2011-07-14 / Living

Tracing her family’s roots


Dorothy Abram’s plantation model is on display at Lockwood of Burton 
Photo by Amanda Durish Dorothy Abram’s plantation model is on display at Lockwood of Burton Photo by Amanda Durish BURTON — Tracing Dorothy Abrams’ progenitors is a unique challenge that the 81- year-old has been up to for a long time.

She became interested in her family’s past at 15, hearing stories from her grandmothers who would describe plantations and stories of mistreatment and personal triumph.

Abram’s genealogy is owed to a succession of African- American slaves and Cherokee Native Americans. While one side of her lineage dropped out of the Trail of Tears wagons, the other was arranging a new life following the gold rush to California.

“I was inquisitive,” says Abrams, surrounded by historic documentation and photos in her fourth floor apartment.

Abrams has a bevy of dated relics including several marriage licenses, general store accounts and an early teaching wage record of one of her descendants in 1898 -- who made just $58 per week. On a Leon County tax register, Abrams can locate her family members among the 302 “negroes;” they’re alongside the 569 horses listed.

“What I was really interested in was that they became teachers,” said Abrams of her father’s lineage.

“I’m very proud because they did a lot of things.”

Additionally, one of Abrams’ great uncles spent a portion of his slavery as an unpaid accountant in a courthouse.

The June 19th Texas emancipation in 1865 included Abrams’ greatgreat grandfather. Abrams’ family was freed later then decreed so farmers could finish planting season.

Just one year after her great-greatgrandparent and his family were freed, they purchased 538 acres of land in Centreville, Texas, for 1,000 gold coins. Abrams has the documentation to support that claim. Today, a Juneteenth emancipation celebration is held on the grounds.

“My father always told me that if I said something, that I’d better be able to back it up,” she said. “I could have a museum here.”

Abrams says that, in genealogy, you have to first fall in love with your name before searching out ancestors. She fell in love with several names and was able to trace her family’s whereabouts to the 1840s, starting with an 1870 census record.

“They were limited in every way. It’s hard to fathom today people being owned,” said Abrams’ nephew Steve Hawkins.

Abrams makes frequent trips to Texas where she and her family still own the land paid for in coins by her ancestors.

While there, she sifted through hundreds of papers in the back of a partially burnt courthouse, even renting a mobile home to stay in for the duration of the time-consuming research.

“They said if I found something pertaining to my people that I could have it,” Abrams said.

She also makes visits to a cemetery where her family members are buried. The cemetery is on an acre of her family’s land as is a church that still houses a congregation. From Michigan, Abrams is trying to rally support to get the 1884 church established as a historical site. Currently no funding from the state of Texas exists to place any historical markers.

It was Abrams’ love of her ancestry that led her to begin creating educational models more than a decade ago similar to the plantations that her ancestors would have worked on. While in Texas, Abrams collected sand, branches and stones so that the buildings would have a special tie to her family’s roots.

Due to the sporadic nature of record keeping for Native Americans and slaves, Abrams has encountered difficulties.

“In those days, they didn’t care for Indians. I haven’t found all the answers but researching them has been fascinating,” Abrams admits.

She maintains that people need to know where they come from “to fully appreciate the moment.”

“I tell everybody to check their family’s history,” Abrams says. “You never know what you’re going to find at the back of a courthouse.”

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