By Jim Allen, Editor, NuVoteReach
Dr. Ruby (Lonesome). Allen celebrates her Doctorate conferral in 2012, at age 79, with family members comprising four generations of descendants of 19th century marriages between enslaved Parsons, Brown, Butts and Fulford family members.
2nd set of twin Daughters of Gabriel Benson McLean (RIP) and Queen Victoria (Parsons) McLean (RIP): (R) Great Aunt Ruby Dahlia McLean (Davis)RIP and (L) My Grandmother Ruth Estelle McLean (Lonesome) RIP, circa 1970
2nd set of twin Daughters of Gabriel Benson McLean and Queen Victoria (Parsons) McLean: (L) born July 20, 1911, Great Aunt Ruby Dahlia McLean and (R) My Grandmother Ruth Estelle McLean. circa 1916
Gabriel Benson McLean’s and Queen Victoria (Parsons) McLean’s twin great-great-great grandsons Cameron and Christopher Duckworth (My niece Dana (Allen} Duckworth’s sons), circa 2009
Gabriel Benson McLean’s and Queen VIctoria (Parsons) McLean’s twin great-great-great granddaughters Ayana (RIP) and Aliyah Allen (My niece Diana Allen’s daughters), circa 2005
This almost exact face,where ever it originated. seems to have skipped a generation. On the left my nephew, David Anthony Allen Jr.(my brother’s son), circa 2010; and on the right, my uncle Andrew Louis Lonesome Jr. (RIP) my mother’s brother, circa 1952–Gabriel Benson McLean and Queen Victoria Parsons’ great-great grandson and grandson.
Grandpa Louis Andrew Lonesome Sr. (RIP) (born a Fitchett or Ficklin, raised by the Lonesome family of Caroline County, VA, who were white, pictured, circa 1930
While charting my ethnic identity, doing so especially for my children and the other young people in my family, the complexity of relationships I have uncovered created a desire in me to learn even more about myself and American history. As I offer this last chapter, I also highly recommend this type of exercise in discovery as it is both cathartic and has added rich context to my being identified as “black” in America.
The only thing that really concerns me about the label “black” is that is has no specifically distinguishable cultural grounding and can be viewed as little more than a freight label. On August 31, 1619, Virginia colonist, and its first tobacco baron, John Rolfe (also famous for marrying Native American Princess Pocahontas) bought the first recorded enslaved Africans sold in America—trading food and supplies for them with Dutch slavers at Point Comfort, Jamestown, VA., really close to my hometown of Norfolk, Virginia.
Rolfe described them in his journal (which, by the way, is available for viewing) as “negars,” from the Latin root for the word black. “…There came in a Dutch man-of-war that sold us twenty negars,” he wrote—documenting the amorphous, but culture-stripping label—which overtime morphed into the n-word.
What a can worms he opened!
Applying the freight-label “black” effectively de-ethnocized those Nigerians or Sierra Leoneans or whatever they were (and there were and are various intact West and Central-African cultures) before they became trade commodities.
To Rolfe, the Dutch slavers and the English (who took over the slave trade from the Dutch through the enactment of various Navigation Acts, which restricted the use of foreign shipping lines, beginning in 1651) they were just “blacks” and cataloged as property.
So “black” is really just too generic a label for me to strongly identify with, but it does not really bother me to be referred to as such. If someone insists on labeling me, I guess, I prefer African-American, but heaven only knows what that means, in the context of American history.
When I was child, we were called“negro” or “colored”. Colored is on my 1956-vintage, Virginia-issued birth certificate, as per the Virginia Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which divided Virginia society into two classifications, “white” and “colored,” to be recorded at birth.
The law also codified the illegality of “interracial” marriage and additionally frustrated the land-claim rights of Native Americans who, with the official “colored” designation, were unable to prove their titling rights to lands historically deeded to their ethnic groups. It stayed on the books until 1967 when it was overturned by the US Supreme Court in Loving v Virginia (that’s an interesting story, check out the background on that sometime).
At one point, in the not-to-distant past, to be called black (even within the black community) was almost as offensive as being called the “n-word,” believe it or not, and was usually not a good formula for establishing warm-and-fuzzy relationships.
I occasionally hear some of today’s journalists, perhaps out of blissful ignorance, using the phrase “…the pot calling the kettle black.” You never hear anyone say “…the chalk calling the rice white.” There is no negative cultural connotation in that assertion, as there has fundamentally been, in America, about idea of being black.
