Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Fochia Wilson, Kentwood, LA icon, forged lasting legacy

"The life of Mrs. Fochia Varnado Wilson is to be commended by not only Kentwood, but all of humanity who lost an historian, educator, community leader, and educator,"  shared genealogist, Antoinette Harrell.  On Saturday, March 27, 2010, Ms. Harrell was instrumental in helping the community to celebrate the life of Mrs. Wilson at the Women's History Event held at the Amite Branch of the Tangipahoa Parish Library in LA.  364 days later on Saturday, March 26, 2011 Mrs. Wilson departed this life.

Screen shot of obituary of Mrs. Fochia Wilson at

The daughter of Maggie and DeWitt Varnado born on May 9, 1923, Mrs. Wilson was a Depression Era graduate of Tuskegee University.  Previously from Rose Hill, Mississippi, she was a student, Home Economics educator, and former principal of Kentwood Elementary now known as O. W. Dillon Elementary named after Oliver Wendell Dillon, former.

Read about the history of O. W. Dillon which was once "The Tangipahoa Parish Training School, founded in 1911, was the first "county training school" in the entire South." See also Oliver Wendell Dillon - The Tangipahoa Parish Training School, by the Dillon Family.  See a memorial to the late Mrs. Verde Powell Dillon, wife of Oliver Wendell Dillon written by Mrs. Wilson while principal of Kentwood Elementary.

Mrs. Wilson was the first in her family to go to college.  She spoke of the excitement in her family about preparing to go to Tuskegee University in Alabama (formerly Tuskegee Institute:

All that spring, Mama was talking about Tuskegee, and I was talking about Tuskegee. And there was a period of time that they weren’t talking about Tuskegee too much. But I never gave up. . . . My daddy said, "Well, I’m going to put in more cotton, and I’m going to plant an extra couple acres. Whatever that yield, we’re going to use that money for going to school." One day my daddy came home with a trunk. And I knew then he had faith enough to know that I was going to be able to go to college. And then the university had sent an itemized list of things that you were to bring--galoshes, umbrellas--I never had seen galoshes before! My daddy had gone and bought galoshes for me and brought them back. I was the first one in my family to go to college. When he brought the galoshes, I don’t think I slept the whole week. I was so proud of my galoshes. And I studied my list and my checkoff. Whatever he get, I put it in that trunk.
Louisiana Voices--Fochia Wilson, Tangipahoa Parish
Mrs. Wilson later studied at Columbia University and received her Masters in Education degree from Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  

The following is a article telling about the 2007 O.W. Dillion High School Class of 1956 Reunion  from the African-American News and Issues Volume 12, Issue 2, (, TEXAS’ Widest Circulated and Read Newspaper with a Black Perspective.  The article written by Ms. Bianca Bless includes a photo of the class of 1956 and a more recent photo including teacher, Mary Tuffley Smith-teacher, and Fochia V. Wilson-principal:

Screen shot of 2007 O.W. Dillion High School Class of 1956 Reunion article
 More news of Mrs. Wilson' achievements from Kentwood Ledger clippings:
As a high school teacher, she taught food and sewing classes, sponsored clubs and student trips for many years.  After teaching numerous girls to be “young ladies”. In  1973 she was appointed as principal of Kentwood Elementary School, formerly Dillon Memorial High School.  She was honored as “Principal of the Year”.  She also served as a member of the Tangipahoa Parish Library, The Southeaster Louisiana Reading Council. 

Mrs. Wilson almost single-handedly raised money to pay for the computerization of the Kentwood Elementary Library. She is extremely supportative of any program, which will help educate the children in her charge and give them a better start in life.

“ I am a firm believer that schools exist for pupils; therefore, I envision my task as principal to offer the best possible environment conductive to learning. It is my belief that the school library should foster the enrichment of children’s lives-intellectually, personally, socially and culturally through reading and other activities of the library said Mrs. Wilson.

Mrs. Wilson has been a pioneer in many programs, which emphasize reading and the use of the library. Kentwood Elementary School became the first automated library in Tangipahoa Parish and it serves as a model for all other libraries in the parish. 

Because of Mrs. Wilson’s commitment, the Kentwood Elementary library is utilized to the maximum and provides unlimited service to its patrons.

Mrs. Fochia Varnado Wilson, former Principal of Kentwood Elementary School, was initiated into the Southeast Louisiana Chapter of Phi Delta Kappa on January 23, 1992.

