find Uncle Elijah Barr's descendants! Yes, we are! I can feel it! :)

Angela Y. Walton-Raji said...


I surely do hope that you are right. Wouldn't that be wonderful if someday one of those long lost cousins would begin their search?


Angela Y. Walton-Raji said...


We do have an unusual story to tell----and our both being related to Elijah and his children. Hopefully someday someone in his line will be asking questions. Boy do we have a story for them!!!


LindaRe said...

Beautiful! I felt goose bumps as I anticipated your findings. Listening well lead to great results. Just beautiful!

Linda in Mississippi

Angela Y. Walton-Raji said...

Thank you Linda! The emotional highs from finding out so much about Amanda still amazes me to this day! And the quest continues--now to find Elijah's descendants.

Terrence A.T. Garnett said...

Hi Angela,

This was a great story, thanks for sharing.
Question: Was Amanda's mother still living during the time of the Civil War? If so did she file for a widow's pension?

Terrence A.T. Garnett said...

Hi Angela,

This was a great story, thanks for sharing.
Question: Was Amanda's mother still living during the time of the Civil War? If so did she file for a widow's pension?

Ms Vicky said...

I love the way you told your story and the process you went through to take you there. I hope Elijah's folks are found soon. You and Mel have such rich stories.

Andrea Kelleher said...

Angela, you did such a wonderful job of telling Amanda's story. I love how you showed the process through the documents you found. I have every faith in you, Mel and the ancestors that Elijah's folks will be found. Thanks so much for sharing!

Kristin said...

Reading this story again, and knowing that you have found Elijah's descendants SIX years later. Wonderful.