Looking Back to Move Forward

It has been forty-five days since the January 6 storming of the Capitol and seven days since the U.S. Senate acquitted Donald Trump of inciting the riot that caused the death of five people. I want to believe the rioters are gone, back to their small towns and villages, where they don’t have to see or speak to anyone like me, but some of those who engaged or supported the riot live closer to me than I want to acknowledge. The Justice Department is indicting participants in the deadly riot. Still, Republican state legislators are introducing bills to restrict early and absentee voting, furthering the specious notion that widespread fraud denied Donald Trump the 2020 presidential election. Meanwhile, I am left to struggle with questions over whether I have a future here, in my country of birth. The answer is no longer sure.

Although I was born in Philadelphia, no less, the nation’s birthplace, the rioters were testing my right to citizenship and its most essential pillar – the right to vote. Sure, I can claim birthright citizenship which came in 1868 with the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment. It defined citizenship as applying to “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof.” The amendment granted citizenship to freed slaves after the Civil War, overriding the Naturalization Act of 1790 that conferred citizenship only on free white persons “of good character.” It also nullified the Supreme Court’s 1857 decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford that rejected the notion of African-American citizenship. But the riot was a challenge to democracy, particularly the Fourteenth Amendment. It felt deeply personal as if the right to vote and have it count was on the line.

Whatever right I thought I had, whatever citizenship claim I could assert, the rioters had shaken everything on January 6. But any bit of uncertainty I may feel is pale in comparison to the ever-present tension my ancestors must have lived with before the Fourteenth amendment’s ratification as free and enslaved inhabitants of Virginia. Through genealogical research, I have found a glimmer of their struggle for recognition, even when it’s refracted through the words of a slave owner like Caroline Littlepage.

On August 18, 1857, Caroline Littlepage wrote in her diary, “A delightfully pleasant day. The Maj. rode to the mill, then to the Court House, and returned at dark. I have been quite sick nearly all day from eating watermelon, had to go to bed.”

I laughed and immediately thought of challenging a group of friends to write their diary entry — riffing off Caroline’s words and making something of their own.

Caroline Littlepage wrote her diary entry 164 years ago from her King William County, Virginia plantation. Along with her husband, Major Lewis Littlepage, Caroline owned Woodbury, a plantation in Virginia’s Tidewater region. Caroline B. Ellett married Lewis Littlepage on February 5, 1829. She had 13 children. The Ellett and Littlepage families were two of the most prominent families in the county and among its largest landholders. Both families were established in the county before its formation in 1702. Her words are lean and factual, making the diary feel more like an almanac. The weather, household chores, church, and the coming and going of her children and extended family members occupy prime space in her diaries, ranging from 1855 to the late 1860s.

There is something carefree and upbeat about her August 18 entry. The day is sunny and warm. The Major is tending to his mill business, and later, he will go to the courthouse that sits on land his family donated to the county. When it is dark and the sky is full of stars, he’ll ride his horse home and have supper.

This outward picture of bliss can’t hide the uneven social order which made their lives comfortable. Caroline’s words belie the trouble that surrounds her, like the slave cabins hidden behind a nearby grove and the great civil war that is coming.

The disconnect between what Caroline can see and what she cannot see could make me laugh – but I rarely do. Her blind spots could make me angry – but I never am. I have the benefit of time, and it would be too easy to mock her ways and the antebellum lifestyle she represents. In fact, I am thankful to her because, in her diary, I found an entry that I believe mentions my great-great-grandfather when he was a young boy. His name is “Henry Littlepage.”

On January 29, 1864, Caroline writes that Henry delivered an invitation to her children to spend the evening at their Uncle Hardin’s house. It’s just a line. One hundred-odd letters of the alphabet. A peppercorn of action, but so full of meaning for me. Do you understand how rare it is for an African-American to see the name of an ancestor before 1870? Not a number, but a name. Henry and his letter delivery amount to little in Caroline’s life, but it meant a great deal to me. In her diary, he moves when the movement of most black people is violently restricted. On official documents, we are often reduced to a hash mark, but I can almost imagine his face on this page.

The excitement I felt when I saw his name in her diary now five years ago was unforgettable. I’m tied to him, this family, and this land across centuries.

Caroline is white. Henry is probably the mixed-race illegitimate son of Caroline’s brother-in-law, who lives on a nearby plantation. Henry is not enslaved. I don’t read Caroline’s diary for amusement. I’m searching for stories to tell about my place in America, our place in America.

Before I began researching my ancestry, I had one singular narrative, and Philadelphia was at its center. Three of my four grandparents were born in Philadelphia. I was fascinated, maybe even a bit envious, of kids who went south during the summer to visit their grandparents and extended family members.

As an adult living here in D.C., I met some friends for drinks at the rooftop bar of the W Hotel one evening. A woman who was from the south asked me, “Where are your people from?” I said, “Philadelphia.” She looked puzzled and asked me again. “No, really, where are you from?” Again I answered, “Philly.” She assumed it was a pretense, but Philly was all I knew, as did my parents and their parents. I could date the earliest arrival in Philadelphia to the 1880s, and that made me proud. At the time, I didn’t know my ancestors came from Virginia’s Tidewater region and may have descended from some of the earliest Africans and Europeans to land in the Virginia colony.

Last year was tumultuous. The constant sound of sirens from police cars and the helicopters patrolling the skies of Washington, D.C., last spring and summer made me anxious. The riot left me feeling unsteady and unsure about my connection to white people and this country. Oddly, reading Caroline’s journal and doing my genealogical research makes me feel American. In the reading, I see African-Americans, my ancestors, pushing forward to say I’m here and to assert claims of citizenship-what I once took for granted. I use the research to push back racist narratives and willful ignorance. I look back to move forward.