Digging past the pain of my black family history to unearth a personal strength that is born of my ancestor’s struggle
By Alicia McClung-Hetz
“No excellence without great labor:” This was the personal motto of my great-great-grandfather, Dave Smith. He was born in 1873 of slave parents in a cabin on the John Andrus Farm in Garland, Louisian. He dreamed of one day owning his own land and went on to purchase the very farm where my great-great-great-grandmother had been a slave servant. Admired by those in his family and community, my great-great-grandfather had a gift for public speaking. He and his son, my great-grandfather, Dave Smith, Jr., invented various tools for farming for which they were denied patents. Still, all the while, he proclaimed that work was an honor and a privilege and recognized that, despite odds, all things were possible through hard work and perseverance.
Up until several years ago, I was unaware of this part of my history and heritage. The courage that my ancestors had and all they were able to endure and overcome will stay with me forever and serve as a constant reminder of their historical triumph. Several decades later, I am certain that my great-great-grandfather would be proud to know that his family is thriving and continue to cultivate his land–and by better means than the primitive farm tools available during his time.
Every two years the Smith family gathers at the farm in Garland, Saint Landry Parish, Louisiana, for its annual family reunion and to share our deep-rooted history. The farm’s sign is a landmark that reads “The John Andrus Farm, Dave Smith Proprietor.” Knowing that I now have so many extended family members and that my great-great great-grandmother was what was once called “mulatto,” or mixed race, since she was both of African American and Caucasian heritage, had actually been loved enough that she was given her father’s surname, Mudd, somehow all seem to have a deeper more profound influence on me and the way I view not only my history but also my people’s history. American history.
Like my family, there are many stories waiting to be uncovered and, in some cases, rewritten. It is important to explore, if we can, every avenue of ourselves to find the answers to unlock these hidden and hard-to-reach corners of ourselves. Beyond my great- great-great-grandmother’s father, who had been a slave owner, and my great-great- grandfather, whose parents had both been slaves, we are still searching for information as to the lands, the ships, and precisely how my people came to be brought here in chains.
Over the years I have found our history is a hard one to uncover. First there is the getting past the pain of what the history is:men, women, and children being pulled apart from their families and being sold for $500.00 or more, and maybe for less, because an African American’s life was valued so little at the time. For me, I was able to move into the place where it was no longer just about what happened to my people but about also how my people have propelled
themselves forward in every aspect and in every way imaginable. These legacies that the African American people through their suffering have gone on to inspire generation after generation to overcome because, as the old cliché says, “You can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been.” I am now empowered to go even further. The Smith family has grown exponentially. Dave Smith Sr.’s offspring are successfully and gainfully employed in various capacities and consist of entrepreneurs, government and corporate America workers, creative artists, educators and obtained degrees in everything from Physics and Criminal Justice to Mechanical Engineering and Industrial Psychology and so much more.
Alicia McClung-Hetz is the proud mother of her two daughters and has a marketing and promotions background and a deep love for the arts.
7 Ways to Explore Black History in Houston
You can explore your history and heritage through sites like ancestry.com or myheritage.com, facebook.com and via the U.S. Census Bureau, as well as by attending family reunions. In more recent years biotechnology companies like 23andme.com have surfaced, providing ancestry reports and tools by obtaining a sample of your DNA.
In February, Black History month, Houston families can honor the city’s rich, African-American heritage by visiting a number of places and events around town. Through shared knowledge, teachings and inclusion of all people, we as a community can continue to thrive as Texas’ melting pot of rich culture and diversity, as we celebrate each other through various festivals, cuisine, art, dance and music.
Let’s celebrate together! Whether you attend lectures or art exhibits, take a tour of Houston’s historic neighborhoods, or watch a movie, there is an avenue for celebration for all ages.
1. Houston Historical Tours
Seven different six-hour tours from about 9 am to 3 pm that include a stop for lunch, normally at a traditional African American restaurant of barbecue, soul, or Creole food, and then back to touring the historical wards where African-American Houstonians lived and worked in between 1837 and 1916.
