Seeking truth despite a history of tragedy

. February 1, 2020.
(L-R) Omer Jean Winborn and Cheryl Garnett, founders of the Washtenaw County African-American Genealogy Society. Photo Credit: Hassan Hodges, HH Photo Graphics for Current Magazine

Helping the ancestors of slaves complete their stories

For many in America, the past is an unknown. Unlike descendants of European settlers, whose ancestors have well-documented histories in America, most African-Americans cannot track a similar genealogical trail, instead relying on oral history to preserve the details of their past.

Cheryl Garnett and Omer Jean Winborn, founders of the Washtenaw County African-American Genealogy Society, are uncovering that history. Current spoke with them about their mission to overcome the lack of documentation to trace historical roots.

What roadblocks have you had to overcome to find this story?

Omer Jean: We found out through doing DNA testing and genealogical research that we (she and Cheryl) are related— we’re cousins. Most African-Americans who went to the northern states came through the Underground Railroad. Many also ended up in Canada, where we found out we were Black Loyalists (a largely unknown faction, Black Loyalists fought on the side of England, while in Canada, to gain land and freedom).

Cheryl: One of the things that people don’t realize— and that we need to research— is that a good number of African-American families in this area probably have some connection to Black Loyalists.

We’ve just never made the connection. We were talking about the research around African American families here in Ypsilanti, who have a connection to Canada. Some of them [later] came back to the U.S. because of the Civil War. So a lot of people discover that their ancestors were in Canada and then came back to the U.S. and that they have Canadian connections. A lot of them don’t know that we were in Canada because we were Black Loyalists. If you can’t find your family (a lot of people search the South and come back with nothing), you might want to look in Canada.

Black Loyalists fought in Canada in the 1700s, where our ancestors appeared by name in the census records. Many people looking in the South to trace their genealogy can’t find them. It might be because they were in Canada. Most people don’t think to look at the Canadian census.

Omer Jean: If you got to Detroit, you could easily jump over to Canada. One of Cheryl’s ancestors fought in the Civil War; he was in the Massachusetts 54th regiment, but he’s buried here (in Ypsilanti). (We discovered that when) we went all the way to Washington, D.C. and pulled his papers, and we were in disbelief. He’s buried just down the street from where I live!

How did he get there? Fredrick Douglas went to Canada, recruited her uncle, and the uncle ended up back in Ypsilanti after the Civil War. What Black folks need to wrap our heads around is this: Our ancestors, when they ran away to the north as slaves, did not run to white people. They ran to Black folks, and it can be shown right here where we’re sitting. They ran to people they knew because there was the Fugitive Slave Act.

So we’re all finding our families now. They tell you not to look at your DNA beyond ten centimorgans (a unit measuring genetic linkage). Eleven centimorgans connect Cheryl and me. She was born in Ann Arbor, so I called her. We started talking, and I’ve been going to Canada (to do research) with her for 20 years.

We found out that we’re related. The Richardsons came right back here to Ypsilanti. In the 1920 Michigan Book of Negroes, one of them was listed with 150 acres in Whittaker, MI, of all places.

To escape slavery, many African-Americans traveled north through the Underground Railroad into Canada to gain land and freedom. Once there, some fought for England as the largely unknown Black Loyalists faction.

As the perception of the past affects actions in the present, how does that knowledge impact us?

Omer Jean: It changed me a lot. I come from a family of six. All six of us are college-educated, but I’ve lost three of my siblings. One day I came home from working on my third degree— I have four— and I sat down on the porch, and my dad wondered out loud, “I wonder if they could teach an old man like me to read.”

This man doesn’t read, so I had to ask myself, “How did I get here?” That’s when I really started to look at my history, and I discovered that his side of the family were Black Loyalists.

What lessons can be taught to young students?

Cheryl: We ought to be raising at least some dissonance that (the authors of the Constitution) had a conflicted philosophy. The whole notion that all men are endowed with inalienable rights by their creator (seems to be a farce)— there’s this philosophy of people being free, and at the same time, the (authors of the Constitution) are holding men as slaves.

