The People Who Disappeared by Temujin the Storyteller

“The master, the overseer, and the driver looked after them as they flew, beyond the wood, beyond the river, miles on miles, until they passed beyond the last rim of the world and disappeared in the sky like a handful of leaves.  They were never seen again.  Where they went I do not know. . .”

The passage above comes a story titled “All God’s Chillun Had Wings”, which was first recorded by the Federal Writers’ Project, an organization committed to, among its other projects, documenting the stories of African-Americans that had been passed down to them by their ancestors. “All God’s Chillun Had Wings” was published in Drums and Shadows: Survival Studies among the Georgia Coastal Negroes, which was produced in the early 1900s.

The story appeared in The Book of Negro Folklore, a collection of folktales compiled in 1958 by Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps.  The late Virginia Hamilton re-worked the story as a children’s picture book called The People Could Fly which was published in 1985.

The story I have to tell is about 53 enslaved Africans, including 28 adults and  25 children who could not fly; instead they disappeared. My story begins during a time when slavery existed in all 13 colonies.  A man named John Neville purchased his first two slaves, Harvey and Joe, in 1767.  John Neville also purchased the land that would become the site of my story plus 14,000 more acres of land in 1774 in what was then Western Virginia, later becoming Western Pennsylvania.   One year later in 1775  the enslaved Africans living there began to develop the land and to construct Woodville, the first manor house.  Neville served as the commander of Ft. Pitt (Ft. Dunmore) on behalf of the Virginia colony. When the American Revolutionary War broke out, he fought until 1780.

During the time John Neville was away at war, the enslaved Africans on his plantation continued developing the land and building the Woodville manor house. When Neville, now a general,  returned home in 1780 to what had become Western Pennsylvania, due to the survey done by Mason and Dixon, he was compelled to register 21 of the enslaved Africans–nine females and twelve males–under the Pennsylvania Gradual Emancipation Act of 1780.  Were it not for this state boundary, the enslaved Africans held in bondage by the Neville family might not have been freed at that time and could well have remained enslaved for the rest of their lives.

In the 1790s Bower Hill, a second manor house was built by the enslaved Africans on Neville’s estate. It was perhaps the greatest Pennsylvania mansion west of the Allegheny Mountains.  The Africans enslaved by the Neville family on the Woodville and Bower Hill plantations had a wide range of skills and trades.  They served as lumberjacks, distillers, carpenters, joiners, husbandmen (“ranchers”), and  engaged in other of the farm trades. Those who were skilled in the art of distilling manufactured whiskey, the cash crop on the Neville plantations. The Bower Hill Plantation boasted a 500-gallon still, the largest in Western Pennsylvania.

Not only were Neville’s enslaved African given the tasks of development and construction, the defense of the lands, buildings, everything else was also in their hands. John Neville armed his enslaved Africans, as did many frontier plantation owners. Therefore skilled marksmen could be added to the list of things at which the enslaved Africans on the Neville plantations were talented.

A small proof of this is found in the story of two of the enslaved children on the Bower Hill plantation.  In November of 1784, 11-year old Will and his 8-year old brother Putnam got permission to hunt a wolf that had been attacking the sheep. These two boys successfully killed a 100-pound wolf; their exploits are a matter of record.  Ten years later, in 1794,  these young marksmen would employ their firearms skills in defense of the Bower Hill manor house.

When I first read about the Battle of Bower Hill and the fact that enslaved Africans who lived there participated in the defense of the property, I was puzzled.  In time I learned that the plantations at Woodville and Bower Hill were not the full-time homes of the Neville family, who actually resided in the city of Pittsburgh. The plantations were a source of income while the manor houses were, for lack of a better word, vacation homes.

The plantations at Woodville and Bower Hill were, however, the full-time homes of the 53 enslaved Africans.  They had built the Woodville house and other buildings, developed the land, planted the crops, and distilled the whiskey, the cash crop, while the Nevilles, both John and his son Presley, fought in the revolution.

The enslaved Africans had lived on the Woodville plantation and later Bower Hill since 1775, a span of 19 years. They had taken mates and raised children there.  Woodville and later Bower Hill were much more their homes than they ever were the homes of the Neville family.

