Getting close to your ancestors

January 31, 1991|By Wiley Hall 3rd

Agnes Kane Callum can trace her family roots back more than 300 years -- a connection to her past that few African-Americans can match.

And so, a visitor -- himself an African-American -- could not resist asking Mrs. Callum how it feels to have such deep ties to the past.

"I feel very happy about it," Mrs. Callum answered enthusiastically. "I feel proud. I feel glad to know that I had such a vested interest in Maryland. In 1681, my people weren't even in Africa. They were in Maryland.

"I feel especially good about the fact that I know it, and can pass it on to the generation under me, including and maybe especially the generations to follow, the ones who aren't even born yet," continued the 66-year-old retired postal employee, mother of five, and grandmother.

"My children are grown. They are all in their 30s and 40s. But I've been able to leave a basis, a foundation, a written document of their history for their children and even their children's children. They will never, ever have to wonder who they are or where they came from."

She is proud, even, of her slave ancestry.

"To survive under slavery," she said, "you had to be strong. You had to have good character, some pride, some fortitude. They lived to perpetuate the next generation and I'm proud of that fact."

Bit by bit, Mrs. Callum delved into her past and pieced together her roots. It took her eight years, starting with a course at Morgan State University.

"I was taking night-time courses at Morgan and I wrote a paper called 'The Acquisition of Land by Free Blacks in St. Mary's County' that took me to the state archives.

"Well, I began to run across my own family there. At first I didn't believe it, but my mother was alive then, she was 78, and she confirmed a lot of what I found. She would give me clues. I would document it. She would give me more clues. Before long, I was telling her things she didn't know."

"Well," she continues, "I just went on and on. I would track down one generation and then start wondering about where they came from. So back I'd go. I never dreamed I would go back that far.

"It doesn't take anything but a sheet of paper and a pencil," she said. "But you must be persistent."

Her mother's family goes all of the way back to an Irish woman named Eleanor, who was brought to this country as a teen-ager in the 17th century by the third Lord Baltimore to do his washing and ironing.

In 1681, Eleanor fell in love with a slave known only as Negro Charles and the two were married. Over 100 years later, the couple's descendants would successfully sue the state for their freedom on the grounds that they were descended from a white woman, leaving behind court records that Mrs. Callum, the wily detective, eventually discovered.

She was able to trace her father's side of the family as far back as 1793 and a slave couple named Raphael and Hilary Cane.

Again, her first clues were the oral history of her parents. Her father's relatives used to say that the family was once owned by a doctor in St. Mary's County.

Mrs. Callum began backtracking, using land records and marriage registers and bills of sale. Eventually she traced her father's roots to the Sotterley Plantation in St. Mary's County, where a slave cabin still stands.

"I never dreamed they would even put blacks down in threcords," she said, "but you'd be surprised. They would never say, 'slave,' though. They'd always write 'my man servant' or 'my woman's servant.' It was a thing of prestige for whites to say they owned such and such a number of slaves."

For generations, blacks did not discuss their slave heritage with their children, assuming that it would lead to anger and %o bitterness. But Mrs. Callum said she is not bitter but fascinated.

"I know this," she said, "after the Civil War my people stayed on the plantation another 15 years until [their former slave owner] died. They didn't have to. They could have sought their fortune up in Baltimore or in Washington. But they didn't. They continued to work the farm. Do the chores. I'm not saying they had a good life, but that tells you something."

Mrs. Callum does not consider her investigations into the past have ended.

"I want to trace my African roots," she said. "In fact, I've been to Africa four times. Last time I went they told me [in Accra, Ghana] that any records there might be are in London."

She thinks her descendants may have been Ghanaian. She has even picked out a likely tribe -- the Fantis, who lived along what was once known as the Gold Coast.

"The texture of my hair, the structure of my face, the color of my skin-- my people resemble the Fantis. That's what I think I am."

But supposition isn't good enough for Mrs. Callum. Her ambition is to find documented proof.

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