The Long Journey Back

Inspired by Alex Haley's 'Roots,' a Baltimore woman went in search of her ancestors to discover who she was.

January 21, 2002|By Darryl E. Owens | Darryl E. Owens,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

After two years of dogged research, Emily Tilley could only shake her head and the fading papers in her hands as though she expected to shake free the necessary clue to propel her search.

Nothing fell to earth.

It was 1988, and the Baltimore woman ran her fingers through the duplicate manifests, marriage licenses and court records she'd collected in binders over the years. Then she turned to confront the musty records that mocked her from the table inside the Eastern Shore Room of the Eastern Shore Public Library in Accomac, Va.

Praying to pry loose something she had missed, she re-examined the evidence: Census records. Social Security forms. Cemetery deeds. Funeral home records. Death certificates. Records of lynchings.

There must be some clue to her great-great-great-grandmother's identity.

Once, the fables about generic slaves that she collected at her grandmother's feet were enough. Then came Roots.

Over the course of those eight nights in January 1977, Tilley sat transfixed, drinking in Alex Haley's intoxicating saga of several generations in the lives of a slave family. The story ached with sorrow, but, she thought, at least Haley was one of the fortunate African-Americans with more than fable to pass on.

When the miniseries was over, Tilley understood the hollowness she felt sometimes. That feeling and her efforts had brought her this day to Accomac, one of nine ports of arrival during the 18th-century Virginia slave trade. Her roots had sunk deep and strong in the loose, sandy soil. But now the trail had grown cold again, after only two generations. Genealogy, she had learned, was the process of adding flesh to skeletons. At best, she was working with bones.

Now even the bones had turned to powder.

As Tilley gathered up her proof, she wondered whether she would ever find her great-great-grandparents and learn the truth to the question that had haunted for more than a decade: Who was she?

Twenty-six years before Roots aired, Tilley was born in Baltimore, to Hortense Esther Beckett and Milton Grant. At one point, Tilley, her mother, siblings, and other relatives shared a rowhouse in Baltimore with her Aunt Elizabeth Staley.

Tilley could scarcely wait for the summers to come, for that meant she would visit her great-grandmother, Esther Simpkins, out in Baltimore County. Tilley loved brushing her long strands of cotton-white hair, and hearing her stories.

One tale Simpkins told was of a place along the Maryland Eastern Shore where snow would not stay on the ground. It was said to be sacred ground, a wretched place where slaves were taken and burned alive.

There were stories her mother told about her grandfather, Howard Beckett, said to have made the best homemade rolls in Pimlico.

And there were tales about Dr. John Beckett, Tilley's great-great-uncle, a college man who demanded the same respect accorded whites. The stories of his standing up to bigoted whites filled her with pride. But by the time she'd started her own family, the stories had gathered dust.

Tracing her lineage had never crossed her mind. The few tales that stuck seemed adequate. But she was in for a quicksilver change after Roots. The frank portrayal of brutal whippings, rapes, slave auctions and forced separations of families was an emotional haymaker that connected with Tilley. Haley must be the smartest man in America, Tilley remembers thinking. She didn't consider herself in his league, but Tilley decided the time had come to plug the holes in her heritage.

After Roots finished its ratings-grabbing run, she bought the series on videotape and devoured the book. But Tilley's roots journey stalled before it ever began. Finding her ancestors was lost in the daily routine of rearing her children - Erika, David and Mark - and working for the Social Security Administration office in Baltimore.

It would be 1986, nine years after Roots, that her urge to match Haley's feat was refreshed. At a family gathering, her Aunt Minerva McClure expressed an interest in genealogy. Now, Tilley had a partner.

They agreed to visit the Maryland Eastern Shore, gather family oral histories and begin the long journey back. But that summer, Aunt Minerva died. Her death not only rocked Tilley, it crystallized the reality of her pursuit.

Her living relatives were like the griots of Africa, the revered tribal storytellers who collected a tribe's oral history. It is said in Africa that when a griot dies, it is as if a library has burned to the ground. Just like that, Tilley had watched one library burn. She knew the remaining branches were dwindling fast.

That summer, Tilley made the trip the two had planned. She gathered facts about people named Simpkins and Beckett and visited the Maryland State Archives in Annapolis for pointers on researching her African roots. She found precious little.

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