On Exhibit: face to face with the past | Calendar | Chicago Reader

On Exhibit: face to face with the past 

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Black-and-white photographs of blacks born into slavery line the walls of the International Society of Sons and Daughters of Slave Ancestry in Beverly. Pat Bearden is giving a tour when she stops at a picture of Priestly Reed with his wife, Alle Camaron, and their daughter Inez. An index card says that Reed was born in Pontotoc, Mississippi, in 1865 and died in Shawnee, Oklahoma, in 1939. Reed and his wife are looking natty in stylish long coats. Using a magnifying glass retrieved by her friend Jo Ann Page, Bearden points out the woman's hat. "He's a man of substance, meaning that he was not struggling after slavery," she says. "That's Persian lamb."

The photograph is one of a hundred that will be moved from the society to the Woodson Library for a show titled "A Tribute to Our Enslaved Ancestors: The People's Exhibit." The exhibit will also include five handmade quilts, slave-emancipation papers, runaway-slave notices, and original editions of slave narratives by Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth.

Bearden and Page, both retired Chicago public school teachers, started collecting the photographs last February, getting most of the images and the stories behind them from friends, relatives, and members of the Afro-American Genealogical and Historical Society of Chicago. In four months they collected 120 pictures; many were displayed at the DuSable Museum last year. Since then they've received 80 more.

A lot of the subjects are as elegantly dressed as Reed and his family. John Benbow, a brother of Page's maternal grandmother, wears a suit. He was born in Luverne, Alabama, in 1859 and eventually settled in Coweta, Oklahoma. A farmer and property owner, he died in 1920. Page calls him "Dark Gable" because of his resemblance to the actor. Maria Lawrie Lucas, who was born in Saint Joseph, Missouri, in 1863 and died in 1890, poses in a dress adorned with a brooch. "She didn't live long, but while she was here she dressed like she was going to a ball," Bearden says. "We're trying to show them after they had a chance to shape their own destinies. They could dress and groom themselves the way they wanted to. They are stately, dignified, beautiful."

Some of the people in the photos settled in the Chicago area. Born in Paris, Tennessee, in 1865, Henry Upchurch eventually moved to the city, got a job with the Department of Streets and Sanitation, and bought a three-story home on the 2000 block of West Maypole. A short man who walked fast and dressed well, he put up relatives who migrated from the south. He died in 1951. Bearden's great-great-grandmother Julia Snowden Walker Martin was born in Columbus, Georgia, in 1851. She sold pies before moving to south-suburban Robbins to live with a daughter. Although Martin drank a half pint of whiskey a day, she lived until 1951. "She was a hell-raiser," Bearden says.

Both Bearden, who often incorporated family trees into her classes, and Page grew up in families where their enslaved ancestors weren't discussed. Like many people, Bearden became interested in her family tree after watching Roots in 1977. She got census records from the Newberry Library, the National Archives, and the Mormon Church, and in 1991 she traveled to Jackson, Mississippi, to find family records. A cousin in Texas gave her a picture of Fredonia Smith Parrish, one of her great-grandmothers. Other relatives gave her more pictures and stories.

Page's mother had always maintained she didn't know anything about her relatives, but when Page pressed her, she told her daughter about an uncle named Benbow who lived in Ohio. Page found a few Benbows in Ohio and called them. One was a relative, and Page and her mother later attended a Benbow family reunion, the source of the photo of John Benbow.

In 1995, when a friend of Page and Bearden's was inducted into the Sons of the American Revolution and the Welcome Society of Pennsylvania--for people with an ancestor who sailed from England to America with William Penn in 1682--the pair and their friends decided to form a society for people descended from slaves.

Besides cataloging photographs, the society plans to collect oral histories, build its database of names and family trees, and erect a monument to slaves. It got a boost in January when state senator Emil Jones Jr. secured a $250,000 grant from the state legislature, allowing the group to rent office space and buy a computer and other office equipment. The computer came in handy recently when two women who didn't know each other turned in pictures of the same family. The database program noted the match, and the group contacted the donors. When the women called each other, they learned they were cousins.

Page says the group has a vital educational role as well. "Children still feel ashamed when the word 'slavery' comes up, as if we were the only ones who were ever slaves," she says. "Everyone wants to associate it with African-Americans. So we're trying to change the perspectives and also show children that just because we were slaves at one point, once we got the chance to get an education, to do our own work for ourselves, make our own money, we were able to prosper just like everybody else. We shouldn't be ashamed of something that happened in the past."

"A Tribute to Our Enslaved Ancestors: The People's Exhibit" opens Wednesday at the Carter G. Woodson Library, 9525 S. Halsted. For more information call 773-238-2686 or 312-745-2080. --Michael Marsh

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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