When Ancestry Search Led To Escaped Slave: 'All I Could Do Was Weep' Regina Mason's great-great-great-grandfather, a man named William Grimes, was a runaway slave and the author of what is now considered to be the first fugitive slave narrative.
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When Ancestry Search Led To Escaped Slave: 'All I Could Do Was Weep'

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When Ancestry Search Led To Escaped Slave: 'All I Could Do Was Weep'

When Ancestry Search Led To Escaped Slave: 'All I Could Do Was Weep'

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. On this Martin Luther King Day, we're going to talk about something many African-Americans still don't have access to - their own family history. It's difficult to trace the roots of your family tree when you are the descendent of slaves. My guest, Regina Mason, spent years trying to find out about her slave ancestors and eventually discovered that her great-great-great-grandfather William Grimes wrote what is now considered the first fugitive slave narrative. It was published in 1825 when he was about 40 and living in Connecticut. He'd escaped from a plantation in Savannah nine years earlier after having been a slave for over 30 years.

In 1855, he published a new addition of his memoir, updating it with a chapter about his life as an older man living in poverty after his former owner discovered his whereabouts and forced him to pay for his freedom or return to captivity. His narrative, "Life Of William Grimes, The Runaway Slave," was republished in 2008 by Oxford University Press, edited and with commentary by Regina Mason and William Andrews, a scholar of early African-American autobiography. We found out about Regina Mason through a recent workshop at the University at Buffalo that brought together a small group of people descended from the authors of slave narratives.

Regina Mason, welcome to FRESH AIR. Where does your great-great-great-grandfather's slave narrative fit into the history of slave narratives?

REGINA MASON: William Grimes's narrative is precedent-setting. His narrative was published in 1825, and this was years before the abolitionist movement picked up slave narratives as a propaganda tool to end slavery. And so it sort of unwittingly pavee the way for the American slave narratives to follow.

GROSS: Yeah, and the original edition was titled "The Life Of William Grimes, The Runaway Slave. Written By Himself."

MASON: Absolutely.

GROSS: Yeah. So he didn't have the assistance of other people, of other white people, to either - to vouch for him and the book or to help him edit it. And it makes me wonder, like, how did he even know how to read and write and how to get a book published?

MASON: Wow. If he were here today I'd ask him that question.

GROSS: Yeah, right.

MASON: I know that he picked up the bare bones of reading and writing. He talks about scenes or episodes where he was caught in Savannah, Ga., working for a doctor. And there was this unflattering note that circulated that said Sherman is a quack. And that (laughter) they accused William Grimes of writing this note. And he swore up and down that he didn't. But what struck me about the note was the fact that they all knew that he could read and write and was capable of writing this note, even though he insisted he didn't do it.

GROSS: So when you were reading - when you first discovered that your great-great-great-grandfather had written this now important slave narrative, what emotions did you go through reading about how horrible his experiences were, both as a slave and then as an escaped slave?

MASON: It was very emotional because what we didn't talk about thus far was my early journey to know my history. There was a fifth grade class assignment that I was given that made me look front and center at American slavery because I couldn't avoid it in my own family. Up until that time in fifth grade, I don't know much about my family's connection to slavery. Certainly, I'd heard about slavery, but nobody was talking about it. It wasn't until I needed answers for this assignment.

GROSS: What was the assignment?

MASON: The assignment was to connect with your country of origin. My teacher wanted to illustrate that America was made up of immigrants and that we all stemmed from another country. And she wanted us to identify that country and talk a little bit about it. Well, for me - I mean, Africa is a continent. And number two, I could not pinpoint anywhere in Africa that I was from. My family never talked about it. There was no connection to it. And I am this family that is of a multi-racial family on both sides - my mother and father's side. I didn't look African. And the only thing that I knew about Africa was the stereotypical imagery that I had seen in movies and in episodes of "Tarzan," OK?

GROSS: Well, also, you know, your ancestors - your African-American ancestors weren't immigrants. They were brought here in chains as slaves.

MASON: Absolutely, they were...

