Sarah Ethel Hawkins was born June 8, 1857, in Calhoun County, Ala.
Updated: November 21, 2013 6:44AM
Albert Benjamen Brown, 94, can trace his family’s lineage back to slavery.
“My grandmother was born a slave,” he told me without a hint of shame as he handed me a thick, spiral bound notebook of his family’s history.
His grandfather, Junius Vandiver Draper, was born in 1853 in Oxford, Alabama. His grandmother, Sarah Ethel Hawkins, was born there in 1857. The couple married in 1876.
When Brown’s mother died in 1931, in Muskogee, Okla., she left him and three siblings orphans. His father, Luther Brown, was shot and killed by moonshiners in 1927 while he worked for the government. The family went to live with various relatives.
Brown lived with “Mother Draper,” as his grandmother was known, for about a year. She eventually brought him to Chicago to attend DuSable High School.
“My grandmother tried to keep us together during the depression,” said Brown of Hyde Park.
Although his grandmother never talked about slavery, Brown realized it took strong will and courage to survive.
“That is a story,” the decorated World War II Vet said. “She endured all that and still tried to keep her family together.”
With the release of “12 Years A Slave,” this disgraceful chapter in America’s history has once again become a hot topic. The movie depicts the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped from New York State and sold into slavery in 1841.
Steve McQueen, the British director, said his wife discovered the autobiography while researching slave narratives.
“I wasn’t upset that I didn’t know the book, but because no one else knew the book — so I thought, I am going to make this my passion to make it into a film,” McQueen said in recent interviews.
Yarvelle Draper-King, Brown’s second cousin and the primary researcher of their family’s ancestry, understands how slave narratives can get lost.
Although she had elderly relatives, they didn’t know details about Mother Draper’s slave past. Getting to the backstory took tedious research.
“People back then did not want to talk about their history as a slave,” she said.
“They wanted to be viewed with dignity and to them, the slave history had not been something they could be proud of ,” she pointed out.
But time has brought about a change.
If we believe part of the problem with today’s African-American youth is they have no connection to the civil rights movement, then certainly not understanding the strength it took to survive the brutal institution of slavery must be a bigger problem.
We won’t have seniors like Brown around much longer. It’s time to listen.
“In our family we have several people who lived into their ‘90s. So people in my generation knew them and could get the information from them and that really helped,” Draper-King said.
Your family’s history could turn out to be a surprising source of pride.