(Extracts from Kentwood News Ledger clippings)

Success with Sweet Home

Mrs. Wilson was the founder and curator of Sweet Home African American History Museum and coordinated the Sweet Home Folk Life Days Festival.  It was through the pioneering efforts of Mrs. Fochia Wilson  that the Sweet Home community became open to preserving and sharing their heritage.

Sweet Home African American History Museum, Mrs. Portia Wilson.  Photographer, Walter C. Black, Sr.

“The key to the African American community was placing the project leadership in the hands of Ms. Fochia. When she is in charge, the information floodgates open. Through both earned trust and gained respect, the African American community of Sweet Home cracked the window and let us in,” explains Sharon Calcote, Louisiana Office of Tourism.  See Sweet Home Folklife Days.
“We were told we were unique. We didn’t know we were unique,” explains Ms. Fochia Varnado Wilson, a former school principal who is the Sweet Home Museum curator and a respected community matriarch. “We were ashamed that we were brought up the way we were. We were embarrassed because we were poor. Then we learned that these things—the things we know—and the things we do—are special. And we want to pass them on to our younger generations so they don’t die out with us.” Sweet Home Folklife Days.
"We lost a jewel.  Mrs. Fochia Wilson had a tremendous passion for reading.  She knew her ancestors had been deprived and she new the importance of not only reading but also recording your history through writing.  I did not have the pleasure of being taught by her, but I have met many who love and respect her.  She helped to change so many lives."

"The people of Kentwood do not disconnect from the appreciating their elders.  They do not forget poineers like Mrs. Fochia Wilson nor from whence they have come.  Until the day she died, she was still working in the vineyard.  I have met so many historians in the past three years of my life, and they have taught me so much.  We must continue to uplift, embrace, and carry on  the legacy of Mrs.Wilson," said Antoinette Harrell who believes that we need more special collections to preserve the history hidden in dusty attics, barns, and basements.

 More links

Photo of Mrs. Wilson at Kentwood Ledger on Facebook 

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Friday, March 25, 2011

Are we neglecting the land?

Some collect death certificates, census records, and marriage certificates, compile a history, place it on a shelf and assume they have completed their genealogy.  At the same time, the family homestead is sitting dilapidated with weeds growing up around and no one left who feels a connection to the land or legacy left by ancestors.  Little do they realize they are neglecting a source of economic freedom which probably has their ancestors turning over in their graves.

Genealogist, Antoinette Harrell, proclaims that genealogy is not a hobby.  Her own knowledge of the purpose and struggle of African Americans to realize the dream of independence and freedom comes down to her from the examples set by her own ancestors who obtained and held on to land.

In 1803, the slave owner, "Old Fat" Levi Harrell and his son, Hezekiah, migrated from Darlington, SC to Georgia bringing the father of Robert Harrell with them.  He moved to Amite, Louisiana, and then to East Feliciana Parish, Louisiana.  Antointette's 2nd great grandfather,  Robert Harrell (Dinah Robertson), purchased 200 acres of land in 1888 after sharecropping a short time.  He could neither read nor write.  He signed his name with an "X."

"Robert had a vision for his offspring, said Antoinette, "He wanted his family to own their own land.  Most people in rural areas believed in owning land.  Robert saved money and worked hard farming.  In his wisdom, he knew the land would provide food, a place to build homes, and help them keep some level of independence."

Antoinette standing on the land that her great grandmother Emma Mead Harrell purchased in 1902 & 1904.
Photograph by Walter C. Black, Sr.
"Sometimes family members move from the South to the East coast or West Coast. Some went to other urban cities  They neglected the land.  They did not help to pay taxes, and when they come back after retiring, they have no land or property left for which to return," said Antoinette.  She also informed me that the 1997 Agricultural Census showed 16,560 black owned and operated farms existed totaling 1.49 million acres.  That is down from the 15 million acres of land they owned in 1920.
Also according to a report by the Southern Cooperatives Land Assistance Fund, the leading causes of loss of land and property are:

1.  Heir property ownership
2.  Heirs do not know one another
3.  Heirs do not have a connection to the land
4.  Lack of estate planning
5.  Tax sales
6.  Partition sales
7.  Voluntary sales
8.  Inaccessibility to legal counsel

