What can you tell me about your great-great-great grandfather? I can tell you very little about mine. He most likely lived during a time when slave trading was legal and operative. It did not end officially until 1807. He may have been among the last batches of slaves who survived the middle passage. The grandfather of Jacob David Hill, my great-great-great grandfather, was almost certainly grouped with a generation of native Africans, transported as human cargo across the Atlantic Ocean to an awaiting slave market. These ancestors of mine are without names, faces, and voices. Who they really were lies silent in the historical memory of my ancestral legacy. This silence, notwithstanding, I am hopeful that the AncestryDNA Cultural Legacy Project will in some way connect me to my ancestors by confirming the geographical region and/or country of origin I may have come from. I presume that region to be West Africa.

I may never know if Jacob David Hill knew his father or grandfather. Nonetheless, I find myself self-amused with imaginative speculations about the physical features of my presumed African ancestors. By what names were they called? What languages were spoken, music and art expressed, religions/world views preferred, foods ingested, kinds of attire worn, rituals practiced, traditions valued, loyalties respected, relationships engendered, and what were the other aspects of daily and cyclical life?

It’s fascinating to think that I could have been born in a different century and country, socialized to think and behave according the sophisticated primitivism of an African culture. My great grandfather, Jacob David Hill lived in an era in which oral histories of his father and grandfather should have been commonly rehearsed and passed on to him, and thereby preserved for me. Unfortunately, the slave trade and the de-Africanization of the “invisible institution” severely crippled this ancestral tradition, as well as, significantly changed the trajectory of life for my ancestors. The existential realities, of slave life, furthermore, placed my ancestors in a socio-historical context, the predominant concern of which, no doubt, was for survival and safety. Any serious concern, then, for leaving a documented legacy for me to inherit would have been antithetical to the internalized paradigm that shaped the slave life they lived. Such documentation would evince an ability to read and write which in most cases could have resulted in severe punishment. Even though much good could have also been documented, families were more likely to hide secrets, bury memories, hush the mention of unspeakable events, however true, rather than document family and communal dysfunction that came alone with the celebrated aspect of life. In doing so, however, gaps and silences in ancestral histories were created. I am grateful that my mother, now age 90, is willing to “tell all,” the good and the shameful, giving me the option to document all, but to choose what to disseminate, when and how.

I have decided to capitalize on the “tell all” source of family knowledge, as well as, to break a particular kind of generational cycle – a cycle of negligence to preserve my family legacy. The research, documentation, and transmission of my family history, lacking heretofore, can begin with me. I plan by starting first with an “autobiographical memoir” of my own life. There are a number of “tell all” things I have yet to share to my own children now that they are older, the details of which I preserve for them in writing. I realize that breaking this cycle may require the introduction or reinvigoration of the value of family legacy preservation and nurturing that value until it leads to action among my own children and other family members, moving each family member to make a substantive contribution by adding new information and pictures to a collective legacy treasure box. Then, packaging and storing it so that it can be maintained and transferred as an ancestral legacy inheritance to all family members from one generation to next.

The creation of the ancestral inheritance is not enough. I must also encourage my own children to value their ancestral legacy, contribute to it, rehearse it, transmit it, and exhort their children to do the same. Each subsequent generation must follow suit. An essential component to breaking this cycle of negligence, then, is the establishment of a designated period of time for oral family history sharing, such as an ancestral legacy celebration that occurs at least annually.  This event may be included as a part of a traditional holiday celebration or exercised on another day, but exercised at least once per year.  In another blog, I intend to offer suggestions regarding what individual family members might do throughout the year in preparation for this annual day of sharing and making data deposits into a collective storage chest of some kind. I, myself, have already begun this cycle breaking process. What follows, then, is a little piece of my own family history that I might share in an upcoming ancestral legacy sharing event. I will begin by telling you a little about my great-grand father, Jacob David Hill and his second wife, Louise.

