Unsettling Facts from the Past

Kym Butler James, Guest Writer

Kym Butler James, Guest Writer

Our family stories can often reveal unsettling facts from the past. When we examine these stories in the appropriate historical contexts, however, we can often glean important lessons that can help inform our present and our future. Understanding our family history can help us develop the sense of self and self-confidence that are essential tools in combatting the everyday slights that are inherent in our society.

Family Reunions and Identity Development

Both my mother and my father come from families that are close. When I was a child we always attended the family reunions for both sides of the family in the summers. Family identity or culture is created and maintained through participation in rituals such as reunions, which have the ability to provide a sense of shared identity to family members. Reunions are often used as a vehicle for transfer of knowledge and are a vital resource for information about family history and unwritten family lore. Family bibles, family trees and other personal documents can provide vital information about family history that might not otherwise be available. Both sides of my family have individuals that have taken on the role of “family historian”, and they use the reunions as an opportunity to both collect new information and to share what they have learned. Both sides have produced published family histories that document events dating back to the 1860’s. I remember going to a family reunion for my dad’s side of the family one summer in South Carolina. I must have been around 10 or 12 because it finally occurred to me that there were a lot of names on the big family tree quilt and the t-shirts that we always received as memorabilia. When I asked about all the names I was introduced to a part of my family history that elicits mixed emotions.

Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil: A Historical Perspective on Choices

The lore of my family includes the story of the life of my great grandfather Edward Muldrow. For most of his adult years my great grandfather lived a double life and had two separate families with different last names! Born in the turn of the century south, the structural racism of the post reconstruction era in the southern United States provided severely limited opportunities for African American men like Edward. He worked as a Pullman porter for more than 30 years, and as a porter spent much of his time away from his family living and working on trains. The socio-political climate of Northern urban areas was attractive to African Americans because it allowed them to develop a different view of themselves. I believe that my great grandfather’s decision to live a “double life” was a direct result of the conditions and the time in which he lived. As a result of his transient existence he had the opportunity to simultaneously maintain two families.

In an effort to learn more about his life and understand his choices, I did some research on Pullman porters. For nearly 100 years black men worked as porters, and although the pay was low being a porter was a prestigious job in the African-American community. At a time when most men worked as laborers, porters wore ornate uniforms, travelled extensively, and did very little manual labor. The life of a porter was not easy, however. At the time my great grandfather became a porter they were required to work 400 hours per month or 11,000 miles, whichever occurred first, to receive full pay. Because of low wages, porters depended on the passengers’ tips to earn a decent level of pay. Difficult working conditions and low wages were the impetus for the creation of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), a union which was started in the 1920’s by A. Phillip Randolph, a black man. As a result of a union-brokered collective bargaining agreement, porters were able to earn improved working conditions and better wages. Equally important, however, was the message of empowerment for African-Americans. My great grandfather was a part of the BSCP and thus the early Civil Rights movement. He not only witnessed, but also participated in the change that was happening in the country. Those experiences had to have helped build his self- confidence and self-esteem.

Lessons Learned

Despite the drawbacks, being a porter changed Edward’s life. Being able to travel, interact with people from different social stations and geographic locations, and participate in the union undoubtedly allowed him to broaden his view of the world and his expectations for what his life and that of his family could be under Jim Crow. Because he was able to see first-hand the opportunities becoming available to African Americans, he believed achieving a better life was possible and understood the impact that education could have on one’s future. For him and his generation education was more than the lessons learned in school, it also included exploring new possibilities and understanding how to implement change. Being educated meant being socially and politically active and being engaged.

By the late 1920’s Edward had begun a life and a family in Philadelphia as Ed Morgan. It is easy to understand the appeal of life outside the Jim Crow south. Although he could have completely abandoned his first wife and South Carolina family, he did not. He continued to travel back and forth between South Carolina and Philadelphia. He honored his responsibility to his wife and children in the south, instilling in them the need to use what was available to them as a means of improving their lives and to be involved in making change in the community. Family stories about Ed portray him as a proud man that carried himself with an air of respect and importance. He took seriously his responsibility to help uplift the race, and knew that he had done well given his limitations. He passed that same sense of responsibility, hope and self-confidence on to his children.

Passing on the Lessons Learned

My sister and I have both shared the story of Edward Muldrow/Ed Morgan with our own children. Just like participating in family reunions and other rituals, sharing his story is a part of maintaining the family legacy and sharing “how our family is”. The telling of his story includes telling about the racial climate of the country at the time during which he lived. Although this does not excuse his less than ethical behavior with his wives, understanding the explicit racism and limited opportunities he faced helps explain some of his choices. Despite the negatives, Edward/Ed serves as an example of utilizing the resources and opportunities available to you, perseverance, believing in yourself and being an advocate for change. His experiences led him to understand that education would be a key to improving the opportunities and quality of life afforded his family, and he tried to instill those values in all of his children. These values are a part of “how our family is” and have filtered down across the generations. Recently I attended a reunion celebration on the veranda of a plantation home where our ancestors had once been slaves. Being there reminded me of the story of Edward Muldrow. Although it was uncomfortable, it was a vivid reminder of a sad and humiliating part of our past and also an affirmation of change and achievement.

Kym Butler James is a doctoral student in Curriculum and Instruction in the School of Education at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She previously completed a Masters of Education degree with a concentration in Mathematics at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Chemistry from Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Kym’s area of research is the implementation of reform mathematics. Her specific research focus is on how technology is being used to implement the Common Core mathematics curriculum and the impact these strategies have on student attitudes and performance.

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