Due to public resentment about an excise tax on both homemade and commercial whiskey , an armed revolt would be fomented.  On July 16th at least 30 Mingo Creek militiamen  surrounded  Bower Hill, Neville’s fortified home. General Neville was a tax collector and a federal marshal who had been serving writs on those who had not paid their taxes. He had taken refuge there. With the Bower Hill house being situated on a hill, Neville saw the militia coming and immediately called the African men to arms. I am quite sure that the African defense force included Will and his brother Putnam, the wolf slayers, who were now 21 and 18 respectively.

The Mingo Creek militiamen demanded the surrender of the federal marshal whom they believed to be inside. General John Neville responded by firing a gunshot that mortally wounded Oliver Miller, one of the “rebels”.  The rebels opened fire. They were surprised by in turn being fired upon from the slave quarters. When the call to arms was given, at least 14 African men, perhaps even more, took up arms and fought a two-day battle against the Whiskey Rebels.  Since we have no idea how many male children of the 25 children had grown to adulthood by 1794, there could have been a sizable force of African musketeers at the battle of Bower Hill, perhaps 20 or more.

The rebels were unable to dislodge Neville and the other defenders. The rebels then retreated to nearby Couch’s Fort to gather reinforcements and spent a good part of their time on the 16th and 17th getting drunk. They  returned to Bower Hill on July 17th. Their numbers had swelled to nearly 600 men, now commanded by Major James McFarlane, a veteran of the Revolutionary War.  Neville had also received reinforcements which included ten American soldiers from Fort Lafayette in Pittsburgh under the command of Major Abraham Kirkpatrick, a brother-in-law of Neville’s wife.  Before the rebel force arrived, Kirkpatrick had Neville leave the house and hide in a nearby ravine.

After some negotiations, the women and children were allowed to leave the house; both sides then began firing. After about an hour, McFarlane called for a cease-fire.   According to some, a white flag had been waved in the house.   As McFarlane stepped into the open, a shot came from the house, and McFarlane fell, mortally wounded. The enraged rebels then set fire to the house and Kirkpatrick surrendered.

The number of casualties at Bower Hill is unclear, and there is no mention of the numbers of the African defenders who were wounded or killed in the fray; defenders who had stood their ground and fought so bravely during the fierce two-day battle. McFarlane and one or two other militiamen were killed; one U.S. soldier may have died from wounds received in the fight.  The rebels sent the American soldiers away and then  proceeded to destroy more of Neville’s property, dividing up all of the remaining whiskey from the 500-gallon still.

I can only assume that the Africans escaped down the wooded hillside that led to the Woodville manor house since none were captured. I am convinced that had any of the African defenders surrendered, it would not have gone well for them. After all, they had been involved in killing or attempting to kill White men.

General Neville made his way to Philadelphia to report what had happened at Bower Hill. A militia force was called up from New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, and eastern Pennsylvania. in 1794. Headed for Pittsburgh, this federalized militia force of 12,950 men was a large army by American standards of the time.  The rebels who had attacked Bower Hill had no desire to fight such a force of Revolutionary War veterans. In essence, the Whiskey Rebellion in the Pittsburgh area had come to an end.

The Bower Hill house was never rebuilt, and the enslaved Africans who defended it are not mentioned again, although they must have continued to reside at the Woodville plantation.  About five years later, as a partner of Andrew Montour,  General Neville acquired Montour’s Island in a land dispute and moved there.  The island, which was named for the Native American interpreter, Andrew Montour, became the place where Neville spent his final years. We can only assume that the enslaved Africans moved there with him.

These enslaved Africans on John Neville’s landholdings unfortunately became invisible to history after the battle of Bower Hill. In fact, quite a few historians don’t even write about their valiant participation  in the battle of Bower Hill, as though they had not been there.  They remained invisible to history for nine years between 1794 and 1803 when General John Neville died.

John Neville died on July 29, 1803; his dying request to his son, Presley Neville, and his son in-law and plantation overseer, Isaac Craig, was that the enslaved Africans  be manumitted–and they were.  Presley Neville and Isaac Craig looked after them as they rode and walked, “beyond the woods, beyond the river, miles on miles, until they passed beyond the last rim of the world and they all disappeared like a handful of leaves in the wind.  They were never seen or heard from again.”  Where they went, no one knows. . .