My great-grand father, Jacob David Hill was born as a slave in 1839 in the area of Scotland Neck, North Carolina. My mother recounts frequently how, as a young girl, she listened to her grand-mother talk about the former slave – how Jacob David Hill was a “house negro” responsible for taking “Missy,” the slave master’s daughter to school. Schools were built then above the ground with a crawl space beneath. While Missy attended class, Jacob David was ordered to stay under the school house to wait for the slave master’s daughter to finish school. While under the school house, Jacob David would listen to the lessons taught. Missy would rehearse the reading lessons of the day as they travelled, horse and buggy, to the plantation house. In the state of North Carolina, this was illegal. It was feared that teaching a slave to read and write would incite insurrection and rebellion.

According to the North Carolina law, “any free person, who shall hereafter teach, or attempt to teach, any slave within the State to read or write, the use of figures excepted, or shall give or sell to such slave or slaves any books or pamphlets, shall be liable to indictment in any court of record in this State having jurisdiction thereof, and upon conviction, shall, at the discretion of the court, if a white man or woman, be fined not less than one hundred dollars, nor more than two hundred dollars, or imprisoned; and if a free person of color, shall be fined, imprisoned, or whipped, at the discretion of the court, not exceeding thirty nine lashes, nor less than twenty lashes.”[1]

The legal consequences, notwithstanding, learning from under the school house and being tutored on the way home was how he learned to read the Bible and write. My family is still in possession of his Prince James (not King James) Bible. When Jacob David Hill was not driving Missy, and learning to read and write, he worked as the plantation’s butcher.

Jacob and Missy grew fond of each other. The mutual fondness and “particular familiarity” between them led to a threat on his life. He was in so much danger because of his relationship with Missy that, in running for his life, my great-grand father became a run-away slave. As it was told to my mother, by her grandmother, Jacob David Hill, hid in the woods, found housing where ever he could, and stole chickens and cows, which he butchered for his own survival. He did not run too far away from the plantation house and would readily risk his life, sneaking back to the slave quarters to bring butchered meat to family and other plantation members. As he went back and forth, Jacob David secretly continued to maintain contact with Missy even after he ran away. Even though Missy knew his whereabouts, she, for reasons still speculated by my family, would not turn him it.

The Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War 1865 opened the door for Jacob David Hill, to permanently and legally leave the plantation area. He subsequently met and married his first wife, with whom he had three children. Life as a freed man also opened the door for him to utilize his skills as a butcher. Jacob David started his own butcher shop in Scotland Neck, North Carolina and succeeded as well as a freed Negro could in the south.

My great-grand mother, Louise Trower, better known as “Grandma Ludi” was born a free women in 1864. She grew up in the Halifax County area of North Carolina and was only15 years old when she married Jacob David Hill in 1879. He was 40 years old at the time. Grandma Ludi never called her husband by his first name, “Jacob.” She always referred to him as “Mist’hill” (Mister Hill). It would be 17 years later before Mist’hill and Grandma Ludi would begin a family of their own.  In 1896, at the age of 32, Grandma Ludi and Jacob David, age 57, gave birth to their own first child Frank Solomon, my “Uncle Bubba.” Two years later, in 1898, they had another child, my grandmother, Donnie. My grandmother, known in the neighborhood as “Ms. Donnie”, hooked-up with “Mr. Johnnie” and out of the oven came my mother Henrietta born in the 1920s. My mother migrated from North Carolina to New Jersey about the same time as my dad “J.D.” migrated from South Carolina. The two met in New Jersey, got married, gave birth to me in the 1960s, and named me Timothy.

I have a unique and very interesting ancestral legacy to preserve. In documenting it, I also have the opportunity to end this cycle of negligence to preserve my ancestral heritage. Instead, I intend to begin a cycle of diligence to preserve it. Utilizing the resources of AncestryDNA, I might just be able to establish an ancestral link between my place of birth in New Jersey and some region or country in West Africa.  There is no doubt that “it’s by the sovereignty of God that I am here today.” “While in the womb, He knew my name.” “In ages past, He knew the same. [He is a] God of yesterday and tomorrow too.” These are just some of the words of the Cultural Legacy Project theme song, inspired by the narrative of my life and the lives of others. I hope you get to hear it and I invite you to follow the journey of the Ancestral Cultural Legacy Project.

[1] “Act Passed by the General Assembly of the State of North Carolina at the Session of 1830—1831” (Raleigh: 1831).