I think it’s great that, in the last few decades, the negative connotation of being designated black, in America, has mostly been erased. But boiling down a people to a “shade,” does not inform you who they are, historically, or pinpoint where they come from, any more than “negars” tells us anything of substance about the people whom Rolfe bought.
By the 1660’s, Virginia and Maryland began establishing legal distinctions between the races, instituting lifetime slavery requirements (quashing indentured servitude) and codifying the generational inheritance of slaves.
Unlike the slavery institutions, for example, in Brazil, Cuba and Haiti, the American chattel slavery institution sought to erase the ethnic identities of the enslaved Africans and their succeeding generations, and disconnected them from their tribal roots, religion and languages—save the African idioms and rhythms preserved through music and often expressed in a faith-based context—with other notable exceptions being the so-called Gullah people of South Carolina and Georgia and many Africans enslaved in French-dominated Louisiana, who more than any other groups held onto more of their African cultural identities.
Most descendants of formerly enslaved Africans in America are deemed “black” and know vaguely that they are in some measure descended from some unknown African tribe.
The American “Negro” who emerged from slavery was often a unique hybrid of ethnicities—no longer tribally connected to Africa and largely marginalized in American society. Most were uneducated or under-educated, unconnected, unacknowledged by their slave-master biological fathers (where applicable), unorganized, unwanted, abruptly unshackled from an inhuman existence and unquestionably, and an unrequited co-builder of America.
In his 30-plus year church ministry, my father (Rev. James O. Allen, Sr.) always emphasized the importance of placing the spiritual concepts and precepts of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles into the proper hermeneutical contexts, attendant to the characters or scenarios being studied. He also stressed to me the importance of knowing where you come from.
As I have outlined in previous chapters, that I am able trace my roots, on my father’s maternal side, to Sierra Leone, and on father’s paternal side, to Sussex/Essex England is rare among African Americans.
Similarly, I can trace the roots of my mother’s mother, born Ruth Estelle McLean, back to the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. My 3x great grandfather Boston Brown, a slave, born around 1824, and my 3x great grandmother Olive Butts, a slave born in 1830, both from what was then known as Norfolk County, VA, were married in 1850.
Soon after that marriage, my 3x great grandmother Olive had a son by Preston Cooper, her white “owner.” She named that child Preston Lottie Cooper and through him we share a common ancestor with a certain branch of the Cooper family of Virginia Beach, VA. There are records indicating the Cooper family came to Virginia from England beginning in 1618 and there were four notable Cooper family landings in Virginia in the 1700’s.
Also, in he late 1700’s, the children of another of my ancestors, my enslaved 4x great grandmother, whose name I have yet to uncover, were split between the Parsons Plantation and the Lamb Plantation in Princess Anne County VA, now called Virginia Beach. Thus, the Lamb and Parsons families of what was then known as the Seatack area of Virginia Beach are, in fact, one family.
One of those enslaved siblings, Sandy Parsons was my 3x great grandfather. He married my 3x great-grandmother Margaret (Fulford) Parsons and in 1844, they had a son, my 3x great grandfather Wilson Nero Parsons.
Also in 1844, Abraham Lincoln, as a “presidential elector” campaigned for Henry Clay, who made the Speaker of the US House of Representatives the position of great political power it is today. Clay later helped establish and became president of the American Colonization Society, a group that wanted to send freed Negro slaves to Africa, and that founded Monrovia and Liberia in Africa for that purpose.
In 1844, the first electrical telegram was sent via telegraph wire from Washington, DC to Baltimore, MD and James Knox Polk was elected President of the United States, on a platform of annexing Texas into the Union as a slave state. Clay and Lincoln opposed the annexing of Texas for fear of opening up the American West to slavery.
In 1852, my aforementioned 3x great grandmother Olive (Butts) Brown of the Cooper Plantation in Virginia and my 3x great grandfather Boston Brown had a daughter they named Sarah Brown who was my 2x great grandmother.
My 2x great grandfather Wilson grew into manhood as a slave during the height of the abolitionist movement and the Civil War (1861-1865). He gained his freedom during Lincoln’s presidency. The Emancipation Proclamation was issued on January 1, 1863. Lincoln was assassinated five days after the war ended on April 14, 1865.
In 1869, during the Reconstruction period (1865-1877), my 2x great grand mother Sarah Brown married my 2x great-grandfather Wilson Nero Parsons. They had 10 children, including a daughter, Queen Victoria Parsons, my great grandmother.
