Category: Family Stories

Blog posts about my family history, stories, and family ancestry search.

The Balance Between Writing, Dreaming and Research

I can’t say that I have mastered balancing research and writing. I am often carried away in my research and it can sometimes weigh me down and create a writing block. I am learning to use my research as a creative muse, to enhance my ability to paint a more vivid picture with words but also to inspire my writing and ask the question, “WHAT IF”? I delved deeper into research and I discovered a small town in Jackson County, Tennesee called Bemis. In this small town before it was even called Bemis, there was an African American village on what used to be the Jackson Plantation. At the heart of this town was a school for black children named Cane Creek School. The school was destroyed by a fire in 1915. I learned in my research that thousands of schools for black children in black villages through out the South all had a similar fate, they were burned to the ground.

I began looking at the philanthropy behind these schools which led me to Booker T. Washington, one of the most influential voices for Black America and on education during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. I listened to his memoir, Up From Slavery for severl days on Audible. My mind began to journey to so many places and possibilities. I began to question integration and what the black community and black students have gained from it. When schools were segregated and even non existent, blacks had to build, fund, and staff their own schools. This meant there was an invested interest. Black families and leaders were included in the planning process of schools because they had a stake in its development. Now in the 21st century, almost 70 years since schools were forced to intergrate, black students are suspended and expelled at greater rates than any other group, have lower academic achiement rates and lower graduation rates. Many public school districts have added Diversity, Equity and Inclusion departments in an effort to combat some of these adverse inequities and disparities.

I had to stop and ask myself how does this information connect to my story. Jim Boylan, was not formerly educated but he lived in a county that was home to one of the oldest Rosenwald Schools, which was first the Cane Creek school for African Americans. Julius Rosenwald was a philanthropist and head of Sears, Roebuck, and Company. Rosenwald funded grants and the architectual plans for construction for over 5,000 buildings for African American education throughout the South. Rosenwald partnered with Booker T. Washington, who was at the time head of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. The West Bemis Rosenwald school would be constructed in 1916 after the Bemis Brothers Bag Company would acquire land to begin construction for a company town for its cotton mill employees. The African American village would be moved to a segregated part of the company town along with the West Bemis Rosenwald school.

12th Census of the United States, Fayette County Tennessee, 1900.

I disovered on an 1900th census record, my great aunt, Sallie Boylan, Jim Boylan’s daughter. Sallie’s occupation on the census record says she was a teacher. I had so many questions, where did she teach and where was she educated. In my research I discovered that many schools established for blacks during reconstruction would be targeted and in the summer of 1869 thirty-seven school buildings were burned alone. I wondered if she witnessed the burning of black schools or did she feel threatened like so many others.


Formative Narrative Theory is a theoretical framework that individuals contruct their identities and understand their experiences through the stories they tell about themselves and their lives. The theory is often used in psychology to understand how people makes sense of their experiences and they construct their identities.

The theory suggest that these narratives are constantly being constructed and reconstructed as people encounter new experiences, perspectives, and information. It also emphasizes the importance of self-authorship in the narrative process. It suggests that individuals have the power to author their own narratives, and that they can actively shape the stories they tell about themselves. This process of self-authorship is seen as an essential aspect of personal growth and development.

The power of Formative Narrative Theory reminded me of Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series or Kerry James Marshall’s, Our Town. Art has always been a way forward, a way to envision a reality not yet seen just as literary genres like speculative fiction and alternate history can. Marginalized voices have historically had to fight for the right to tell their own stories or to be a reliable source for their own narrative. We have seen this in the recent atttacks against Nikole Hannah-Jones 1619 Project, which sought to reframe the American story through the lens of slavery. Arun Venugopal of NPR’s Fresh Air interviewed Hannah-Jones and discussed the backlash against teaching the history of structural racism in this country.

The importance of telling my ancestor’s story, knowing the history and context of the times, and connecting the past to the present, not only to resolve what has happen but to also write a new story for the future is my way forward. It is where the paths of faith, trauma, and healing intersect.