"Heirs do not live on or near the land.  Business matters are not discussed within the family.  If you had ten children, seven would leave and never come back.  Genealogy is more than researching.  It involves estate planning.  Young people should be taught to be mortgage-free which would keep free a large portion of their income,"  explained Antoinette.
Alexander Harrell (1821-1921), shared by Antoinette Harrell

Robert Harrell, son Alexander Harrell was born on December 24, 1821 and died December 12, 1921. Alexander and Emma Mead Harrell had ten children.  Two were Jasper and Palmer Harrell.   Antoinette's grandfather, Jasper Harrell and his brother, had a connection to another piece of land purchased by Emma Mead Harrell between 1902 and 1904 which has been in the family for 106 years.  He farmed, and cultivated the land. He took care of the family "cemetery and made the headstones for the graves for his parents, grandparents, and brothers."  He was one of ten children.  Eight left and went North.  Jasper and his brother, Palmer, were the only two who remained connected to the land.  In other words, the others just gave up their inheritance.

Jasper Harrell, Sr, shared by Antoinette
Palmer Harrell, shared by Antoinette Harrell

"When we give up our inheritance, we have nothing to pass down to our children.  Most are tired and do not want to keep up the hard toil of picking cotton or cultivating the land.  Those who stayed connected to the land are able to send children to college.  Most people in rural areas have a large percentage of young black children who attend college."

"The people in the South find it much cheaper to send their children to college because they maintain a greater portion of money. Most build homes, can, own water wells, own their homes free and clear," said Antoinette, "Most blacks owned land in the South.  I had a clear understanding about land in the family.  My mother and cousin, Arthur Harrell talked about the land. I lived on the land.  I had a connection to it.  Other cousins were called "city children,"  said Antoinette.

Harrell brothers, shared by Antoinette Harrell

The "city children" did not share the same connection to the land. They found their visits to the South boring with nothing to do, hot, and they thought it was too dark.  Some left and never returned to the homestead. Antoinette grew up with a fishing pond, trees, berries, lemons, walnut trees, herbs, spring water, fresh vegetables like juicy tomatoes, and more.  She never had to go inside for lunch. She could pick up the things that grew freely outdoors like fresh cucumbers.  "We learned in the South to enjoy vegetables because that is all we had," she said.

"The goal is to learn about family assets as well as family history.  Take a royal family for example.  A child born into a royal family becomes educated because it becomes mandatory that that child learns how to protect what that child has when he or she child grows older.  Genealogy is a necessary tool for ensuring family economic development.  We need to empower children with economic freedom,"  explained Antoinette.

Some things we need to do to according to Antoinette are:

  • educate children about land and property owned in the family
  • take children on a tour of the land
  • teach children about homestead exemption
  • collect oral history about the land, location, who purchased, how it was lost
  • start a family dialog about the status of the land (upkeep, caretaker)
  • set up a will
  • obtain legal service to clear or confirm title in the family group
"When someone dies in a family, we will not open up a succession.  More people die. Then one dies, and another dies.  After a twenty year span, fifteen people have died.  You cannot become the rightful heir until you have opened up a succession to become an heir. What does genealogy mean to me?  Empowering myself and my family by putting my family business in order," said Antoinette.

Antoinette also raises a very valid question which she has not found the answer to yet: " How were people who had between a 3rd grade and 6th grade education able to maintain more freedom, were entrepreneurs, and had so much common sense?  She also wonders:  How did so many people with so much more education, master's and doctorate's, lose so much land?  "I have not found the answer yet," she says, "We should analyze what we are doing. There is a great migration moving back.  We should never be disconnected from the place we know we will return."

"We can go off from these places, but don't let the property run down.  On my recent road trip, I saw too many abandoned houses that could give someone a place to stay or rent for college.  We are dishonoring ancestors who worked hard.  We trade in these homes for a three or four thousand square foot home that we cannot afford and end up losing."

"I am really grateful to those Harrell men, my grandfather, Jasper Harrell, great grandfather Alexander Harrell, and 2 great grandfather Robert Harrell.  I am grateful to my great grandmother Emma Mead Harrell who purchased land that is still in the family.  Genealogy is not a hobby.  It is a necessity."

"I am hoping with your help (Robin Foster) and this educational blog that you are writing that when people gather for the family reunion they will add discussing the land to the agenda.  Our ancestors believed three things:  1.  Own your own land, 2. Build your own home, 3. Have a family cemetery.  Everyone was not buried in the church cemetery. Some were buried on their own land," shared Antoinette.