In the early 1900’s, my great grandmother Queen Victoria married a Methodist preacher called Gabriel Benson McLean, my great grandfather.
Note: Queen Victoria’s sister, Sarah Ann Rebecca Parsons, graduated from Hampton Institute, now Hampton University, in 1902, and is credited with founding the first schools for “Negroes” in Seatack, VA—now called Virginia Beach—in 1908. A pioneer, like her great aunt Sarah Ann Rebecca Parsons, my mother, Dr. Ruby Cleopatra (Lonesome) Allen, in 1953, became the first black music teacher in Virginia Beach City Public Schools history and in the 60’s, the first black middle school teacher in that system—mom earned her Doctorate in Music Arts from Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, VA in 2012, at age 79.)
In 1910, Madam CJ Walker (born Sarah Breedlove) moved her central hair care products operations from Pittsburgh, PA to Indianapolis, IN, then the country’s largest manufacturing base (and birthplace of the resurgent KKK), to utilize that city’s access to eight major railway systems. As a result, she became America’s first “colored,” female millionaire.
1911 was the year Pancho Villa stepped down as commander of the Mexican Revolution and Gone With The Wind’s, “I don’t know nuthin’ bout birthin’ no babies…” star, Thelma “Butterfly” McQueen, was born (By the way, by 1947, McQueen had grown tired of the ethnic stereotypes she was required to play, and thus, ended her film career).
On June 11, 1911, Marcus Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Meanwhile, my great grandparents, Rev. Gabriel Benson and Queen Victoria (Parsons) McLean became the parents of two sons and two sets of twin girls, including, on July 20, 1911, twins, Ruth Estelle McLean and Ruby Dahlia McLean. (Note: two of my brother’s (David Anthony Allen, Sr.) daughters, Diana and Dana, had sets of twins, a third daughter, Ariana, is still a minor).
Ruth Estelle McLean was my mother’s mother—my grandma Ruth.
Over her lifetime, my grandma Ruth was a church organist, deaconess, usher, a domestic for the Taggert family of Wayne, PA, governess for the Lichtenstein family of Virginia Beach, VA, a License Practical Nurse and the first African American female Matron for Women in the Virginia Beach Department of Corrections (until she was forced off the road in her car and injured, twice, reportedly, by her white colleagues).
She was a Democratic Party organizer, lifetime NAACP member, recipient of Virginia Beach Mayor’s First Citizen Award; member of the Daisy Chain Social and Savings and Charity Club; Rhoda Court #2 Heroines of Jericho; Arabia Court #23 Daughter of Isis A.E.A.O.N.M.S., Portsmouth, VA; Evening Light Chapter #48, Order of the Eastern Star, Prince Hall Affiliate, VA Beach; Pioneer Temple #1124 Order of Elks, VA Beach, VA; cat lover (Princess), avid gardener and as you might imagine, all around social butterfly. Whew!
Grandma Ruth married my grandfather Louis Andrew Lonesome Sr., born a Ficklen (or Fitchett), who was adopted and raised by the white Lonesome family of Caroline County, VA.
They had a son, Louis Andrew “Bubbie” Lonesome Jr., (RIP), but preceding him, on June 4, 1932, they had a daughter, Ruby Cleopatra Lonesome, my mother, who grew up to be a pioneering music educator and who, on December 26, 1953, married my father, radio broadcasting pioneer and pastor, Rev. James Oliver Allen Sr. (RIP). They had two sons, James O. “Jimmy” Allen Jr. (yours truly), born January 18, 1956 and David Anthony Allen, Sr., born September 29, 1961.
Grandpa Louis also for a time worked for the Taggert Family of Wayne, PA, as their butler and chauffeur. He died of spinal meningitis serving in the US Army in West Africa and was transported back to a US Army base in New Jersey, in a sealed coffin. The family assumed he was in it and buried him.
Later in life, Grandma Ruth married retired Navy Chief Petty Officer Nathaniel Kates (RIP—a Kosher chef) and died in 2006, at age 95. Her twin sister, Ruby (an educator, for whom my mother was named and modeled her career), preceded her in death by about 3 years.
It was through this process of familial discovery that I found out I had a great grandfather and a 3x great grandfather named Boston, on my father’s and mother’s sides of my family, respectively.
Thinking about them reminded me of my first trip to Boston, MA to meet my former colleagues and staffers from the America Institute of Physics at an annual physics conference. I was bumped up to first class and flew into Boston via San Francisco on Virgin Air, coming from making my semi-annual presentation to the American Physical Society Committee to Inform the Public convened in Los Angeles, CA.
