I wrote this piece exactly five years ago today. I have grown as a genealogist and parent, but I notice the world is yet struggling. I will still move forward as a person of color living by and sharing the things I continue to hold true.
The world is in commotion everywhere you turn. That is a given, but the question is "What responsibility as a genealogist do I have in what I do and say?" I certainly do not think remaining silent is an option. In many respects, I feel that I have been prepared for this day and for the current battles. Through the research of my family, I have learned we find success if we can unite around true principles. Differences will melt away as we cease to judge people by outward appearances and stop placing people in categories where we expect them to behave or think a certain way. You see mostly what you look for.
Gloria Foster and sister, Robin Foster at grandparents home in Yellow Springs, Ohio.
The most common way I find common ground with people is by noticing the love they have for their family. Although my parents did not make negative impressions upon me when I grew up, I am fortunate to have learned principles about people of different colors.
I remember people always mistaking her for being Caucasian. There is something about my mother. She is strong about not being mistaken for being anything other than African American. She has always served everyone no matter what color they were. She was always very concerned that she was placed in schools where she could also teach people of color. When she was going to be placed in a different school district after segregation, she insisted that she remain where she was and be allowed to teach people of color.
My mother was born in South Carolina where I am sure she was exposed to issues at the onset of the Civil Rights era. She also experienced segregated restaurants, drinking fountains, and the like in Illinois. She tells those stories in a matter-of-fact way, not negatively. I was much more lighter skinned than my dad. I believed she wanted me never to judge people with darker complexions when she said: "When I looked for someone to marry, I knew I wanted to find a person with a dark complexion. Your dad was the smartest person of all the people that I knew." I would lay on my mother's breast or sit at her feet to be near her. When I went to school, I would try to remember the scent of her makeup or perfume until I could return home again at the end of the day. After she had my brother and would go off to help him fall asleep during nap time, it seemed I would have to wait for an eternity for her to return. She was my first teacher. I thank my mother for teaching me not to treat people with darker skin any differently than I would treat her.
I know my dad never took a handout. He thought they were a trap to steal your agency. He taught me never to ask anyone for anything. "If you cannot get it yourself, do without," he said. He shunned laziness, and he taught me against borrowing from banks, credit cards, and getting in debt. I think he was as much against those things as anyone would be against murder itself.
Robert Foster (1938-1988)
He would sit down and give me problems to solve such as, "If you get a loan for (dollar amount), in 30 years, how much interest would you have paid?" Needless to say, dad built every home we lived in from as far back as I can recall. He purchased everything with cash. I only saw him get a loan once, and it was for a brand new red Thunderbird. He paid cash for half of it. My dad was a mathematical statistician, and later he followed his dream of business ownership and became a builder. I used to wish I was a boy so that I could go to work with him. He taught me how to sacrifice to reap the blessings that are worthwhile to me. Even though he met many challenges based on the color of his skin, he never taught me to hate. He taught me to love my country and my fellow man. He taught me to treat people well, or it would come back around to visit me. He sent me to the best schools, and he taught me that only principles like work would bring me success...not color or status. I never remember a day in my life where my family did not have all that we needed. We were taught not to be flaunting or frivolous. One day, I was doing my nails (remember the press on nails?). Dad came home and saw me and said, "You know that you do not need all that, right?" He was trying to tell me that I was beautiful without having to apply accessories. He loved my natural beauty. That made a big impact on me in my teenage years. One of the things that influenced me the most was when my father told me that in his profession he had worked with colleagues from Princeton, Harvard, and Yale, and he could interact with them in the workplace on the same level. He taught me that if I applied myself, I could do anything. He said, "There is no such thing as you can't. Never say the word can't in this house."
