Living History

After my dad passed away last year, Mom decided to move into an assisted living facility near my home. She wanted to be as independent as possible, and not be “right on top of us” in my house. It’s been a tough transition for all of us, in some ways. But I’ve also had the opportunity to grow my extended family through the fascinating friends Mom has made in her new home.

One of those new friends is Betty. Betty is 96 (turning 97 later this year) and still volunteers at the Mighty 8th Air Force museum in Savannah on a regular basis. She shared the story of her younger years with me recently, and we decided to make her story into a children’s nonfiction book. Here are some highlights:

Betty in Uniform
Betty in her Navy uniform during the World War II.

She was a part of a top secret project (Ultra) during World War II.

I wasn’t even aware that Americans were a part of this code-breaking effort. Like many other Americans, I watched the movie about Alan Turing a few years ago, and learned that researchers at Bletchley Park in England cracked the German Enigma code. It turns out, that was only part of the story. Betty was a part of the “rest of the story”. She worked with other Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) in Dayton, Ohio to build machines that we used to break the German Navy Enigma codes. Apparently, the German Navy added extra rotors to make the codes more difficult to break, and the British needed our help. Betty’s work on the project was so secretive, even she didn’t know the importance of the work she’d done until 1995 when she received an award from the National Security Agency (NSA). You can see the one remaining machine built by Betty and other WAVES at NSA’s cryptologic museum at Ft. Meade.

Betty and Waves in Classroom
Betty (top row, second from left) with other WAVES during a training class in Washington, DC 1943. Photo from Betty’s personal collection.

Betty was a National Swim Champion. Betty swam competitively during her teen, college and even Navy years. She won several National swim titles, but never realized her dream of competing in the Olympics as both the 1940 and 1944 Olympics were cancelled due to the war.

Betty on diving board
Another photo from her personal collection: Betty poses on the diving board of the National Cash Register’s Sugar Camp pool in Dayton, Ohio during the war years.

She met famous people. Betty swam with future movie star, Esther Williams when they were both teenagers. Ms. Williams’ Olympic dreams were also thwarted by the war. In addition, Betty had the chance to meet Orville Wright, of the famous Wright Brothers. Mr. Wright asked for permission to meet Betty after reading an article about the young Navy WAVE defending her swim title. One of the world’s greatest visionaries chatted with young Betty about her own dreams. She also remembers drenching Mr. Wright’s shirt when he gave her a hug, as she’d just climbed out of the pool. It’s a meeting she’s never forgotten. Interestingly, that newspaper article almost got Betty in major trouble. Her swim coach didn’t go through the proper channels to secure permission for her to compete, and since she was in the Navy, her commander wasn’t happy! When the next championship rolled around, her swim coach knew exactly how to secure permission the right way.

WAVES poster
One of the recruiting posters advertising the WAVES.

When the Navy began recruiting women into active duty, Betty wanted to do her part. She was raised to hunt, fish, swim and even solder wires with her father. It wasn’t in her nature to sit back and let the men go to war.

I recently interviewed Betty about her experiences during the war and looked through photo albums with her. It was such an honor to have her share her story with me. It felt like I was interviewing living history. I’m polishing up the manuscript of her story, and hoping to get it into the hands of a publisher! I’d love to see kids inspired by her story too.

Betty and Melissa

 

Discovering Our Ancestry

php

Recently I’ve seen numerous ads on TV for DNA kits promising to help you “discover your true ancestry.” I’ve tuned into the PBS program Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates to see people stunned and enthralled by tidbits of information about ancestors from centuries ago. I’ve even briefly explored the wildly popular website Ancestry.com to see what I could dig up about my own family roots.

There seems to be a craving in our country right now to find out where we came from and more importantly who came before us.  What kind of lives did they live? What kind of people were they? It’s no secret that it’s much harder for African Americans to trace their roots due to the poor records kept by slaveholders in the 1700’s and 1800’s. And even if they were able to trace their roots, what would be left for them to discover about the lives of their ancestors?

What if you did trace your ancestry back to enslaved people, and you had the opportunity to visit the very place your ancestors were enslaved? Would you do it? Even more pressing: What if you had the chance to meet some descendants of the people who’d enslaved your ancestors during that visit? It seems far-fetched and unlikely, but it’s exactly what has recently happened at Prospect Hill Plantation in Jefferson County, Mississippi.

My second novel, Burning Prospects, is based on the true story of the events that took place on this plantation after the death of Isaac Ross. I’ve found the story fascinating ever since I heard it as a child. But in past years, I’ve had the privilege of talking with those who trace their ancestry back to Prospect Hill slaves. They have gone back to the plantation and met with the descendants of the very people who enslaved their ancestors many years ago. Their graciousness has been an inspiration. I wanted to share two articles recently published about a reunion held at Prospect Hill as well as a link to a video about a young man’s solitary visit to the site.

Alan Huffman, author of Mississippi in Africa wrote an article for The Guardian titled ‘This is surreal’: descendants of slaves and slave owners meet on US plantation. It’s a fascinating read with a brief summary of the case that inspired my novel. His book further explores what happened to a group of slaves from Prospect Hill who went to Liberia, so please check out his book if you’d like to know more.

Just today, I saw a link to an article on NEWSONE, posing the question “Would you Meet with the Descendants of Those who Enslaved Your Ancestors?” It references Mr. Huffman’s article in The Guardian, but adds even more background about the people who chose to attend the reunion and why.

Perhaps the most poignant piece on descendants of enslaved people visiting Prospect Hill comes in the form of a documentary film by Blue Magnolia Films. Please take a moment to watch this beautiful story here.

I’d love to hear your comments. Would you go back? Why or why not?

