Entertainment Fort Smith Magazine, Online

Seeing history made – and holding it in his hands

Seeing history made – and holding it in his hands

Seeing history made – and holding it in his hands

Todd Perry, a library assistant at the Windsor Branch of the Fort Smith (Ark.) Public Library, loves being surrounded by resources about local and American history.

He has been researching his family’s history for more than a decade and has learned that some family members who first lived in Crawford County, Ark. as slaves went on to become some of the most respected black families in the town of Van Buren.

In December 2008, Todd was given the original bill of sale of his great-great-great-great-grandmother, Harriet Austin Dickinson. A month later, he represented his family in Washington D.C. as he witnessed the inauguration of the first African American U.S. president.

“I knew I was a descendant of slaves, but never in my life did I think I would possess such a document of my ancestry, or see a black president elected,” Todd said as he showed me the fading but still legible bill of sale for “a certain mulatto girl named Harriet,” before he left on his trip to Washington.

Touching that fragile receipt gave me a chill. When Harriet was “about eight years old,” the same age my granddaughter Emma is now, she was sold for $275, on June 7, 1844, to Edward Clegg of Crawford County, Ark. The receipt for her purchase was notarized in Crawford County on February 28, 1845.

Robert Clegg of Austin, Texas, whose mother was a descendant of Sidney Clegg, wife of George Austin of Van Buren – Harriet’s owners – contacted Todd last fall after reading a newspaper story on the internet about Todd and his Van Buren relatives.

'Mr. Clegg said he wanted me to know that his family had owned Harriett, but they had loved her as one of their own family and educated her with their children,” Todd said. Clegg then sent Todd a copy of his family’s receipt of Harriet’s sale.

But just before Christmas, Clegg sent the actual, 125-year-old original document to Todd.

“Mr. Clegg said he wanted me to have my heritage back, and I was blown away. I thought, but not in a bitter or negative way, ‘My God, it’s back in my hands – the bill of sale of my own ancestry.’ To have a spiritual awakening, I believe we have to love and forgive others, leave the past and go on,” Todd explained. But he admitted he did “cry and cry” when he first got the document, because of its significance and the spirit of love in which it was given, and received.

“Here’s this kind, Christian, elderly white man giving a 50-year-old black man a piece of family history that I will keep and cherish until I pass on. My family doesn’t have any pictures of our great-great-great-great grandmother, so this is all we have of her to pass on. It was the best Christmas gift.”

But during a whirlwind bus trip to Washington, D.C. in January, Todd gave himself another historic moment to treasure – being one of more than a million people present at the inauguration of President Barack Obama. He traveled by bus with friends from several area states.

In D.C. he stayed in the home of longtime friends Charles and Leona Jamison, and visited another friend, Perlister Hollingsworth, Jr., who all live very near Capitol Mall where the throngs gathered to be part of the historic event.

“There were people there of all races, and more black people than I have ever seen together at one time,” Todd said. “I just wish more young people from western Arkansas could have been there.”

Todd was impressed by the security which said was “very tight and very well organized, with high tech crowd surveillance.” He quipped that cost of everything visitors bought while there gave Washington D.C.’ its own “stimulus package." And he praised Aretha Franklin’s “very touching and gospel-influenced” rendition of My Country ‘Tis of Thee as a highlight of the inauguration.

“We had to keep moving to try to stay warm, and we were so far away from where the official events were going on we had to watch them on the Mall’s big TV screens, but it was all worth it,” Todd said. “We can always look back and remember we were there.”

This article by Linda Seubold, editor, originally appeared in the February 2009 issue of Entertainment Fort Smith Magazine, published in Fort Smith, Ark. 

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Entertainment Fort Smith Magazine, Online