My Way My parents did not let their struggles in any way dim the belief that people are all children of God. Some act out at times, but goodwill can conquer all. Today when I am exposed to slurs or narrowminded thinking, I do not turn away in disgust. I immediately look for an opportunity to teach and to help people have an experience they may never have had with a person of color. I am usually successful focusing on the principles taught by my parents which luckily so far resonate in the hearts of many people I have met. I believe my parents were inspired by God to prepare me for this day. What they taught me about color has helped me not only to not have feelings of inferiority but also to have acceptance for people of every color. I believe a society can stand only so much stress before things begin to burst open. I have had many occasions to sit down with people whose ancestors owned enslaved people. They have researched for years. They come to me very frustrated. In the process of identifying African American ancestors, I have run across resources to document their ancestors too. Some have been a little apologetic or embarrassed to have me be the one to help them. I immediately work to ease them and show my sincerity to help. I have gained close friends through these experiences. I have even in the thrill of the hunt felt their ancestors' gratitude, because there is a great purpose in helping people learn about their progenitors. I truly can sense relief on my part especially. I truly believe acts of kindness help to relieve the tensions people feel. That probably is a very controversial idea in today's society, but it has been tried and proven. Let me tell you, this has been the quickest and most genuine way I know to bond with people of all colors. I cherish the experience of watching people's attitudes change and light come into their countenances right before my eyes. I am grateful for the abilities that I have to do this work. I hope in some small way, I make a difference in my corner of the world. All of us who possess these abilities have a great power to bring about change in people. I know that we can find ways to apply these principles in a way that heals the great divide. I pray we all will sincerely work to put that power to use. My Research I have never limited my research to basic documentation. I have tried to do my best to study resources that would reveal more about who they were, what they were like, and challenges they faced in their day. Now that I have delved deep into history, I feel responsible to help others understand the insights I have gained in a responsible way. I felt prompted a while ago to just teach about the misconceptions surrounding color that were taught during the lifetime of my ancestors. There were too many, and I was under the impression that the beliefs could not possibly be held on a wide scale today. I was wrong because now when I look at the news and engage in some conversations, I realize these same falsehoods or their derivatives are being perpetuated widely today. Now for the benefit of those who are interested but most importantly for my posterity, I will explain what I have learned with the hope that we can avoid being influenced or adopting beliefs about color that are not true. It would be most unfortunate for my future descendants to look back one day and not be able to distinguish the truth or worse yet, not find any evidence that I brought forth truth. The purpose of this is not to incite anyone or entertain arguments. I think the greatest response to this effort would be to research and provide actual examples in ancestral research which would help to reveal truths regarding struggles overcome or true character revealed as I will continue to do. A Few Misconceptions: 1. After Emancipation and beyond, people of color in America were seen as a threat to those who felt they had more of a right to citizenship. Even in this 1927 Time Magazine article, Crawford Allen and his family who were sold for $20 in Fluker, Louisiana were referred to as aliens.
2. Enslavement was good in that it kept people of color in line. Much Reconstruction Era literature is replete with the idea that the newly freed people were prone to become criminals. The book cited below is entitled Civil War and Reconstruction in Alabama:
3. Much Antebellum literature professes the belief that the African slaves did not have the intelligence to understand the concepts of freedom or even desired freedom over enslavement, however, there are many examples where people attempted to rebel or escape. See "Freedom?" on the bottom of page 207 of Slaving and Slaving in African History.
4. Another falsehood that I came across in Reconstruction literature was the belief that people of African descent were lazy. I am very fortunate that what I have learned from researching the lives of my ancestors speaks to the contrary. An example can be found in the text of Christian Reconstruction in the South:
In the research of my own ancestral lines so far, I have yet to discover people who did not pursue what they believed was the American dream. I have yet to find people who did not serve their community or profess Christian beliefs. I have yet to find any who did not value education nor instill that value in their children notwithstanding great challenges. I believe these qualities were manifested before Emancipation in any way they could be. This is based on the evidence of their lives documented during the years just after enslavement ended. I believe other families like this existed. Their's are the stories we need to hear, and that is up to you!