GROSS: So it's a kind of different - you know, you can't exactly answer the question of where were your immigrant ancestors from?

MASON: I could not. And I didn't realize the struggle that I would have with this on so many levels. The assignment made me curious not for my African heritage but my American heritage. And that night, I went home and I asked my mother where are we from? And then she started telling me about the family history. She told me about her grandfather, who was a former slave. Well, that blew me away because I'm thinking slavery was, like, biblical times. It wasn't just a few generations removed. I couldn't get used to that. It just struck me like, oh, wow, this is so upfront and personal. And then she talked about Grandpa Fuller, who was a mulatto slave. And I inquired about his parentage and she told me that his father is - from what she knew - was the plantation owner and his mother was an enslaved black woman.

And so to talk about those dynamics - and I'm asking - well, I mean, that's weird. Did his father own him? You know, that kind of dynamics. And it gets to be - I mean, how do you explain, number one, to children that slavery existed in freedom-loving America, number one? And number, two how do you explain to a child about an enslaved heritage shrouded in miscegenation? It's not an easy thing to do. So my mother did something wonderful. She knew that I was having these misgivings about my history, so she took me about a week or two later to see my Aunt Katherine, who was the family historian.

GROSS: What did your Aunt Katherine tell you that your mother couldn't?

MASON: She told me - she goes you do have a very wonderful past or history. And then she proceeded to tell me that we had old ties in California. And she told me - and this was Aunt Katherine's favorite ancestor to talk of because she was actually named for her great-grandmother Cecelia Victoria Williams. But she was - Cecilia was a tragedy and in the San Francisco Bay area a Shakespearean performer and Aunt Katherine just loved to talk so much about her. And when I do the research, Aunt Katherine could not have known her at all because she was a baby when her great-grandmother died. But the legacy of this woman just lived on and on. But that wasn't the story that interested me. Aunt Katherine told me that someone was associated with the Underground Railroad. And his name...

GROSS: Someone in her family.

MASON: Right, someone in the family associated with the Underground Railroad and that his name was Grimes. And he was from New Haven, Conn. That little thread of the story stuck with me. And that was all I had. But why that registered with me was because it was a resistance story. I was just learning about American slavery and slavery in my family history and so forth. And to know that someone in the family defied slavery via the Underground Railroad was huge in my mind. It told me that he didn't just sit still for slavery. He defied it, and that was important to me. And he was the ancestor, the one she knew hardly anything about, that I latched on to.

GROSS: So once you found out that there was a relative who had the last name of Grimes who had some connection to the Underground Railroad, where did you start? That's not a lot of clues. You knew he was from Connecticut. So where did you go? What records did you look at to begin your search for his identity?

MASON: So let's fast-forward 20-some years after hearing Aunt Katherine and that little thread of a story. I never forgot about it. So I decided at this point in my life to take up genealogy. And by then, I was a young wife and mother of two little girls. And I wanted them to know their history. So I took up genealogy, and I did have a measure of success finding family members that Aunt Katherine and my mother spoke of, but certainly not finding anybody with the Grimes surname. And reality began to set in when I just kept coming up empty. But one day, I had a bunch of library books that were due. And I said, oh, well, here's a title I hadn't even looked at. And it was Charles L. Blockson's "The Underground Railroad." So I turned quickly to the "Free New England" section in his book. And within the first few pages, Blockson wrote about a slave from Savannah, Ga. by the name of William Grimes who stowed away on a vessel from Savannah to New York. And while he was in New York, he was put in contact with people associated with the Underground Railroad that directed him on foot to New Haven, Conn. And my heart just dropped. I thought, oh, my God, the three clues that Aunt Katherine gave me are right here in this book - the name William Grimes, the fact that she said the family settled in New Haven, Conn. and the fact that I was reading a book about the Underground Railroad. Those were three clues right there. And I said, oh, wow, I've got to really follow this. So it turns out that Blockson's bibliography illustrated that this William Grimes person wrote his life story and published it himself. It was called "Life Of William Grimes, The Runaway Slave, Brought Down To The Present." Well, I had to find this book. I had to.

