by Dana Saxon
When you think of history, what comes to mind? Or who comes to mind? Maybe it’s the big wars and massive migrations, both voluntary and forced, that have informed the languages we speak, the diversity of our neighbors, and our ongoing global conflicts. And maybe it’s those individuals who led nations, provoked revolutions, and changed the course of civilization with their brilliant inventions. Maybe it’s the people and events that made it into the history books. It’s a history that’s been dictated to us and has shaped so many of our memories. But there is some truth to the saying that the history many of us have learned was written by the “winners.” And this version of history simply doesn’t tell everyone’s story.
But of course, I never, ever, ever thought of my ancestors as the “losers” of history. Since they were Black folks, enslaved in the U.S. South, I would simply curse the national and global legacies of slavery that robbed them of their true identities. Because, as a result, my family was left with few memories and the curious last names of Saxon and Long. I would never know anything about my ancestors. Because not only were they overlooked by history, I thought they were erased.
But could a family that survived the trans-Atlantic slave trade and generations of slavery in the Americas really have left behind no memories? No stories to tell? No lessons to instill? I believe this to be an assumption worth challenging. And sure enough, digging into some archives revealed tremendous stories waiting to be told, and remarkable ancestors who deserve to be remembered. I believe everyone has a right to this empowered feeling of knowing her own history, or at least part of it.
It’s time to do away with the common assumptions of a forgotten history and reclaim the right to tell our own stories. I started Ancestors unKnown to give young people the power to do just that. I hope they not only learn something new about their ancestors, but also gain new perspectives on their local, national, and shared global histories, while broadening their understanding of their own identities. And then maybe these young people will be the ones to place their ancestors finally in the history books.
~ Ancestor Honor ~
Each lesson in the Ancestors unKnown curriculum includes an Ancestor Honor to pay tribute to under-celebrated heroes, including the students’ ancestors. So to kick things off, I will honor one of my ancestors – someone who was once unknown and now inspires me everyday.
Thomas Warren Long, 1839-1917, Florida
Although I knew my grandfather by the same name, I never knew there was another T.W. The first T.W. was born in Florida, enslaved until the age of 23. His freedom came in 1862, when he escaped his captivity to join a troop of South Carolina Union forces that were fighting in Florida during the Civil War. Before heading to S. Carolina to formally enlist, he returned to his former plantation to “steal” his wife and 2 daughters.
Along with his brother, Roderick Long, TW enlisted in the 33rd Infantry of the U.S. Colored Troops. His family remained with him through the course of the war (they even had another child). He was commended during his service, acquiring the reputation of a leader and a fearlessly devout religious man. Following the Civil War in 1865, the family returned to Florida, where TW became a prominent leader and trailblazer for the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church. He went to great lengths (and walking distances) to start A.M.E. Churches throughout Florida among Black communities that were adjusting to Reconstruction-era life.
TW took great advantage of a brief period of segregated opportunity in the U.S. (before the emergence of Black Codes and Jim Crow laws that created innovative, new barriers against Black people and families). He spent 1 year as the Superintendent of Schools in Florida’s Madison County. He served on Florida’s State Senate from 1873-1879. And he was later a founding Board member of Edward Waters College in Jacksonville, Florida (where my mother was born). He was ambitious and unquestionably proud. He died in 1917, at the age of 78.
Thomas Warren Long is my great great grandfather.
Which of your ancestors should we honor today?