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From Slavery to Freedom:
An Indiana Journey

Monday, February 17, 2003

By Jennifer Harrison
 
jharrison@thistlecreek.com

Carole Guess retired from teaching.  She now spends much of her time studying her family’s history. Listening to her, you can feel the harm and hurt of slavery.

Guess traces her family history to several former slaves who lived in Northern Kentucky. She grew up near Hanover in Southern Indiana and often visited her great grandfather, Matthew Humes, and his wife, Nancy Daughterty. Both were born as slaves in Kentucky.

They lived on a small farm near South Hanover. Matthew and Nancy Humes often gathered the large family at the farm for reunions. Nancy loved to feed people and she loved babies.

"She was a soft, gentle person," recalls Carole.

Matthew Humes built his farm to resemble the farm he knew best, “master” Payne's farm in Kentucky. But Matthew didn't talk much about slavery times.

"It was too painful," said Guess.

But in the fall of 1937, Matthew Humes did speak about his slavery experience when he was interviewed by a writer employed by the federal Works Progress Administration. Carole Guess was given a copy of the WPA interview and a newspaper article about her great-grandfather published in a Madison newspaper about 40 years ago. Since then, Guess became the family's memory holder. She has collected documents and photographs as well as family facts and stories. A few years ago she joined a local African-American genealogy group.

Carole Guess is not alone in her interest in family and black history. Genealogy is one of America's favorite hobbies, according to American Demographics. And interest in black genealogy and history has also increased. While black studies began to emerge in the 1960s, genealogists and historians often credit the landmark work Roots by Alex Haley as providing impetus for the steadily growing interest in family and black history.

"Roots got the whole genealogy thing going," said Audrey Peterson, editor of American Legacy, in a recent phone interview. "People were either too close to it . . . the source of pain, the era of slavery. People were looking forward. They didn't want to be attached to something they felt was shameful. And who was going to go down to the Montgomery Courthouse in 1965 as a black person and start asking for records?

"When Roots came along people saw it was possible to start doing research and unlocking the files. So I definitely think it affected genealogy research. And as a result of the genealogy research, history comes along with it. So it opened a lot of things. Now you're fleshing out the whole large, looming idea of slavery. We had the concept of slavery, but now we're getting the intimate details. The real stories, the personal accounts. It did American history a world of good."

Carole Guess' ancestors, the family of Luke Humes, arrived in Madison, Ind., in January 1865. Their son, James Matthew, known as Matthew, was 11 years old. While living in bondage wasn't great, the Humes family was lucky. They were fortunate their master didn't allow his overseers to whip or beat his slaves, as many slaveholders regularly did. However, one overseer, new to his master, was of a different mind.

The new overseer cracked Luke Humes over the head with a metal tool for no reason when he climbed out of a corn crib in the barn. The next day when Luke went to the corn crib for feed, he saw the new overseer hiding in wait for him. This time Luke took a shovel and removed the metal handle. When the overseer rose to strike him, Luke hurled the handle at the overseer's head and injured him. The commotion got the attention of his owner, Mr. Payne. When Payne learned of the overseer’s use of brutal force he dismissed the man at once. Luke Humes was not punished. Although Humes had acted in self-defense, most whites then accepted no justification for a slave injuring a white man.

A year after the Civil War ended, Mr. Payne told the Humes family they could stay on the farm in a sharecropping arrangement. But the family left their Kentucky home, their master's home, and came to Indiana "friendless, homeless and penniless." That's how Matthew described the family's arrival to the WPA writer. Somehow the family managed to survive and eventually found a small measure of prosperity. Luke Humes was able to pay for several of his children, including Matthew, to attend subscription school for several years, where they learned to read and write.

Matthew Humes never understood why some former slaves chose to stay on plantations in exchange for food and a home. Humes thought it was a good thing for former slaves to gain independence and improve themselves as people.

Wilma Gibbs, archivist of African-American history at the Indiana Historical Society, attended Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis. Students there were always made aware of the importance of education and their heritage, she said.

"There has always been a tremendous interest in black history in the African-American community," Gibbs said. Yet Alex Haley's work was instrumental in telling the story of slavery from the perspective of enslaved people. Besides an obscure work published by Yale University, says Gibbs, Roots was the first work to tell the story of slavery from the black perspective. "Roots helped black people realize that if Alex Haley could trace his family from a small town in Tennessee back to Africa, then they also could hope of doing so," said Gibbs.

Roots confronted white Americans with the painful legacy of slavery through human stories of brutality and suffering tempered with stories of joy, humor and hope. Roots also awoke many Americans to the possibility of not only finding their ancestors, but understanding the past and their own roots through family research. But Carole Guess was unable to watch the movie.

"It made me angry," she said. Upon reflection, Guess conceded it was not the movie itself that angered her but the painful history and family memories Roots represented. It was a history to which Carole Guess was closely connected.

Perhaps the most significant legacy of Roots is that is set the country's emotional compass on a path of racial healing. Modern psychology tells us emotional healing can only occur when painful realities are acknowledged and losses grieved.

"History to me is about truth," said Wilma Gibbs of the Indiana Historical Society, "what really went on before. There can't be healing without truth. Education is a big part of the process, researchers who put the past in context. Exposure and education is a big part of it."

As if living out grandfather Matthew Humes' vision of personal development, each generation of the extended Humes family improved themselves. Matthew's grandchildren all graduated from high school. The next generation, to which Carole Guess belongs, were expected to complete college.

"It wasn't a matter of if you go to college," said Carole, "but when." Carole's children have also completed college, and about half have completed graduate school. Among them are lawyers, doctors and computer gurus. Her niece, Tina Cosby, is a familiar face on WISH-TV news in her current job as community affairs director.

Despite the penchant to improve themselves and get an education the Humeses faced Jim Crow laws and discrimination that continued long beyond that era. Born in 1934, Carole Guess attended segregated schools in Madison. Many college educated blacks had to leave Madison and Southern Indiana in order to use their education. No one would employ them there except as laborers, explained residents and former residents in All We Had Was Each Other. Southern Indiana was largely settled by Southerners. While some came to Indiana to cross the slavery boundary, many of these families retained Southern sensibilities.

Carole Guess studied home economics in college, then pursued an advanced degree at Purdue so she could teach. Now retired, Carole and her husband, Bill Guess, both taught school in Indianapolis for many years. Yet when they moved to the Arden neighborhood on the Northside in 1971, they found they had crossed another color barrier. When they arrived they learned the neighborhood had been abuzz with the “ghastly” news that a black family had moved in. A few of the white families moved out. But things have changed. Race is no longer an issue in the neighborhood.

But other things haven’t changed much. Carole's family still gets together annually for family reunions. Last year they flocked to a reunion at Eagle Creek Park.

While some of Carole Guess' family have roots in slavery, her mother's kin, the Tyrees, came to Southern Indiana as free blacks and helped fugitive slaves in the Underground Railroad. From her family's roots in slavery, as well as in a freedom movement where blacks and whites cooperated and resisted the dominant culture together, it has been a long and proud road to freedom for descendants of Matthew Humes and Nancy Daughterty.

"I think he'd be proud," said Guess.


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