Lisa A. Lindsay: The “Truth” Behind Our Ancestors

cover art for atlantic bonds by lisa lindsayToday we welcome a guest post by Lisa A. Lindsay, author of Atlantic Bonds: A Nineteenth-Century Odyssey from America to Africa. A decade before the American Civil War, James Churchwill Vaughan (1828–1893) set out to fulfill his formerly enslaved father’s dying wish that he should leave America to start a new life in Africa. Over the next forty years, Vaughan was taken captive, fought in African wars, built and rebuilt a livelihood, and led a revolt against white racism, finally becoming a successful merchant and the founder of a wealthy, educated, and politically active family. Tracing Vaughan’s journey from South Carolina to Liberia to several parts of Yorubaland (present-day southwestern Nigeria), Lisa Lindsay documents this “free” man’s struggle to find economic and political autonomy in an era when freedom was not clear and unhindered anywhere for people of African descent.

In today’s post Lindsay explores the human tendency to shape our ancestors into who we need them to be.  

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Forty years ago CBS aired the miniseries Roots, based on Alex Haley’s 1976 bestseller in which he traced his own ancestors back to West Africa, followed them to the United States as slaves, and took them forward into freedom. For the first time, a massive audience—roughly half the country’s population—confronted slavery and its legacies through an African American perspective. Roots prompted Americans to search out their own ancestors, particularly in subsequent years as digitization and personal computing brought resources to searchers’ fingertips. Now genealogy’s popularity—attested by the success of ancestry.com and the television show Who Do You Think You Are—makes it tempting to forget that we often shape our ancestors ourselves, even at the expense of historical evidence. Professional historians, in fact, were quick to point out fictions within Roots, a charge Haley accepted by originally calling his book a work of “faction.” I (re)learned this lesson about historical memory myself when it almost derailed the project that became my book, Atlantic Bonds.

I first learned about James Churchwill Vaughan (1828-1893), the subject of my book, in part through a story that had originally been published in Ebony magazine in 1975, just as excitement was gathering around Roots. “The Vaughan Family: A Tale of Two Continents” told of Scipio Vaughan, a Yoruba man from today’s Nigeria who was captured in the slave trade and spent most of his life in South Carolina. On his deathbed, he urged his children to return to his African homeland. Eventually his son James Churchwill (Church) did. Amazingly, he recognized his father’s country marks on the faces of the people he encountered in Yorubaland, confirming that he had reached the land of his ancestors. (Country marks were ritually cut facial scars that designated communities of origin in parts of Africa.) Church married and founded a family in Yorubaland, but he stayed in touch with his relatives in the United States, and their connections endured through generations. The 1975 Ebony story pictured Vaughan descendants in Africa and America who corresponded, visited, and held reunions with one another. “We were two steps ahead of Alex Haley,” a twenty-six-year-old American Vaughan relative told a reporter in 1982. “When I was in college and everyone was talking about ‘Roots,’ I showed people an article about our family in Ebony magazine. They were all so impressed.”

I was utterly intrigued when I encountered this story—and then devastated when my research determined that key parts of it, like Haley’s Roots, were inventions. Church Vaughan’s father had been born in Virginia, not West Africa, so he could not have had Yoruba facial scars. In some ways, this made Church’s accomplishments in Yorubaland even more significant, however, because he arrived there as a complete outsider. James Churchwill Vaughan’s odyssey in America and Africa—detailed in my book—shows ultimate success in the face of slavery, warfare, colonialism, white supremacy, and a host of more quotidian obstacles. His story also demonstrates how a worldview that transcended national borders and fixed identities could be a resource for survival. And as I learned by tracing the origins of the story about his father Scipio’s alleged country marks, the way Church Vaughan was later remembered, even though it was not literally true, reveals the circumstances and outlooks of his descendants on two continents.

The story emerged in the United States in the 1960s, in two separate written versions. Both of these, in turn, can be traced back to a remarkable visit by Vaughan’s Nigerian daughter to her American cousins in 1925. At that point, Aida Arabella Vaughan Moore was wealthy and cultured, married to a barrister who had recently been elected to political office in Lagos. While some of her American cousins were prospering after migrating north, they as well as the more embattled ones she visited in South Carolina faced a relentless environment of white supremacy, including a rash of deadly “race riots” early in the decade that touched some of them personally. I surmise that Mrs. Moore told American relatives that their common grandfather, Scipio Vaughan, had been a Yoruba man in order to express solidarity across their different circumstances. After that, the story took on a life of its own.

A couple of years ago, I traveled with some relatives to places in Louisiana and Mississippi where our ancestors had lived. I had done my research ahead of time and endured a plantation tour, full of attention to the antiques inside, while preoccupied with the enslaved people I knew had worked there. I perked up in the home of a different ancestor, a Spanish merchant, who had once displayed an elephant as a curiosity. Later with friends, I highlighted his story, with its global connections and humorous details, rather than the ones about slaveholding. In this, I was not unlike Alex Haley, the Vaughans, and other people who attend to their forebears. Selecting from available material, we make of our ancestors what we appreciate or crave in our own times. This, more than anything, is what keeps them alive.

Lisa A. Lindsay, author of Atlantic Bonds: A Nineteenth-Century Odyssey from America to Africa,is a Bowman and Gordon Gray Distinguished Term associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.