GROSS: Where did you find it?

MASON: Boy, I started calling family. And my cousin said, well, wait a minute. I discovered that the Grimes narrative is in a book called "Five Black Lives." That's an anthology of five slave narratives from the New England territory under one cover. And I further found that the book was still in print and that it was at Cody's bookstore in Berkeley, which was near the UC Berkeley campus. And they had three copies on their shelves. And I - I went down there. And I - I bought all three. I had no idea that this man even belonged to me. But something deep down told me that he did.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Regina Mason. After tracing her family tree, she discovered that her great-great-great-grandfather had written what is considered to be the first narrative by an escaped slave. It was published in 1825. She and a literary scholar, William Andrews, who's an expert on early African-American autobiography, edited a new edition with her own commentary. It was published by Oxford University Press in 2008. Regina, let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Regina Mason. And we're talking about one of her ancestors who she discovered was an escaped slave who wrote what is considered to be the first narrative by an escaped slave. It was published in 1825. His name is William Grimes. It's her great-great-great-grandfather.

Eventually, one of the documents that actually helped you prove that he was your ancestor - that William Grimes was your ancestor was your own family Bible, a Bible that you hadn't known about that your aunt did know about. So she found it in another family member's attic. So when you found this family Bible, what information was in it? And how far did this Bible go? How far back did it originate?

MASON: There were pages tucked inside the Bible that had birth records, death records, marriage records. And I think the earliest inscription went to the late 1700s. But as I reviewed these records, there were names - and many of them familiar and there were many unknown. And I remember just skimming this one page and there, this name William Grimes jumped out at me with a death record of August 21, 1865, and I just completely lost it. I knew that that was William Grimes the autobiographer because, in my search, I had found an obituary for him, and it connected with my - the records that we had in this family Bible. And all I could do was weep.

It was amazing to see such old records, to - where the pages had separated from the original spine of the book, where they were so discolored, fragile, blotted and stained. I mean, it was a true testimony of a legacy in this country. And to connect myself to it made me realize how deep our roots went in America. I get emotional about it all the time. I just can't help it because, you know, so often we're told - oh, forget about slavery. That happened so long ago. Get over it. You know?

But when you do a genealogy search, people don't realize that the struggle is real. It - to find these people, to understand how they lived and how they died and how oppressed they were - the reality hits you, and it's new. You have to give yourself a time to mourn through this because these were real people. These were real people. So for others to say just get over it when you discover this, you - it's a process. You cannot get over it. It's your heritage. It's like asking you to forget who you are and where you came from.

GROSS: So you make this great discovery that this slave memoirist was actually your actually your great-great-great-grandfather. Now you have evidence from the family Bible. So where did you go with that? You know, like, eventually, you got that narrative republished by Oxford University Press. But before that, you had discovered something really important, not only about your family history, but about American history because this, it turns out, is a very important text.


GROSS: So what did you do to try to tell people - look what I found?

MASON: Let me tell you. I knew, once I found this narrative and once I started revealing the blanks, you know, in his book - for instance, he doesn't mention his father's name, but he talks about an incident - a murder that takes place on a plantation. And it's his father's plantation at the hands of his father. And so...

GROSS: And just to back up, this is a white man who owned a different plantation than the plantation that your relative was on.

MASON: Right. William Grimes was a mulatto slave who was not owned by his father. His father had relations with a slave on another plantation. This is how complicated slavery was. And, you know...

GROSS: And how complicated genealogy is.

MASON: Absolutely, absolutely. It's really crazy. So I had a murder scene that he talked about, but he's protecting his father's identity. He protects his mother's identity, but he reveals the deceased man, the man that his father murdered for nothing more than trespassing on his property. And my thought was OK, if I can find out - if I can piece together this murder scene then maybe that's going to reveal William Grimes's father. Maybe that's going to reveal the plantation the Eagle's Nest. So I started this massive newspaper search for this incident, and one day I got really lucky. I was at Sutro Library in San Francisco, and I came across a compiled record called "Genealogical Abstracts From 18th-Century Virginia," and it was all in alphabetical order.

