Elizabeth Alexander and a Freed Slave’s Journey of a Lifetime

In this second excerpt from Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s book Faces of America, The Root's editor-in-chief details the research into writer Elizabeth Alexander's slave ancestry -- outside the U.S.



Our research, however, did yield more information about Elizabeth’s great-grandmother Emma Honeywell. We found her baptismal record, dated May 6, 1859. It shows that she was born in Kingston, in the parish of St. Elizabeth, sometime in March 1859. Her parents are listed as Edward and Esther Honeywell, and her mother’s occupation is listed as “servant.” Further searching uncovered Emma’s father’s baptismal record. It shows that Edward Honeywell, “a Domestic of Northampton,” aged twenty-one years old, was baptized on September 17, 1852. This record also contains a very telling omission. It does not state Edward’s complexion, which in the Jamaica of this era means that he was black (white people and those with mixed blood made this known because it was a badge of honor). So, based on his profession as a “domestic” and the absence of recorded information about his race, I told Elizabeth that it was almost certain that her great-great-grandfather was black and a former slave.

Elizabeth and I were both intrigued by the fact that Edward was baptized at age twenty-one. This means that he was born about 1831. And although the British act abolishing slavery in Jamaica passed in 1833, and became effective in 1834, slaves were still held in apprenticeships until 1838. So Edward most likely spent the first years of his childhood as a slave and then, when he was about seven, received his freedom. But he was free for fourteen years before he was baptized. Why did he wait so long? There’s no way of knowing. It is possible that he came under the sway of religion at this point — possibly through another person such as his wife, Esther, or via the influence of a preacher. Records show that he was baptized on the same day as many of his neighbors, so it seems entirely possible that some kind of a hell-fire preacher came into his community distributing the fear of God en masse. There is no way to know for sure, but it seems a very likely explanation.

Elizabeth and I both wanted to know more about Edward’s slave past. His baptismal record notes that he was a domestic servant and that he lived in Northampton. This was not a familiar place name to us, so our researchers began searching and found hand-drawn maps from the early nineteenth century of St. Elizabeth Parish. They showed that the parish contained something called “Northampton Pen.” The word pen was the Jamaican term at that time for a cattle farm, and Northampton Pen was one of the largest pens in the country — including a plantation house and an estate of over fifteen hundred acres. This is where Elizabeth’s great-great-grandfather and most likely his parents were slaves.

The farm is a ruin today, just some walls, the bare remains of some kind of entrance gate, open fields crossed by a single road, and lots of goats. But in the first decades of the 1800s, it was a very significant operation, owned by an Englishman named John Chambers. Records show that in 1826 Chambers owned 299 slaves. That’s a large number of slaves for Jamaica and is much larger than most plantations in the United States held, even at the height of slavery here. When Chambers died in 1832, the inventory of his estate listed all his slaves. On the list is a boy named Edward, age two and a half years, valued at forty pounds (which would be about forty-five hundred dollars today). Incredibly, this two-and-a-half-year-old boy is Elizabeth’s great-great-grandfather.

“My God,” said Elizabeth, looking at the record. “When you see in black and white what it is to be valued as property when you’re a toddler — I’m sorry, but that’s hard to take.”

Go here for a video clip of the televised Elizabeth Alexander segment.

Buy Faces of America: How 12 Extraordinary People Discovered their Pasts by Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on Amazon.

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