by Kathy Nixon
On my desk there is a photograph of an engraved granite stone and an old iron gate marking the entrance to Opequon Cemetery in Winchester, Virginia. A few seconds before the picture was taken, my grandchildren and I were ready to enter the grounds. The camera has captured the moment we’ve been asked to come back and pose by the stone.
As soon as the camera clicked, the four of us—myself, Alexis (age seven), Ben (age four), and Shannon, (age three)—turned and rushed through the gate. I was celebrating the end of a thirty-year quest to visit the place where our ancestors were buried in the 1740’s.
When I look at this photo, I don’t see the historical plaque honoring my Scottish ancestors’ gift of land to their church, nor do I see the tears in my eyes. I block out Alexis’s incipient pout, which she is continuing to perfect, and ignore Ben’s compressed energy, ready to erupt the nanosecond my hand leaves his shoulder. Even Shannon’s ballet-esque leap, a bit blurry, doesn’t register.
Instead, I see how my grandchildren tell America’s story.
On their maternal side is a long documented genealogy of Europeans—mostly from the British Isles—who came here to escape religious, economic, or military repression. Opequon’s Presbyterian Church and its historic burial ground symbolize those ancestors’ flight to freedom.
My grandchildren show this heritage. Alexis has inherited my daughter’s upturned nose and chin, and Ben’s striking red hair is reminiscent of my sister’s childhood shade. Shannon’s cornflower blue eyes come from my father and contrast sharply with her dark ringlets that never stay in place.
Their paternal side bequeaths unknown white masters and an undocumented history of slavery. Their black ancestors were not seeking freedom. They were forcibly brought to the New World in chains. This history proclaims itself in Alexis’s warm brown skin the color of tea, Ben’s once blue eyes changing to his father’s yellow, and Shannon’s skin, the shade of long-treasured parchment.
The significance that resonates in the photo is the convergence of their parents’ stories running against the backdrop of America’s history. My grandchildren were too young to truly remember how their feet touched the very same ground their ancestors walked over almost three hundred years ago.
I hope they will understand, when they are older and they study this picture, that they were the ones that made this occasion so special. For on that day, I also experienced a deep sense of loss. My grandchildren have been robbed of half their family story.
After visiting Opequon, my daughter began searching for this missing story.
Close at hand are the National Archives and the Freedman Bureau. Maybe, along with these resources and information shared between other researchers, she will be successful. However, realistically a large portion of my grandchildren’s family story is surely unrecoverable.
When they show their grandchildren this picture and tell the story of our day together, I hope that racism will have long passed into American history.
Kathy Nixon is a transplanted Hoosier living in southwest Florida where she teaches, reads, writes, walks on the beach and enjoys the sunshine. She is writing an historical novel based in Louisville and Frankfort Kentucky. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.