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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Ruby Wheat Daniel (1928-1991) carried on the legacy instilled by her mother, Mandy Jones Wheat (1892-1977)

Ruby Daniel (1928-1991), shared by Michael Daniel
Ruby Wheat Daniel (1928-1991) was the youngest daughter of Mandy and Bass Wheat.  She and her husband Isaiah Daniel, Sr. had two sons.  Ruby taught her mother to read and write.  Mandy accomplished a lot as an African American female, farmer, midwife, herbalist, and healer considering the location where she lived in the South and the time period.

No doubt, Ruby, seeing these great achievements wrought out by her mother saw the importance of passing her mother's legacy on to future generations.  Ruby taught Mandy to read according to her son, Michael Daniel, who said his mother stressed that Mandy was a "shining example especially of African American independence."  She owned her own land.  She did not have to sharecrop.  She could work for herself.  "Don't ever sell the land," Ruby cautioned.

Ruby insisted that they preserve the family artifacts and keep the family legacy.  Mandy, only one generation from slavery, had started a legacy for her posterity by teaching them to be self-sufficient.  Ruby, mother of two sons, kept this legacy going by instilling the importance of getting an education and learning to appreciate black history and culture.
Ruby Daniel (1928-1991), shared by Michael Daniel

"Ruby taught her children the importance of preserving family artifacts, holding on to the land, and keeping the way of life taught by her mother.  She also prepared her sons to embrace modern-day advancements," said genealogist, Antoinette Harrell.

If you recall, I recently shared an article introducing Mandy Jones Wheat (1892-1977).  The last couple of days, Antoinette has been busy working with Mandy's grandson, Michael, unearthing family artifacts in Mandy's old shed.  "There is a close relationship between archaeology and genealogy.  An archaeologist's studies are partly based on artifacts.  A genealogist traces a family line using oral history, historical documentation, and other records," said Antoinette.

Artifacts need to be considered along with the records a genealogist uses to learn about a family's history.  "The type of house, everyday tools, type of materials, and way of life can  provide great insights about an ancestor.  For example, today's coffee pot would look much different than the percolator used long ago."

"Some of our ancestors were determined early on to pull themselves up by their bootstraps--some even without their bootstraps.  If they had a feather mattress instead of a mattress or pillow stuffed with hay or Spanish moss, you know they had accomplished something.  She had to have a great deal of respect."  explained Antoinette.

Mandy owned a 1912 model washing machine (see actual) during a time most people had a washboard and a #3 foot tub.  This had to have been an important item to her for use in sterilizing linens which she used for birthing and healing the sick.  Michael also rediscovered a 1964 Word Fair cup buried in the shed.

Ruby attended school in Tangipahoa Parish, Louisiana.  In the 1940's, she moved to New Orleans.  Her husband discovered work was available in New York.  He went up on his own and found work and later sent for Ruby where they settled in Buffalo, New York.  Isaiah worked for GM where they built engines.  Ruby was a homemaker and an "avid photographer," explained Michael, "She took a lot of photographs between the 1950's and 1960's."

When asked what he remembered most about the family trips South, Michael replied, "The food and the trip down.  In the 1960's, lots of places were not accommodating to African Americans especially in Mississippi."  An African American and a new car was not a good mix.  Michael recalled how his mother would make sandwiches for the trip because they would not be stopping much after Bowling Green, KY.  His father seemed to know all the African American parts of towns where they could stop.

Brothers Isaiah and Michael Daniel, shared by Michael Daniel

Michael remembers the food being especially spicy and somewhat different than what they ate in New York.  He remembers having goat meat which he thought tasted pretty good.  He noticed that the young folks had a lot more respect for the older people in the South.  It was 100 degrees every day, and he and his brother had morning chores which included feeding the cows.
Isaiah and father Isaiah Daniel Sr., shared by Michael Daniel

Michael also remembers his mother teaching the importance of not using "undue language" and communicating well.  She would also show them photographs of family members to make sure they knew who their people were.  As time went on, he came to understand the importance of what she was doing.

"I am almost overwhelmed by so many people who are interested in this history,"  he said.  In reference to those who are not yet interested in their own history, he added, "As time goes on, you will realize the important significance of your ancestors to you and where you came from."