Go Forward with Courage

Sometimes book titles can literally be the hardest part of writing an entire novel. You can spend months or years thoughtfully creating characters, putting them into situations that create drama or suspense for your readers, and crafting dialogue that feels natural and realistic. But once the book is finished, finding the perfect title that feels worthy of the story can be elusive–nothing seems quite right. If you’re lucky, you’ll come across something that strikes like lightning, and you’ll know you’ve landed the perfect title.

That was the case for my latest novel, Go Forward with Courage. A central part of the novel deals with Michi and her family, who are forced to relocate to an internment camp in Arkansas after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. For the thousands of families impacted by the Executive Order to remove all citizens of Japanese ancestry from the west coast, every step of their journeys to these camps took courage. But it didn’t end there. When they were finally allowed to leave at the war’s end to return home, what were they returning to? It varied of course, but for many of these displaced persons, they had nothing tangible to return to.

The title, Go Forward with Courage comes from a quote by a Native American Chief after his realization that he had no other choice but accompany his people to a reservation.

white-eagle

“When you are in doubt, be still, and wait; when doubt no longer exists for you, then go forward with courage. So long as mists envelope you, be still; be still until the sunlight pours through and dispels the mists — as it surely will. Then act with courage”.

Pocono Chief White Eagle

When I came across this quote while writing the novel, the similarity of the plight of the Japanese-American citizens displaced from their homes to the Native Americans generations earlier seemed incredibly relevant. My character Michi, and the thousands of others like her, would need courage to face the unknown waiting for them when they returned “home” after the war. Some of the images captured from that time period, express more than my own words ever could.

I have so much admiration for the people who rebuilt lives after having them interrupted during the war. The courage it took is inspiring, and I hope that my story does them justice.

The peddling of human flesh…honestly just shocking.

Image

When I began researching the 1830’s and 1840’s time frame in Mississippi to provide the necessary background for writing Burning Prospects, I was shocked to see the way slaves were categorized. Their value was written down on ledgers as a legal record of their owner’s property. If it were not for these ledgers listing them as chattel, we may never have known any of their names. Some typical descriptions I came across were, “Adelle…old, no teeth…worthless” or “Tom, strong back and good worker…$1400”. I looked at long lists of names and felt such sadness for the real men, women and children who were so much more than just what market value at auction would have brought for them. They were someone’s mother, wife, sister, brother, son, husband, daughter…etc. Just as we all are. 

Here is an example from the press of the day. Taken from the NATCHEZ [MS] DAILY FREE TRADER, March 3, 1860, p. 2, c. 3

Slaves, Slaves,
At the Forks of the Road.
The Undersigned have on hand about Forty Negroes, consisting of Men and women, which we will sell as low or lower than any one else in this market. Men from $1400 to $1500 and Women from $1200 to $1400. We have no Virginia nor unacclimated negroes. We are bound to sell, and will sell. All who wish to purchase will call at the old Elam House and examine for themselves.
Griffin & Pullum.

I don’t know about anyone else, but it doesn’t take much for me to imagine the feelings of sheer hopelessness, terror, and complete lack of control experienced by these forty individuals as they awaited their fate. A fate that they had no decision in whatsoever. I doubt we will ever know what became of these poor souls sold as a result of this newspaper ad. But I pray that we all do everything that we can to honor their memories, learn from the past, and pledge to never be a party to devaluing another human being. I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments. 

 

All are punished…

I read an amazing poem last week. I am not generally a fan of poetry, but this one really grabbed my attention. It was written in the 1970’s by Mitsuye Yamada. Her family was taken to a camp along with many other Japanese-Americans during World War 2 after President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the interments. The title of the poem is To the Lady, and the very beginning of the poem states, “The one in San Francisco who asked: Why did the Japanese Americans let the government put them in those camps without protest?”

Okay, so already my dander is up! Really? Someone is going to blame the Japanese-Americans for “letting” themselves be put in “those camps”! The poem goes on, filled with irony, listing all of the things Japanese-Americans “should have” done to prevent this from happening to them and then goes on to list all of the things “the lady” would have done to stand up for her fellow Americans. The ending of this poem is probably what really has me pondering it a week later. It ends with the simple phrases: 

You let’m
I let’m
All are punished.

All are punished. That really spoke to me. I’ve been spending so much of my recent past mired down in research of my own family’s history involving slavery. Isn’t it amazing how history repeats itself? Any time a group of people is oppressed for any reason, it is because “we” as a society let it happen. And if it happened once, we’d be crazy to think it couldn’t happen again. All it takes is fear fanned by propaganda, which turns into hysteria. Anything seems justifiable it seems under those conditions. 

In writing Burning Prospects, I had to wrangle with my own feelings regarding the fact that my ancestors were slave owners. There were scenes that I wrote with tears streaming down my face. In fact, the novel is dedicated the the slaves of Prospect Hill Plantation. Obviously there is nothing I can do to help them now. However, the legacy of slavery exists today–we see it in the news every day. When we let fear or prejudice influence our actions, we are all punished. Not just the group that is being oppressed…but all of us. It hurts our nation collectively when any citizen is denied the civil liberties promised to us in the Constitution. Why? Because it chips away at our integrity and weakens our nation by dividing us into fragments. 

I do find myself grieving the blights on our nation’s history: The Indian Removal Act, slavery, the interment of Japanese-Americans and the Jim Crow laws. Let’s not become “the lady” who would ask why people would “let” themselves be unfairly treated. Instead we should be determined to learn from history and collectively refuse to let history repeat itself. 

Yamada, Mitsuye. “To the Lady.” Camp Notes and Other Writings / Mitsuye Yamada.New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1998. N. pag. Print.

Image courtesy of California State LibraryImage