A Journalist's Archive

From Whence They Came
Caron Barton Allen
Reviewed by Kathy Hare

In 1984 Caron Barton Allen made a promise to her great-grandfather, John Burdette.  “Promise me you gone tell da ones to come. Long as we keep tellin’ it, we keep it alive. Dey gotta know who dey are,” he implored. He passed his family’s rich oral history on to three generations. Now it was Allen’s turn to make sure the legacy of Eular Beady, a slave on a Virginia Plantation in 1857, would be permanently laced into the moral fabric of Allen’s descendents. “From Whence They Came” fulfilled Allen’s promise and accomplished a lot more.

“It’s family that sustains us through all of life’s trials and tribulations,” Allen said. Eular’s story teaches the importance of loving each child, “regardless of the circumstances of their conception.”  But I found that “From Whence They Came,” also gives readers an honest view of a shameful part of American history that didn’t end with the Civil War. Its strong central message, combined with the impact racial discrimination had on one particular African-American family, makes this book more than a genealogy record. It allows readers to stand in another family’s shoes and view history from their perspective.

Allen, who spent her childhood in Georgia, now resides in Falcon with her husband Henry. She spent the last 28 years in law enforcement and holds a Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice from The University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. She is currently involved in numerous programs designed to help youths develop productive lifestyles. And she taught courses at UCCS that examined “the effects of race and class at every level within the criminal justice system.”

The genealogy begins when Eular is about 20 years old. She is the property of Master Beady, owner of a tobacco plantation in southwestern Virginia. She is pregnant with her third child. Her first two children were fathered by Caesar, a slave whose offspring “fetched top dollar on the auction block.” When the children were about two years old, they were taken from their mother and sold to a plantation owner in Georgia. But Eular’s third child was not Caesar’s; this pregnancy was the result of being repeatedly raped by Master Beady.

Using the oral history handed down to her, Allen records the emotional state of Eular during the pregnancy and birth of her third child, Jane. It’s not difficult to imagine Eular’s fear. How will the Mistress Beady react to the birth of her husband’s illegitimate child? Will the master treat this infant differently than any other slave?  And, most importantly, would this child be ripped from Eular’s arms too?

After emancipation, most of Beady’s slaves head north in search of a better life. But Eular takes her mixed-race child and walks south to Newnan, Georgia, in search of the two daughters taken from her years before. Many people tell her she is on a “fool’s mission.” She only has Beady’s word for her children’s whereabouts. He may be lying or the children may have been resold to other plantation owners over the years.

It’s difficult to imagine the hardships of such a journey.  Try walking from Virginia to Georgia today even with all the modern conveniences along the way. Now put yourself in 1865. The south is in chaos, lawlessness is rampant, and food supplies are limited. But with the help of strangers, both black and white, Eular and Jane reached Newnan.

Eular’s search would continue for the rest of her life. While doing so, she manages to make a decent living by taking in laundry, earning enough money to send Jane to one of the first “colored” schools to open in Georgia. Unfortunately, she never finds her other daughters. But her journey established a lasting legacy; the love she displayed for her children and grandchildren helped sustain her descendents for generations. Allen said, “Whenever I’m struggling with a problem, I think about what Eular went through, and my difficulties look trivial.”

Allen works her way through each generation. When Alexander Burdette married Jane in 1882, she was a widow with six children. It’s not clear how she came to own 12 acres and a house, but Burdette and Jane went on to have six more children, raising the entire dozen on food produced on their farm. Recording personal family experiences in their historical context, Allen retells the story of her maternal lineage right up to the present. It’s a story of courage, a story of people battling for acceptance. But these are not fictional characters, like all humans they make good and bad choices.

I have to admit, that like many other white Americans, I’ve wondered why after 146 years so many African-Americans still seem to be fixated on the slavery issue.  Allen’s frank discussion in both the prologue and introduction addresses why she believes slavery must never be forgotten. That allowed me to start viewing history through someone else’s perspective. We don’t ask Native Americans or any other nationality to forget their past. Yet we expect a group of people whose ancestors were forced to live here to get over it and move on. Allen advises African-Americans: “Do not be angry or bitter, but do not forget: for those who forget their past are destined to relive it.” But she also admonishes that slavery should never be used as an excuse to be “unproductive, unsuccessful human beings, living lives of mediocrity.”

Allen’s writing style is free-flowing and enjoyable to read. In the second half of “From Whence They Came,” she gives examples of how “Jim Crow” laws affected family members, and touches on the problem of teenage pregnancies while recounting the circumstances of her own birth and that of her children. I found the switch between Eular’s story and Allen’s more recent genealogy a little rough at first. But the family photographs in the middle of the book helped the transition by allowing readers to put names and faces together. By the end of the book I wanted to know more about Caron Barton Allen herself, because she too has made an epic journey.

But in a phone interview, Allen said, “I didn’t want this book to be about me, I wanted it be about Eular’s message.” Fair enough. “From Whence They Came,” is a promise completed, with a message all should heed.

First published in The New Falcon Herald
Article Copyright © 2009 Bluestack Consulting, Inc.
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