Lynched: A Community Sanctioned Killing

The rise of the Klu Klux Klan, founded in 1865, would usher in domestic terrorism and violence towards African Americans living in the south and elsewhere in the United States. Between 1882 and 1964 over 4,000 people were lynched in the United States. Most of the lynchings took place in the deep south, most of the mobs were white and 72 percent of the victims were Black. My grandmother would tell me the story of her great uncle, Weldon Boylan, who she says was lynched for owning land in Tennessee.

Every time I took out the photo she would tell me the story, “They lynched Uncle Weldon because his father left him land.”

She never gave me the ugly details but she made sure I knew it existed. It wouldn’t be until I saw the Without Sanctuary: Lynching in America exhibit at the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, North Carolina in 2012 that I understood the gravity of the type of hatred and violence my family experienced and witnessed living in the South.

James Allen, an antique collector, had collected over 100 postcards and photos of lynchings in America. Allen was interviewed on CSPAN in 2005 to talk about his book Without Sanctuary: Lynching in America. He defines lynching as a community sanctioned killing, where victims were hung either before or after they had been murdered, mutilated and sometimes burned. He also says that photography offers irrefutable proof of this history. This is especially important because it is not taught in our schools or discussed in many American History courses in primary and secondary education, and since this history has been hidden and the crimes covered up.

Allen says, “Usually there is some sort of allegation or breaking with convention, like looking back at a white woman, not stepping off the sidewalk, the African American person was manifesting business smarts, making money, buying land and threatening the status of whites.”

Glen Burkins, publisher of Qcity Metro, an online local newspaper partnered with the Levine Museum of the New South to sponsor a viewing of the exhibit for Qcity Metro readers. My friend Charles Easley and I pitched an idea to document the experience of the participants through video for Qcity Metro.

The Tuskegee Institute records the lynchings 3,436 blacks between the years of 1882-1950. Although these numbers are recorded there are thousands of more that went unreported. It would take over twenty years, obtaining a bachelors and masters degree before I understood what my grandmother meant when she said the word lynched.

Nanny and Granddad

They were Nanny and Granddad to the family but their birth names were Ethel Bumpas and Alfonso Lomax. They were married September 7, 1932 in Shelby County, Tennessee. According to their marriage license they were seventeen and eighteen years old. This was the first public record I discovered when I started researching my family’s ancestry.

1932 Marriage License, Shelby County, Tennesee

They were more than my great grand parents, they were a direct line to the past, to the beginning. To be in their presence was to be among the stars and knowing them was a priviledge. They say the egg that created you was formed inside of your mother’s fetus when she was inside your grandmother’s womb. Their existence and experience was a record of history and the embodiment of the American dream and nightmare.

They would leave the south with millions of other black folks during the height of the Great Migration, fleeing the violence and racial hatred of the South. They were sharecroppers, domestic and factory workers. They would move several times before settling in Cleveland, Ohio and buying their first home in the historic Glenville neighborhood. They started out north and lived in Indiana, Illinois and Ohio.

There was a sturdiness about them, a sure dependable constance. You knew that if trouble came knocking they could handle it with the quickness. When I would visit their home on Parmlee in Cleveland, Ohio I would sneak upstairs and peak inside their bedroom. There was a rifle that hung above their bed. I never heard them speak much about Tennessee or what they experienced when they lived there. I knew childhood friends who talked about traveling South for the summer but we never did. My grandmother, their only child would tell stories about her childhood in Tennessee. She told stories about lychings and a subversive cruelty that existed in whites and blacks. I looked at them with curious eyes. Who were these people and what horrors did they witness? I wanted to know more and understand what shaped their perception of the world around them and their place in it.

They cherished each other and their family. Nanny was a phenomenal cook and every Thanksgiving she would pull out real china, table cloth, cloth napkins and real silver. My mother says, “Nanny was a real woman, she made sure when us children stepped outside the house our clothes were pressed, our hair neat and we were clean.” Granddad still worked even when I was a kid. He didn’t say much he just went to work and came home to his wife.