And there were two citations that emerged that corroborated William Grimes's story. And the one that was so significant was said that Robert Galloway a merchant of Fredericksburg was shot and killed by Benjamin Grymes of Eagle's Nest, King George County, Va. And there it was. There it was. And it was such a dramatic find. I was just (laughter) - my husband was driving us home across the San Francisco Bay, and I just started screaming and crying, and it was - he was like oh, my God - what's going on? But it was just that dramatic. I had taken this narrative to an exciting new level in an instant because it not only revealed the murder. I found the original Virginia papers that it was noted in. It revealed Benjamin Grymes as being William Grimes's father. I was able to piece that together. And the plantation Eagle's Nest which still stands. And the plantation Eagle's Nest remained in the family for 300 years and was sold in 1974, the year I began high school.

GROSS: My guest is Regina Mason. After a short break, we'll talk more about her great-great-great-grandfather, who was the first fugitive slave to publish a memoir.

And jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will review two reissues of cross-cultural rarities produced by German jazz historian and musicologist Joachim-Ernst Berendt. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Regina Mason. We're talking about the genealogical research that led her to discover that she is the great-great-great-granddaughter daughter of William Grimes, the author of what is now considered the first published narrative by a fugitive slave. It was published in 1825. Mason, along with literary scholar William Andrews, edited an annotated edition that was published by Oxford University Press in 2008. In his memoir, William Grimes writes that his father was a plantation owner who had murdered a man for trespassing on his property, but Grimes didn't reveal his father's name. Regina Mason was able to find his name through 18th-century newspaper articles about the murder.

So, emotionally, what was it like for you to find out that one of your blood relatives, this slave owner who impregnated your great-great-great-grandfather's mother - that that slave owner was actually a murderer? And as your explain in your commentary in the republication of the slave narrative, he was found not guilty on grounds of insanity.

MASON: Absolutely.

GROSS: So he was able to stay out of prison. But - do I have that right?

MASON: You have it right. And my thought was - was it to save him from going to jail or was he really insane?

GROSS: Right. So you're finding out - listen, I mean, he's part of your family tree, too - not a very savory part...

MASON: Absolutely.

GROSS: ...But part of it.


GROSS: So what was it like to learn that this, like, distant ancestor is, like, a murderer? Not to mention a slave owner who impregnated, you know, a slave who, chances are, he raped. We don't know that for sure.

MASON: Right. We don't know it for sure. We don't know what kind of - but, you know, hey, it's not beyond the realm of rape. But certainly we know that these - when I look at these plantations that are nearby and the different relationships and how they intermarried their relatives and how slaves were sold to - and - but yet, they still have some connection to the original plantation, it just shows me how convoluted and how crazy and intertwined these relationships were. So to find - you know, it was - it blew me away. It was like, oh, my God, this is stunning in the worst way, you know?

GROSS: So once you discovered the slave narrative that your ancestor wrote and you had a chance to read it, what's an example of one of the incidents that you found especially upsetting in a book that is kind of nonstop upsetting incidents?

MASON: Oh, wow, yes. One in particular - William Grimes is 10 years old. He's sold away from his mother to a far-off plantation. And he doesn't know anyone. There's no slave - enslaved family that embraces him. I saw a cycle where the slaves were fending for themselves, looking out for themselves. And William Grimes talks about an incident in the kitchen where he is to make the coffee for his master and mistress. That's his job. Well, there's a cook by the name of Patty who was looking out for her own child. She wanted her son in William Grimes's position instead of out in the field somewhere. And so she poisoned the coffee or - with medicine and made it look like this little 10-year-old boy did it. And William Grimes received such a horrible beating for putting medicine in the coffee. And of course he didn't do it. But Patty did, and Patty had a reason for doing that. And that was to get him out of the kitchen where she could look out for her own child. So that stunned me because I'm thinking, oh, they're all in this together. They're going to - the slaves are going to help each other and so on and so forth. But it was survival of the fittest. And that just - was a new reality and layer to the system of slavery.