As we circled in over the Atlantic Ocean toward the Boston coastline, I got all choked up, thinking of how different my first trip and view of the Boston shore was from my 4x great grandpa Cicero’s (aka John Williams), who was cited in an earlier chapter, on my dad’s mother’s side of the family. He was enslaved in Sierra Leone, West Africa, landing Boston in the belly of a slave ship, in the late 1700’s, before eventually earning enough money to buy back his freedom.
As the jet descended, my emotions shifted. I managed a smile and paid silent homage to the old African, because through him and all of my ancestors, slave and free, African, European and Native American (such as my 4x great grandmother Priscilla “Williams” a Nantucket Island, MA Native American (Cicero’s wife) and 3x great grandma Rosa Allen (Sr.), a Cherokee from Fayetteville, NC, both cited in earlier chapters), and through amazing Grace, I am here to share what I can of their stories with my family and others.
I also feel more of a sense of urgency to do my best to ensure that their lives, prayers and struggles were not in vain. Even my white 4x great grandfather Christmas (of Warrenton, NC), on my father’s father’s side, who owned my 4x great grandmother Sallie Christmas Curtis, on his plantation, is in my prayers. Just because he owned my 4x great grandmother makes him no less my 4x great grandfather.
One last story about ethnic identity: In 1980, while on vacation from my first radio job out of college at WFOG FM/WLPM AM in Suffolk, VA, desperately looking for the next break, scrambling through a string of seemingly serendipitous events and gracious gestures, with 5 minutes to spare, I ended up in the Washington,DC office of Wanda Townsend who was in charge of minority and special services for the National Association of Broadcasters. She politely informed me about the many hundreds of clients she had and that the best she could do for me on that day was to refer me to an upcoming job fair at Howard University.
As my crest was in the process of falling and my heart breaking, Ms. Townsend’s phone rang. Her assistant said it was Genevieve Glasscock (RIP) calling from WSTU-AM Radio in Stuart, FL.
She took the call while I sat quietly and listened to her side of the conversation—obviously about radio, and the person on the other end was interested in diversifying their operation (God Bless Ms. G!). “I am sorry Ms. Glasscock, the young man you’re interested in is not available and he’s not black,” said Ms. Townsend.
I am sure my eyes widened, as I began to frantically point to myself “Am I black enough?!” I whispered with intensity, still vigorously pointing to myself. Ms. Townsend smiled and continued on the call.
“There’s a young man sitting here right now who is qualified and says he’s interested, would you like to speak with him?” she asked.
Well, that phone call resulted in my very first airline flight and I landed that job in south Florida and the rest, as they say, is history. I guess I was black enough!
Since then, as trying as life can be sometimes in the course of human events, I am rarely afraid to follow my heart. And, I have finally reached the point in my life, that on my better days, I am increasingly mindful and able to point to God, rather than myself.
Today’s leaders must continue to point to the achievements of the heroic dead and be as eager to encourage their living contemporaries who are trying to make a difference—in education, self awareness, finance and faith.
What if W.E.B. Dubois and Booker T. Washington would have teamed up? There are enough opportunities for everyone to pitch in to encourage growth and development of the young people in our communities and to coalesce around the idea of arresting the pathologies we have allowed to fester around them—evolving the deliverables in the fight for so-called “racial” equality from a 1950’s and ‘60’s-won social metric to a practical, permanent and ever-growing record of academic, economic, athletic, artistic and spiritual achievement, as set in motion by our forbearers.
On the concept of equality: generally speaking, why would one expect that average children first exposed to books, on a regular basis, at age 5 would have the same educational outcomes as average children first exposed to books, on a regular basis, at age 5 months?
Speaking of books, I have recently discovered Ms. Lesley Gist, author of The Gist of Freedom—a book about faith, family and justice, as one historian who elegantly celebrates the achievements of our forefathers and mothers with equal aplomb as does she of those of her contemporaries.
And, finally, through all of this, I am convinced that there is one race—human. Otherwise, all of my ancestors of these different ethnicities would not have been able to get each other pregnant, their offspring would not be able to reproduce and I would not be here (smile)—let alone the conclusive scientific evidence which indicates someone who looks nothing like you, ethnically, could be more closely related to you, genetically, because of the thousands of markers in your DNA thread that make you who you are, only a handful determine you hair texture, skin and eye color.
You are mostly what you cannot see, just like me! And that also happens to be the essence of faith.