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Monday, March 21, 2011

African Americans, Italian immigrants are indebted to the community midwife

Midwife, Mandy Jones Wheat (1892-1977)
Mandy Jones Wheat, the daughter of Joe Jones and Lizzie Banks was born December 15, 1892 in St. Helena Parish, Louisiana.  She was married twice.  Her first husband was Adam Gordon, Sr., and her second husband was Bass Wheat.  As a small child, genealogist, Antoinette Harrell, can remember Mandy as a "church mother" who also attended the old white church with the wooden benches. At first glance, one might think that Mandy, dressed all in white and seated with her cane, was sleeping, but as Antoinette recounts, she was paying attention, watching, and listening and would not say anything until service was over and as you walked by, she would gently stick out her cane to stop those who had been talking to correct them (All photographs shared by grandson, Michael Daniel).

I wonder what it must have felt like to look out over that congregation and remember that she birthed so many generations between 1930 and 1960 into the world.  Mandy was a midwife for at least thirty years.  Not only was she a midwife who delivered thousands of babies, but she was also a herbalist and healer in her community during the days when African Americans and Italian immigrants were not allowed to be treated in hospitals.

Antoinette first became curious about Mandy after interviewing her son, Bishop Willie K. Gordon, Sr. who shared what he could remember of her.  Fortunately, Antoinette felt a deep desire to learn more about Mandy especially because the story of the midwife is most often neglected by researchers.  "This is noteworthy history that would otherwise go unmentioned. How could you not talk about the midwife who did so much to bring lives into the world?" said Antoinette.  She could not find any records to document Mandy, so she posted what she had gathered from Gordon on Facebook.   Miraculously, Michael Daniel saw the post and responded that Mandy was his grandmother.

We are far from reaching the fullest potential of Facebook for genealogical research.  Hopefully, we can learn from the successful ways the Antoinette uses it to locate extended family and share her many research finds while in the field (Follow Antoinette on Facebook).  Antoinette called Michael and met with him at the Amite Branch Public Library where he shared a wealth of photos and midwife records of Mandy Jones Wheat.

Mandy delivered some of her grandchildren and thousands of other African Americans and children of immigrant Italians.  She would walk to their homes if they did not come to get her by mule pulled wagons.  She would stay at the homes of those she assisted sometimes for great lengths of time providing care.

Mandy rarely had a quite moment because she also tended those who were sick, and she was the only person in the area where people could find care.  "Mandy understood the herbs that it took to heal. She saved many lived with her wisdom and knowledge about herbs, tree bark, and tonics," said Antoinette Harrell.

Historical home of Mandy Jones Wheat in Amite, LA

Michael Daniel shared the fact that even after hospitals started treating African Americans, the community still kept going to Mandy because of the trust she had established during her many years of dedicated service.  It is important to understand as well that while Mandy was a very prosperous landowner, the community could not always pay her for her service using money.  They bartered using chickens and other items.  They were good neighbors who learned how to live and survive with each other using what they had.

During times when her family had little, she kept them from going without.  She was a female black farmer who owned her land and grew everything.  She raised livestock and grew fresh vegetables.  She  knew how to preserve meats and would call her family to "come down to d'house.  We got something," recalled her grandson, Eugene Edwards.  She would have smoked beef for them.   He remembers his grandmother giving his family their first cow.

Cow named Lillie Bell on Mandy Jones Wheat's place

She as affectionately called D'Mandy because of her dialect.  She would often use the letter "d" in front of words.  According to her grandson, Michael, this was a mixture of the English and Creole languages.  Michael shared his appreciation for the work Antoinette is doing to share the history of midwives, "I am glad someone is trying to preserve this history" which occurred at a time where African Americans and Italian immigrants could not find healthcare.  Michael's mother, Ruby Wheat Daniel, is the daughter of Mandy and also the person who kept the photographs and history before it was passed to Michael.  It was Ruby who taught her mother to read.
Ruby Wheat Daniel, shared by son, Michael Daniel

Michael even remembers some of the things he was given by his grandmother when he was sick:

  • boiled pine tree sprouts mixed with honey and lemon (colds)
  • bolied roots
  • boiled corn shucks
Stay tuned to this blog to learn more about Mandy Jones Wheat and other unearthed history. Also, be sure to join us for an upcoming Nurturing Our Roots BlogTalkRadio Show on April 12 where two grandsons of Mandy Jones Wheat will discuss the legacy of this prominent midwife.

If anyone knows the names of any of the people who Mandy Jones Weeks birthed or treated please contact us: 
Antoinette Harrell  504-858-4658
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