GROSS: There's a lot of details of his life that we won't have time to get into. But once he escaped from the plantation and ended up in the North, there was a period when he was living in New Haven and he was a successful barber. And he - did he have his own barbershop?

MASON: He did. From what I understand - and this is noted at the Litchfield Historical Society - that he was able to purchase land and a building. And he had this building moved on the land where his - I don't know whether he was also living in - that was his home and his business. I'm not clear on that. But it is known that he was a barber and that he was cutting the hair and shaving some of the most remarkable politicians - or soon-to-be politicians - in American history...

GROSS: Because he was right near the Yale campus.

MASON: Right, but the Litchfield Law School predates the Yale Law School.

GROSS: Oh, I see.

MASON: But he was in both places - Litchfield first and then Yale.

GROSS: So there's this period when he's relatively prosperous, considering...


GROSS: ...His circumstances. And then the slave owner who he had escaped from claimed him and gave him the choice either you return in chains to Savannah, to my plantation, or you give me the deed to your property and...

MASON: Or you pay for your freedom and...

GROSS: To pay for your freedom, yeah.

MASON: Right.

GROSS: So that's not really much of a choice, so he gave him the deed to his home or his property. You can clarify that for me.

MASON: Yes, absolutely. And the only thing he had was his home. So he ended up giving up the deed to his home for freedom, a bittersweet freedom. So it left his family penniless. He was never really able to regain the kind of money he had prior to his master finding him. He - you can find him all over the state of Connecticut trying to make a living.

So, yes, his book was - I say that it was written for two reasons. One, to recoup money, yes, and the second reason was to express his outrage. And I think he accomplished both. I'm not saying he made an exorbitant amount of money, but that was something that he did peddle around New Haven, which was his narrative. And in 1855, he republishes his narrative, and it is the same 1825 narrative with an added chapter that talks about his exploits in later years as an old man.

GROSS: You talk about his outrage. He was not only outraged by his enslavement. He was outraged by what his life was like as a free man in the North and how his slave owner was able to take his home away from him. And he writes at the end of his memoir (reading) I would advise no slave to leave his master. If he runs away, he is most sure to be taken. If he is not, he will ever be in the apprehension of it. And I do think there is no inducement for a slave to leave his master and be set free in the northern states.

I mean, he's so disillusioned by what his life has become.

MASON: Absolutely.

GROSS: It's painful.

MASON: Well, I want to - I want to clarify why he made that statement. It was very hard for a man of color to etch out a living in the North. He was in constant threat of being warned out of town if he could not sustain his family. It was - he was always in competition with poor whites who wanted him out of business because they felt entitled to his position. He was a barber by trade. And that was definitely a man of color's profession. And so because of that, he was able to make a living. But it infuriated whites - poor whites in the area and even immigrants that came. So he was constantly having to be very scrappy - anything to make a living. It was definitely very difficult for black people to etch out a life in the free North. We have this misconception that the North was so much better than the South. And that's why he doesn't advocate anybody from the South running away and trying to make it in the free North because there are too many obstacles. It was just so hard. You would be forever a very poor person in the North is what he was trying to say.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Regina Mason. And after tracing her family tree, she discovered that her great-great-great-grandfather had written what is considered to be the first narrative by an escaped slave. It was published in 1825. Let's take a short break. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Regina Mason. After tracing her family tree, she discovered that her great-great-great-grandfather had written what is now considered to be the first published narrative by an escaped slave. It was published in 1825. She and a literary scholar William Andrews who's an expert on early African-American autobiography edited a new edition of that slave narrative with their own commentary that was published by Oxford University press in 2008.

You found his obituary...

MASON: I did.

GROSS: ...Dated August 21, 1855, published in the New Haven Daily Palladium. And I want to quote a little bit of it because you quoted...