–Temujin Ekunfeo

Temujin  Babalosa Obalorun Temujin Ekùnféo (Temujin The Storyteller) was initiated in1978 by Afro-Cubans and African Americans as a Priest (Babalosa) in the Lukumi Yoruba tradition which was established in Cuba by captives brought to Cuba during the days of the slave trade. Temujin has performed throughout the country since 1968.   His list of talents includes lecturer, workshop developer, musician, and instrument maker. As both a scholar and performer of African culture Temujin feels a strong commitment to researching African Folklore from the Americas as well as from the continent of Africa and shares it by means of family-oriented, audience-participatory storytelling programs and experiential “Playshops” for youths and adults.

TALK THAT TALK – The Bible of Black Storytelling

This article expandTalk That Talks on Question #15 from the NABS Storytelling Board Game, created by the organizational co-founder, Mama Linda Goss. The answer to that particular question, (“What book is considered the bible of blackstorytelling?”):   Talk That Talk: An Anthology of African-American Storytelling edited by Linda Goss and Marian E. Barnes, (Simon & Schuster, 1989). Not only is Talk That Talk a collection of stories, tales, sermons, poetry and rhymes as told by African Americans, but the work defines the concept of “Blackstorytelling”*, placing it in an historical context. The commentaries following each section support the concept that “blackstorytelling” does not exist in a vacuum, but is part of our cultural collective experience. Mama Linda acknowledges that Talk That Talk was influenced by four previous publications: Book of Negro Folklore by Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps, Mules and Men by Zora Neale Hurston, Black Fire by Amiri Baraka and The New Negro by Alain Locke.

In looking for stories in the pre-Google Internet search days, many storytellers consulted the reference books: A to Zoo: Subject Access to Children’s Picture Books by Carolyn and John Lima (numerous editions) and The Storyteller’s Sourcebook by Margaret Read MacDonald (1st and 2nd editions). While both of the books were very resourceful, they were limited in their listings of African and African American stories. Thus, African American storytellers began to consult and collect works by many of these authors: Harold Courlander (A Treasury of Afro-American Folklore; A Treasury of African Folklore; Fire on the Mountain; Cow-tail Switch); Augusta Baker and Ellin Greene (Storytelling: Art and Technique); Virginia Hamilton (A Ring of Tricksters; When Birds Could Sing; Herstories; The People Could Fly; Many Thousand Gone); Zora Neale Hurston (Mules and Men; Go Gator and Muddy the Water; Every Tongue Got to Confess); Roger D. Abrahams (Afro-American Folktales, African Folktales); Daryl Cumber Dance (Shucking and Jiving: Folklore from Contemporary Black Americans; Honey Hush: An Anthology of Black Women’s Humor; From My People: 400 Years of African American Folklore); Julius Lester (This Strange New Feeling; To Be A Slave; Long Journey Home; Black Folktales; Tales of Uncle Remus; Knee-High Man); William J. Faulkner (The Days When the Animals Talked); Bessie Jones and Bess Lomax Hawes (Step it Down: Plays, Songs and Stories from the Afro-American Heritage); Jackie Torrence (Jackie Tales); Nelson Mandela (Nelson Mandela’s Favorite African Folktales); Ashley Bryan (Beat the Story Drum, Pum-Pum; Lion and the Ostrich Chicks; Ox of the Wonderful Horns and other African Folktales).

We cannot overlook the contributions made by NABS, Inc. and its members to the literature of storytelling. In 1995 Linda Goss and Clay Goss edited Jump Up and Say! A Collection of Black Storytelling, and in 2006 Sayin’ Somethin’: Stories from the National Association of Black Storytellers edited by Linda Goss, DylanPritchett and Caroliese Frink Reed, was published by the Association. Our roster of members who publish and promote “blackstorytelling” include Karima Amin, Baba Jamal Koram, Rex Ellis, Linda Goss, Eleanora Tate, Larry Coleman, Mary Carter Smith, Rita Cox, Jackie Torrence, Len Cabral, Bobby Norfolk, David Anderson, Lyn Ford, Diane Williams, Willa Brigham, Linda Cousins-Newton, Gladys Marie-Fry, Temujin, Janice Curtis Greene, Mitch Capel, Charlotte Blake-Alston, Dylan Pritchett , Alice McGill, Brother Blue, Paul Keens-Douglas and many others. NABS, the authentic voice of “blackstorytelling” , continues to raise the bar in “spreading the word” through print and media sources.