Houston African-American / Black History Tours
Houston Historical Tours
P.O. Box 262404
Houston, Texas 77207-2404
2. Houston Public Library:
DNA and the African-American Experience
Introductory presentation covering test providers, types of DNA tests, and how to analyze test results. Learn tips and strategies for overcoming DNA challenges facing African-Americans. For Beginners. February 11. 2:00PM – 3:30PM. Adults, teens ages 13-18 years. Reservations required, please call 832-393-2600
Genealogical Research at the Clayton Library Center
On February 25, from 10:30 am-3:45 pm, visitors to the center can attend any of several genealogical research sessions geared toward the study of African-American ancestry:
- Apprentice Records for Free People of Color | 10:30 AM – 11:30 AM Explore apprentice records, laws, and circumstances of free children of color. Learn how to find, use, and analyze these documents.
- Using Southern Ante Bellum Plantation Records | 11:45 AM – 12:45 PM Learn why these records are valuable; what are they, and how to search this major collection.
- Brown Bag Lunch Break | 12:45 PM – 1:30 PM
- Mining the Slave Narratives: A Genealogical Goldmine | 1:30 PM – 2:30 PM Tips and strategies for sorting through slave narratives to aid as a resource in uncovering deeper family history, also includes tips on DNA research
- African-American Resources at HPL’s Houston Metropolitan Research Center and the African American Library at the Gregory School | 2:45 PM – 3:45 PM
Learn what type of records found in archival collections for African-American research that is housed at the sister Special Collections units to Clayton Library.
Clayton Library Center for Genealogical Research
Houston, Texas 77004
Jazz & Poetry presented by Jazz Education
On February 7, from 10:30 am-11:30 am, this session features interactive techniques and lots of audience participation in a story-form styled presentation. Showcases popular styles of music from the 1930’s to the millennium; celebrating prominent artist and people throughout jazz music history.
Vinson Neighborhood Library
3810 W Fuqua St
Houston, TX 77045
3. Ensemble Theatre
A common theme in African American culture, the celebration of music and life as heard through the voice of legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson (for whom my maternal grandmother sang back-up) pays tribute to many gospel greats during a time period during the civil rights movement when urgent messages were being delivered by her close friend, Martin Luther King. Runs: January 26 – February 26, 2017. www.ensemblehouston.com/
4. Houston Community College’s Annual Black History Gala
For eleven years Houston Community College has hosted the HCC Black History Scholarship Gala providing HCC student scholarships and inviting some of the most star studded keynote speakers each year such as Spike Lee, Soledad O’Brien and James Earl Jones. HCC and its generous sponsors throw the Annual Black History Gala which raises scholarship funds for Houston Community College students. Past gala keynote speakers include Spike Lee, Soledad O’Brien and James Earl Jones. Friday, February 25 at 7 pm. hccs.edu/blackhistory.
5. Project Row Houses
Project Row Houses’ mission is to transform the community through the celebration of art and African-American history and culture. Inspired by American artist Dr. John Biggers and the German artist Josef Beuys, Project Row Houses is a unique exploration of human empowerment as it correlates to art, neighborhood revitalization and affordable housing. You can take a tour of the Project Row Houses with weekend docents every Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday at 1 and 3pm. Tours begin at 2521 Holman St. http://projectrowhouses.org/
6. University of Houston’s Cultural Conversations: 50 Shades of Colorism
A discussion on the effects of colorism, how colorism factors into careers and resources, criminal justice, and attractiveness, institutionalized prejudice based on the color of people’s skin and if it exists solely within the ethnic groups. Wednesday, February 1, 2017. Center for Diversity and Inclusion. 12:00pm – 1:30pm. http://www.uh.edu/
7. University of Houston’s African American Read-In
UH faculty, staff and students are invited to read their favorite poems, passages of fiction or nonfiction, lyrics, plays, or speeches written by African Americans aloud to an Guests, classes, and organizations are encouraged to attend to read from their favorite poems, passages of fiction or nonfiction, lyrics, plays, or speeches. You can sign up to participate as a reader. Tuesday, February 7, 2017. 11:00am to 1:00pm. Elizabeth D. Rockwell Pavilion, MD Anderson Library.