Tuesday, November 20, 2012

My Ancestors Told, My Elders Listened, We Now Pass It On

Source: Harper's Weekly 1881

For the National Day of Listening, I am sharing a story about an ancestor whose story was carried into the 20th century and preserved for the 21st century.  This simply reflects how a simple story  can unlock doors to the past.

The Ancestors Told....
In the late 1880s my ancestors living in rural Tennessee faced the threat that many black families faced---night riders!! They lived in Giles County Tennessee, the birthplace of the Klan. Until the 1880s the family had  lived mostly in peace, during those post Civil War years. One of the sons of the Bass family had even secured an education, attending and graduating from Meharry Medical School in 1878. Meharry was a school established in the 1870s to train black doctors. He had become a doctor and the family's status was rising in the small community where they lived. The changes in their life became the envy of a poorer white community and the prospect of seeing a black family acquire land and secure a better life meant that they had to be "put in their place. "

That fateful night occurred after the family had returned from a wedding event, and late that night, the family home was attacked by night riders in the small Elkton Tennessee community. Blood was shed. The patriarch of the family my gr. gr. grandfather Irving Bass was killed and during the melee and horrors of that night, the men of the family defended the family.

One of the men was a gr. gr. uncle who was not going to simply allow the Klan to come and burn the family home without a fight. He had been a soldier in the Civil War, and had served in the 111th US Colored Troops. He was also armed. The story is that he did manage to shoot and to kill at least two of the Klansmen who attacked the family.  Because he was known in the community the rest of the story is all that was ever said about him---he shot a white man and had to run away to Texas. Nothing more was known of this man---and it was only hoped that he made it to Texas and lived.

The man was my gr. grandfather Mitchell Bass's brother. The events of the shoot out were told over the years, it always ended with the same line---one of the brothers shot the Klansmen and ran away to Texas.

The Elders Listened.....

In the early 20th century, my grandmother's brother, George Bass was the youngest child in the family.
George N. Bass is picture with his parents, Mitchell and Georgia Ann Bass. 
He was the youngest child, and one who listened to the story of the ancestors.

George, the youngest child was the one who heard the story the most about this ancestor, who fired the shots at white men and who fled to Texas.  Over the years, the story was simplified to a one line story---we have an ancestor who shot a white man and ran away to Texas.

Uncle George heard this story told to him when he was a young boy.  And like many children who would hear stories of  tragic events, he would remember this story. Like an obedient child, he listened. And, because the story had one element-a surviving uncle---who survived and who fled to Texas---it was imperative that the story not be repeated outside of the family circle.  Why?  Because this unknown uncle had shot a white man---and any knowledge of his whereabouts would be fatal---he would have been sought and killed as well.

So the story and the message was---don't talk about this---we don't want our uncle killed.

The decades of the 20th century passed.  In the late 1980s at a family reunion, Uncle George, the child who had heard the story from his parents, was now an old man.

George N. Bass an an elderly man.

But this was almost a century later and he had become the patriarch of the family. At this reunion, the discussion arose about where the family was from. Not many facts were known--except that  there were roots in Tennessee.

Then Uncle George began to talk. "You know, back in Tennessee, there was a big fight when the KKK came to burn up the house. One of our uncles had a musket and shot some of the white men, and he had to run away to Texas."

"What"?  For most of the 20th century, this story was never told and generations had been born that had never heard this.

The family began to pressure him and wanted to know more. He simply said "All I can say is that one of the family shot a white man and ran away to Texas."

This was the very first time in decades that this story had ever been told! Cousins in their 40s 50s and even 60s had never heard this story before. And here, at this family reunion in the 1980s, our elder who had listened to this story as a child, was cautiously telling it to a new generation. Everyone was mesmerized, and then, he was pressure with questions:
"Who was he?"
"When did this happen?" 
"Who was the ancestor with the gun who defended the family?" 
"What was his name? What was his name? What was his name?"

Uncle George then repeated what he had been instructed to do. "Well now, we are not supposed to talk about that."  

Amazingly, this man, now an old man, was doing as he was told, he was not telling the story carelessly, because the uncle who had shot the white men, could be jeopardized if they knew where he was.

But finally----Cousin Buddy of Phoenix went up to Uncle George and said aloud, "But wait a minute. They are all dead. No one will be hurt by this. Even the uncle is dead---this took  place 100 years ago. Nobody will be mad and nobody can do anything.  We just want to know his name."

Uncle George, the youngest child from the Bass family took a deep breath and uttered the words, "Well his name was Sephus."

Sephus!!!  Sephus Bass.

Well as a genealogist--all I needed was a name and finally I had it----Sephus Bass. Could I find it?  Could I find him?  Did he make it to Texas?  Did I dare look for him?

We Pass it On.......

From the time I heard this story a few years after that reunion, I would remember his name. In 1995, I began a full scale hunt for Uncle Sephas.......and I found him!!