My experience as a librarian and commitment to storytelling led me to establish The Storytelling Resource Center as part of Zawadi Books, 2460 Main Street, Buffalo, NY. This Center holds approximately 1,200 books by and about storytelling and storytellers including history and techniques. Many of the books referred to in this article are from that collection. My mission is to support local storytellers as they define and refine the art of storytelling by giving access to resources. Talk That Talk, the bible of Black Storytelling, is a step on that journey.

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* “Blackstorytelling” has been written as one word in some of NABS historical archives and more recently by elder storyteller, Dr.  David “Sankofa” Anderson to show that this is one entity.  According to NABS member, Caroliese Frink Reed: “The distinction between Blackstorytelling (in America) and other storytelling traditions, is that it was and is continually being forged, honed and shaped by the conditions that brought it forth.” (from “The African Oral Traditions” by Caroliese Frink Reed in SAYIN’ SOMETHIN’ , edited by Linda Goss, Dylan Pritchett and Caroliese Frink Reed, NABS, 2006)

–Sharon Jordan Holley

 

Sharon Jordan Holley

Sharon Jordan Holley is a retired librarian and storyteller living in Buffalo, NY.  She is a co-founder of Tradition Keepers: Black Storytellers of Western New York and a lifetime member of NABS.  She is also a recipient of the Zora Neale Hurston  Award.

Photo Credit: Powellful Creations

We Don’t Just Tell the Story–We WEAR the Story!

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(There was no room in this collage to give a description of the bottom photos.  At left is the Seminole patchwork jacket adorned with mudcloth from Ghana, mudcloth cap, and accompanied by a Seminole patchwork vest and  mudcloth and liberation earrings (Shaz Gallery of Brooklyn jewelry designs).  Perfect for packing to wear at my NABS workshop on African-Amerindian Connections.  (At right, one of those NABS Vendors’ Marketplace finds I couldn’t resist–a mudcloth “mosaic” coat that is still stopping traffic (sidewalk traffic at least) whenever I wear it with that sassy matching hat, pants, and bag).  Didn’t have an inch of room in my luggage to pack it after NABS 2012, so I wore it home–and have been joyfully wearing it ever since.)
Among the myriad cultural delights of the annual NABS Festivals are beholding the warm-spirited multi-talented griots as they resplendently bring the ancestral Village to the varied national venues of the festival, telling the age-old story in word, song, dance, and most definitely in artistic attire.  One can dress casually and comfortably at NABS and feel right at home; then one can also “fall out sharp”, as the Tennessee elders would say, in Africancentric attire, turning heads and lifting minds wherever one steps through not only telling the story but wearing the story.
A special part of the exciting itinerary at the Festival are visits to the Vendors’ Marketplace where one can find all manner of eye-catching, reasonably-priced outfits, jewelry, and home decor for the outer self as well as books, music, and spoken Word items to usher the mind and soul to new levels of knowledge, wisdom, and relaxed enjoyment.  NABS attendees are passionate about supporting the businesses of our people, so not only do many return home with luggage bulging with new outfits, literature, and music, but to encourage further support and appreciation of the global vendors and their unique offerings, the Vendors’ Marketplace is also set aside as a site for “Village Storytelling” and/or welcoming first-time attendees of the festival.
Attending NABS provides a treasure chest of enduring cultural memories and to top it off, if one is so inclined, a closet full of wearable art to grace one’s being until one can return to share, shop, listen, learn, and be both elevated and motivated at the next unforgettable NABS  Festival venue.
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Top left, Former Festival Director Br. Akbar Imhotep of Atlanta, a proud African storyteller shining forth like the sun in rich gold–a perfect place to stand in front of the colorful quilt of beautifully attired queen sisters;  bottom left, Baba Jamal  Koram (left) of North Carolina and Oba William King (right) of Chicago, master drummers and griots, who dress the story as skillfully as they drum, sing, and share the Word.)  Check out the unique, patchwork vest of Brother Dylan Pritchett (right) of Virginia another former NABS Festival Director.  As he accepts the award for his dedicated service, he’s accompanied by a Br. Dylan doll which just has to be a fabulous  Kooki Davis creation.  The l’il brother has evidently had a busy day catching all of the NABS sights and sounds.  He had to kick off those shoes and give his feet a break!  )

