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When Ancestry Search Led To Escaped Slave: 'All I Could Do Was Weep'

When she was in fifth grade, Regina Mason received a school assignment that would change her life: to connect with her country of origin. That night, she went home and asked her mother where they were from.

"She told me about her grandfather who was a former slave," Mason tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "And that blew me away, because I'm thinking, 'Slavery was like biblical times. It wasn't just a few generations removed.' "

But for Mason, slavery was a few generations removed. She would later learn that her great-great-great-grandfather, a man named William Grimes, had been a runaway slave, and that he had authored what is now considered to be the first fugitive slave narrative.

"William Grimes' narrative is precedent-setting," Mason says. "[It] was published in 1825, and this was years before the abolitionist movement picked up slave narrative as a propaganda tool to end slavery. It sort of unwittingly paved the way for the American slave narrative to follow."

Grimes' original narrative tells the story of his 30 years spent in captivity, followed by his escape in 1814 from Savannah, Ga. He describes how his former owner discovered his whereabouts after the escape and forced him to give up his house in exchange for his freedom. (An updated version, published in 1855, includes a chapter about Grimes' later life in poverty.)

Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave was again republished in 2008 by Oxford University Press. The latest edition was edited by Mason and William Andrews, a scholar of early African-American autobiography.

So often we're told, 'Forget about slavery. That happened so long ago. Get over it.'

Mason hopes the latest edition of her ancestor's story helps keep alive the memory and stories of the millions of people who were enslaved in America. "So often we're told, 'Forget about slavery. That happened so long ago. Get over it,' " she says. "But when you do a genealogy search ... to find these people, to understand how they lived and how they died and how oppressed they were, the reality hits you."

Interview Highlights

On learning from her mother that her ancestors had been slaves

She talked about Grandpa Fuller, who was a mulatto slave. And I inquired about his parentage and she told me that his father, from what she knew, was a plantation owner, and his mother was an enslaved black woman. ...

And I'm asking, "Well, that's weird. Did his father own him?" ... I mean, how do you explain ... to children that slavery existed in freedom-loving America, No. 1; and No. 2, how do you explain to a child about an enslaved heritage shrouded in miscegenation? It's not an easy thing to do.

On finding Grimes' name listed in an old family Bible, confirming that he was her ancestor

There were pages tucked inside the Bible that had birth records, death records, marriage records. And I think the earliest inscription went to the late 1700s. But as I reviewed these records, there were names — and many of them familiar, and there were many unknown. And I remember skimming this one page in there; this name William Grimes jumped out at me with the death record of Aug. 21, 1865. And I just completely lost it. ... And all I could do was weep.

It was amazing to see such old records where the pages had separated from the original spine of the book, where they were so discolored, fragile, blotted and stained. I mean it was a true testimony of a legacy in this country, and to connect myself to it made me realize how deep our roots went in America.

On how the story of her enslaved ancestors fits in with Martin Luther King Jr.'s message

What comes to mind for me is this: Dr. King's dream, "I Have a Dream." And he talks about how he would love to see the day when the descendants of slave owners and those that were enslaved come together and talk about it. He talks about sitting down at the table of brotherhood and all of us, in my mind, sharing, with empathy, each other's struggle. And then understanding in the struggle what our commonalities are and how we can move forward in building the true ideal of America.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.