When you’re an African-American with this knowledge, it’s very stressful. My history is never going to be fully known. We can’t change these notions if we don’t challenge it. We’re still often misguided by the notion that the founding fathers had no flaws. In fact, they did.

Omer Jean: The devastation for us is to see it from a different point. The reason it’s not talked about in this country is that the Black Loyalists were viewed as traitors, fighting on behalf of the British, while America is trying to form a separate nation. But the Black Loyalists didn’t look at it like that; instead, they thought ‘we’re trying to be free, and we’re going to fight for our freedom.’ George Washington said, “You are taking this property (the slaves who went to Canada) out of our country, we want to know everyone that you took, their value, who their master was…” that’s all in a book entitled The Book of Negroes.

If you’re African-American, you can go to the book and find your common last name. Four of my names are in there: Dixons, Walkers, Taylors, and Johnsons. You can research the surnames, and then you follow them back.

It’s necessary to incorporate this information into American history.

Cheryl: It’s all one history. It’s up to us as African-Americans to make it one history. When my kids went to kindergarten— and they’re 50+ years-old now— I joined the parent-teacher organization. Back then, the sixth-grade teachers pointed out that there were no Black people in the textbooks. Now, there were no Black people in them when I was in school either, and I argued about that at the time. But it was different when my kids had been taught like that, too!

Ever since then, it’s been an issue for me. I’ve always loved history. I had a history teacher who I was at odds with over the issue of slavery. No one ever got an “A” in his class, and I was going to be the one who got it. I had passed every test at 100%, and it came down to this last essay question: What were the causes of the Civil War?

I put down “slavery” as one of the causes, but that wasn’t the answer that he wanted. I had to go back to the book and point it out because I think he wanted “economics” or something. But it was in there, and he had to give me that point.

There’s so much to discover. Is there a book in there somewhere?

Cheryl: The more I research, the more I learn about my family. It’s always just been my family, but when I take a step back, my family is fascinating to me. What they’ve done and what they’ve accomplished.

Omer Jean: The first time I traveled with Cheryl to Canada, she said, “Let’s go to my grandmother’s house!” She used to visit her grandma in the summertime. She walks me around the house and tells me that her grandmother used to collect rainwater in this bucket to wash her hair. She showed me where some of the slaves are buried.

Then she took me all around town and showed me streets named after her relatives. We’ve been going back each year for 20 years. She has a fascinating story, and I just love listening to her. Then just to think that we’re related!

Gathering this information allows perceptions to evolve.

Ypslinati gravestone of Cheryl’s ancestor,
who fought for the North in the Civil War.

Omer Jean: Then I thought about Josiah Henson (the individual who gave rise to the concept of Uncle Tom) who watched slave owners torture his father. He was in a protective mode all of his life— not an Uncle Tom mode— and, because he had a life where he had protection, he was allowed to move his family to a town in Canada.

People don’t know this story. They just think of books describing Harriet Beecher Stowe, and others, but they don’t know the history of Josiah Henson. (He moved to a town in Canada and) educated all those people. Our families were in that settlement where he was. If you go to Canada and see that town and learn its history, your whole perception of who he was will change.

Cheryl: In Canada, he’s a hero! It’s amazing. When you go to Canada, our history is entirely different. It’s an entirely different perception of who we are.

Join Omer Jean Winborn at the Ann Arbor District Library Pittsfield Branch (2359 Oak Valley Dr.) at 3:15pm on Sunday, February 23 for the presentation “The Underground Railroad in Washtenaw County.” For more information, visit washtenawgenealogy.org.

The Washtenaw County African-American Genealogy Society meets at 10:30am on the third Saturday of each month at the Ypsilanti District Library Main Branch (229 W. Michigan Ave.). For more information on the events, visit ypsilibrary.org.

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