But what I found was far greater than I  imagined. I did not find Uncle Sephus a fugitive from Tennessee. I found a Civil War soldier, a freedom fighter! I found anther story about this man---who dared to stand up to night riders of terror. I found a man who enlisted in the US Colored Troops. I found a man who was taken prisoner by Nathan Bedford Forrest, and who escaped from him! And this escape was documented!  I found two of his sons who were also Civil War soldiers, and another brother in the family who served in the same unit.

I found a story about a true freedom fighter and a hero in our family history!

I have also passed it on---I tell the story at every reunion AND I have blogged about Uncle Sephus and how I found him as well.

I love this story---because it exemplifies how going back to the family's oral history--even if it is sketchy, the story can still come forth. In this case, as Uncle George told the simple story and could only say one thing about our mysterious uncle--he was found.  And now that I have found him---his story willl always be told!!!

I am most grateful that my ancestors told what happened.
I am most grateful that my elder, Uncle George. N. Bass listened when he was a child.
I am most grateful that I found Uncle Sephus and his story and it has been my honor to pass it on.

The Ancestors told!
The Elders Listened!
We Pass it On!!


Kristin said...

That story brought tears to my eyes. I'm so glad that your cousin Buddy reminded your Uncle George that everybody was dead and it was safe to say the name.

Have we looked into a Tennessee connection? I know we share dna and my father's family is from Tennessee.

MissDazey said...

This story is priceless. Were you able to track any of this uncles family after he went to Texas?

Celia Lewis said...

What a wonderful story! I hope you find more information on Sephus and his family. Ohhhh, that deeply ingrained "don't tell because it's dangerous" story - so glad you heard Sephus's name. Thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...


That's the kind of story that should be shared; not only at family reunions and online, but in the classrooms as well!

I was so worried that Cousin Buddy was going to 'blow it' with his outburst, I held my breath.

When Uncle George took that HUGE leap of faith that revealing a family confidence would not lead to harm... I nearly wept. "Well his name was Sephus." HUGE
Thank you for sharing!

Peace & Blessings,
"Guided by the Ancestors"

LindaRe said...

I am glad Cousin Buddy convinced Uncle George to release the name. What a wonderful story of discovery.

Root Digger said...

What an amazing story about Uncle Sephus!!! Thank you for sharing!!

Mariann Regan said...

What an amazing, amazing story. What long-lasting caution within your family, and so well justified in the violent context of racism. Shooting the white man was in defense of the family, for heaven's sake, and the Klan had already killed the patriarch of the family!! But I know that in racist times that justifying context would not matter, so the condensed story becomes "he shot a white man and had to flee." I'm so glad the name was finally told and you could find out so much more about Sephus. He was a family hero.

sjtaliaferro said...

Great story! So glad Uncle George finally spoke the name - Sephus! Now it's preserved in your family history forever!!

Ms Vicky said...

Uncle Sephus at last!! Wonderful story Angela thanks so much for sharing this as i hung on every word.

Andrea Kelleher said...

Thank goodness your Uncle George shared Sephus's name and now his story is known. Beautiful post! Thanks for sharing.

kimberly Bass said...

I was at that reunion,and George Bass was my grandfather,he was a man of few words,so for him to disclose that information was remarkably,I am truly proud of my history,and thanks for sharing

kimberly Bass said...

I was at that reunion,my grandfather was George Bass,he was not a man of many words and for him to say the name out loud,was remarkably,I am truly proud of my history,thanks for sharing

Unknown said...

Thanks Angela for all your hard work. George N. Bass is my Grand-daddy, your Uncle Black Boy and was greatly loved. I wish so much I could have been there when he told you the story. It must have been a moment I am sure sent down from the divine himself. My Grand Pa was very proud of his family and I know it must have felt good to finally be able to get that out of him and share it with the youngsters in the family. I am SOOOOOO glad that he did not take such a big chunk of family history with him. The story has filled pride.

Dr. Bill (William L.) Smith said...

What a wonderful story! Thank you, so much, for sharing with the rest of us, on the National Day of Listening! Neat! ;-)

Unknown said...

This is a great piece of family history. An ordinary man doing what had to be done to protect his family. By doing that he became extraordinary man who stood up to the Klan an a hero to his family. Do ever let the story die out. I hope you are researching his service in the Union Army. I would love to read about his escape.


Micheal Andrew Bass said...

Thanks cousin for sharing such a wonderful story with the rest of the world. It's an amazing feeling to not only have a rich history but to also know about it. Our family is truly bless to have someone dedicate so much time to the history of the family. Thank you soo much!!!

Anonymous said...

Angela - thanks so much for sharing. What a great story & a true family legacy that my Grand daddy passed on.

Anonymous said...

I am George Bass's Oldest Grandson and my Mom was his oldest daughter. Thanks Angela for helping the family keep this wonderful story alive.