Black, white women explore shared history

Thursday, March 21, 2002

JACKSON, Mo. -- When Ruth Randall phoned from Albuquerque, N.M., a few years ago looking for information about her roots, Jane Jackson was particularly interested. Jackson, the director of the Cape Girardeau County Archive Center, was a Randol before she got married. To genealogical researchers, Randall and Randol easily are close enough for a possible connection.

It got more interesting. Randall, a retired federal employee who spent most of her life in Chicago, is black. Jackson, a lifelong resident of Cape Girardeau County, is white. They soon learned that Randall's ancestor was owned by a Jackson ancestor. They're pursing the possibility they could be related by blood.

In the ensuing years of phone calls, e-mails and two trips to Cape Girardeau County, Randall has learned that her great-great-grandfather, Richard, was a slave owned by Jeremiah Randol. Jane Jackson is a descendent of Jeremiah's cousin.

It's possible that Richard married Jeremiah's daughter born to a slave or that Richard was Jeremiah's son.

Since retiring in 1996, Randall has devoted herself to learning about her family's history. For the past few years Randall and her husband, Richard Mitchell, have traveled to Salt Lake City, Utah, Mesa, Ariz., Wilkes County, Ga., and Cass County, Texas, looking into historical files.

Unearthing her family's slave history has become a quest.

The fact that one woman's ancestor was owned by the other's does not make either Randall or Jackson uncomfortable. Randall and her husband are staying at Jackson's house during their visit. Together, Randall and Jackson pored over copies of deeds, mortgages and probate documents at the Archives Center Tuesday and Wednesday.

"Black people went through a terrible ordeal," Jackson says. "This is a way I can do a little something for all they have gone through."

Unwelcome connection

Randall hasn't always received that kind of reception. Some people sent her nasty letters after an article she wrote for last June's issue of the National Genealogical Quarterly detailed black-white relationships on the maternal side of her family. "They just don't want the connection," she said.

When she dove into her family's genealogy, Randall didn't have written or oral histories or even any elders to question, only a memory from childhood that her family came from a Missouri county called Cape Girardeau.

At the public library in Albuquerque, she sifted through reels of microfilm containing the Cape Girardeau County Census in 1870, the first year black people were included in the census. Previously they were recorded in a census document called the Slave Schedule.

In the census, she found a family with boys named Henry and Edward, names that were common in her own family. The head of the family was Richard Randol. When Jackson sent her a copy of Jeremiah Randol's will, she discovered he had a slave named Dick. She knew she must come to Cape Girardeau.

Each trip has had a goal. This one was to determine how Jeremiah Randol acquired Richard. It's possible Jeremiah's wife, Polly, brought Richard into the family because wives traditionally inherited slaves, husbands inherited land. But they have been unable to determine Polly's maiden name.

Jackson says they may find out more about Richard by researching the families that lived near Richard. "Usually people married within a mile of the house," she says.

Not a fairy tale

At this point, Randall knows only that Richard was born in Missouri. One document says his father was born in Africa. As difficult as finding the smallest details is, she doubts her genealogical search will take her that far.

"I don't have any delusions about an Alex Haley fairy tale," she says.

Researching her family history has been akin to investigating a mystery, especially since fewer early records were kept on black people. She looks for telling details. In one of the documents, Randall discovered that despite being a slave, Richard bought a calf and oats from someone. Owners were not allowed to work slaves on Sundays, but the slaves could hire themselves out to earn their own money, called "Sunday wages."

Richard had his own money.

After emancipation, Richard farmed and lived in a house at the corner of North and Frederick streets in Cape Girardeau. He became a trustee of St. James AME Church. He died in 1895.

Wanting to know personal connections to the past is natural, Randall says. "Knowing who those people were tells me a lot about who I am."

335-6611, extension 182

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