Sunday, April 02, 2006

My Confederate Kin by Thulani Davis

When Georgia Campbell Neal died in 1971, she left her granddaughter Thulani Davis a 1920s silver dollar in a hand-sewn cotton sack. Nothing more. In anger, the grandmother had mostly written the young woman out of her will. Wanting her more included in the legacy, the author’s sisters gave her two old leather bound albums filled with photos and keepsakes collected by her great grandparents, Chloe Tarrant Curry and William Argyle Campbell. They later gave her their grandmother’s manuscript, “Chloe’s White Child.” With these items, Davis began to piece together My Confederate Kin , the story of two Southern families, the landed white Campbells and the Tarrants, their slaves.

The author dug into documents and histories of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, and Texas to follow the many members of the families. She found census record, cotton plantation records, slave rolls, letters, and another manuscript. Her original intention was to write a novel inspired by the stories, but she found nonfiction more compelling. The result is a fascinating book documenting southern life from before the Civil War into the opening decades of the twentieth century.

The 1870s were the worst of times for blacks in the former Confederate states. Davis tells how the Ku Klux Klan and its allies restored the old order as the Northern whites grew tired of the efforts to extend voting rights and equality under the law. She charges her white cousins with abetting robbery, murder, and terrorism, for the sake of cotton profits and selling land. She also tells how her great grandmother survived and eventually thrived. Her experience as a slave made her resourceful and cunning and able to send all her children, nieces, and nephews to school.

My Confederate Kin is a good example of the state of African American genealogy. With digital access to official records, the increased sharing of research and DNA testing, Davis says that blacks can now reclaim some of the history that slavery stole from them.

David. Thulani. My Confederate Kinfolk. New York: Basic Books, 2006. ISBN 0465015557

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