GROSS: ...In the introduction to the more recent publication of your great-great-great-grandfather's slave narrative. And the obituary includes these quotes, "All New Haven knew him. He was always of the corners of the streets, basket in hand. He was an aged gentleman. He sold lottery tickets and was versed in theological lore. Forty years ago, he was the head of a prosperous barbershop opposite the colleges. All Yale patronized him and thousands of Yale graduates knew him." It goes on to say, "His master came from the South to claim him as his property. Old Grimes heard and was at once a fugitive and his barbershop trade a ruin. He was returned at last but was never, after this, his former self. "

And then further on, it says, "He settled down into a quiet daily circuit of the thoroughfares of the city in quest of cold bits and happiness, on communion Sundays, visiting the churches where the best wine was to be procured and partaking of the sacrament."

First of all, he must've really made a name for himself to get an obituary.


GROSS: Not everybody gets an obituary. And the obituary says all Yale patronized him. Thousands of graduates knew him. What do you make of this? And on communion Sundays he visits the churches...

MASON: Right.

GROSS: ...Where the best wine was to be procured and partakes of the sacrament. Does that mean that he was an alcoholic and the only way he could can get wine was going to the...

MASON: (Laughter).

GROSS: I don't know what to make of that.

MASON: I don't know what to make of that either. But at that point in time in our country, alcohol was a huge problem in America. Keep in mind when that obituary was written, William Grimes was in his 80s. Some records of him show him being 91 years of age, so he was definitely an old man with a legacy in New Haven, where everybody did know him. He did make a name for himself. There's no question about it. But at the same time, he's trying to survive. He's poor. He's destitute. He has nothing.

GROSS: And there's no government assistance for him.

MASON: Absolutely. That was my next thing. There's no government assistance.

GROSS: Now that you know who your great-great-great-grandfather's father was - and that father was a plantation owner, although it was - he did not own the plantation where your great-great-great-grandfather lived, what have you done to try to understand more about that white plantation owner who is, you know, a part of your family tree? Have you met any of his descendants? Do they know about the slave narrative and about the man who wrote it being part of their family tree?

MASON: Yes. I am in communication with a few people that have sought me out after seeing the book, reading the book and praising the research that I've done and also, at the same time, apologizing for a terrible time in America and that their ancestors were participants of. So that has been beautiful because we can talk, and there is that dialogue.

I might add that these are not direct descendants to Benjamin Grymes, but they're certainly related. There was a time in the year 2000 when I went back to the Eagle's Nest plantation, wanting to bring home this story to the region that I was not widely accepted. In fact, doors closed, and I never really met with anyone, except for the fact that I was told that I was awkwardly related to half of the board members in the area. But things have changed. Things are changing with a new generation of people who don't mind talking about it, and I think that's a beautiful thing.

GROSS: What has it done to your sense of identity to have succeeded in finding out so much about your ancestors?

MASON: There are a few virtues that have been extended on to me. Perseverance is one, and I learned that for my William Grimes. For him to persevere throughout his life, to have an ambition to write this story, to not know exactly how to do it, where to take it and all this and that, but he was able to do it. He gave me the confidence to realize that I could annotate his narrative, that I could, myself, be a writer. So, when you know where you came from and you see these virtues or traits in your family tree, by extension, they fortify you and make you whole. And that is so empowering.

GROSS: So we're broadcasting this interview on Martin Luther King Day. Any reflections on Martin Luther King Day, a day when we think about King and the civil rights movement that he led?

MASON: Well, what comes to mind for me is this. Dr. King's dream - "I Have A Dream," and he talks about how he would love to see the day when the descendants of slave owners and those that were enslaved come together and talk about it. He talks about sitting down at the table of brotherhood and all of us, in my mind, sharing, with empathy, each other's struggle and then understanding, in the struggle, what our commonalities are and how we can move forward in building the true ideal of America.

GROSS: Regina Mason, thank you so much for talking with us.

MASON: It has been such a pleasure. Thank you, Terry, so much.

GROSS: Regina Mason co-edited the Oxford University Press edition of her great-great-great-grandfather William Grimes's slave narrative, which was first published in 1825. She's now completing a documentary about her genealogical search and the life of William Grimes.

After we take a short break, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will review two reissues of cross-cultural rarities. This is FRESH AIR.

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