NABS is replete with Africancentric scholars, researchers, artists and performers covering the waterfront of griot contributions.  When we gather, as mentioned in this post, one will find a diverse range of beautiful ancestral garments including geles and ensembles made from the cloth purchased or imported from the Continent.  Here are a couple of titles of possible interest in regard to this attire displayed in our “wearing the story”:

HEADWRAPS – A Global Journey – Georgia Scott.  Public Affairs, NY. 2003.

INDIGO – In Search of the Color That Seduced the World – Catherine E. McKinley.  Bloomsbury USA, NY, 2011.

—Linda Cousins-Newton
Brooklyn, NY
copyright (c) Ancestral ProMotions 2014

Story Weaving, Story Sharing, Story Gathering Time!

By Linda Cousins- Newton

“Time sho’ does fly!” Can you believe it– In a little less than a month, hundreds of us from across the country and the world will once more be NABS-bound to be blessed with both the sharing and receiving of stories from some of the world’s greatest word-weaving artists. I have been contemplating for months how I will best open my mind, heart, and soul to reveal the stories lodged there during my workshop on the African-Amerindian Connections and Coalitions and in portraying the humbly great ancestor, ‘Aunt Chona, the Black Seminole Horse Trainer and Love Warrior.”

As my Georgia-born, Tennessee-dwelling Grandmama Anna Pearl, would have said, “Well, chile. I don’t know why in the world you sittin’ ’round doing so much thankin’ ’bout it.  Jes go out there, git outa the way, and let the good Lord use you to do your thang.” My first informal (and unsuspecting) mentor in the art of storytelling (while stirring up a delectable “pot” over the kitchen coal stove or while sitting around the fireplace on cold Tennessee nights–uh-oh, dating myself, aren’t I?!); well, Mama, as we all called her, just let the stories flow from her heart; no rehearsals, no mics, no costumes–just soul-based, spirit-shared stories that remained with the hearer for a lifetime.

And so taking my cue from that wise family griot–(who, puzzled, would’ve wrinkled her brow upon hearing that strange word “griot”)–I, too, will get out of the way and let the ancestors and the creative Spirit mold, shape, and share these profound stories in the best way possible through the consciousness of my being. Then I will combine my years of training as a teacher to hopefully take it “another further” by engaging the varied learning styles and five senses of those sister-brother story partakers; by incorporating music, art, a dab of poetry, and eye-pleasing visuals in spreading the Word of both the well-known and little-known cultural linkages and collective freedom quests of the African descendants and Amerindian freedomists who joined hearts, minds, love, and powerful military skills “way back when” (as Grandmama Anna Pearl would say) in our history and our herStory.

While it is a challenge, albeit a positive one, to unfold the consciousness in storytelling to a room full of master storytellers and long-time ancestralists; with the warm, loving, encouraging NABS audience, it is also a supreme delight as these story carriers and story sharers relish knowledge gathering and soul liftings. I not only daily read, ponder and research these stories, I live the story and walk the history in my daily life, so much so that the Divine Parent arranged for my marriage into a Black Seminole family and took me to the ancestral homeland with Mother Tubman’s family and her own ever-active spirit.

Yes, I believe I’ve got “some mighty good story stuff” to serve on the plates of these living ancestors, Mama. I hope to make the ancestors (including you) and the Supreme Artist of the universe proud in doing this work. And as with your stories told to the family and the l’il shy Tennessee poet “way back when”, I pray that these ancestral stories flowing from my soul will remain with the hearers for a lifetime–and far beyond. (Then I can breathe a sigh of relief, “rare back”, and enjoy the other stories flowing from the souls of these master story weavers and living ancestors from around the world.)

Linda Cousins-Newton is the Director, Ancestral Promotions in New York.