For Black History Month 2018

Recently, while lounging on the beach on Singer Island in south Florida, I was reading a delightful book titled The Secret Wife by Gill Paul. When I first opened it I saw a family tree listing the names and dates of the descendants of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and their connection to the Romanov family of Russia. According to the family tree, the granddaughter of Queen Victoria married Tsar Nicholas II, whose family was executed after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The book was really a story of how the spirits of the ancestors influence our lives in the present.

Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and their children

As I watched the waves crashing onto the shore, I started to think about my own ancestors who came across the ocean from Africa and Europe. Most of their names I don’t even know, but one of the first European arrivals to these shores on my mother’s side of the family was an Irishman named Gamble, who took a Native American woman as his wife. Her name is listed in the family records as “Sarah.” I don’t know what language she spoke, or what her original name was; but the immigrant Christians called her Sarah. Her son Harman took a job as foreman on a Virginia plantation, Howard’s Neck Plantation, and married a slave whose name was Willie Ann Howard. The family records indicate that Willie Ann’s mother, Eliza Howard, was also a slave on the same plantation. Willie Ann’s father was also her master/owner, and most likely a descendant of Allen Howard who acquired the property in 1741. He is listed in the “Early Colonial Settlers of Southern Maryland and Virginia’s Northern Neck Counties.”

And of course I haven’t been able to find any records regarding the parents of Eliza.

Willie Ann Gamble bore ten children, one of whom was my grandfather, Henry Floyd Gamble (b. 1862), who went on to become one of the first African-American graduates of the Yale Medical School. He had to “pass” for white in order to receive his education. One can only imagine what would have happened to him if anyone had discovered the truth of his background. I am able know so much about his family because he founded the local chapter of the National Medical Association¹, so many articles about him were published in the local papers. He eventually went on to marry my grandmother, Nina Clinton from Zanesville, Ohio. I’ve only seen photographs of her parents, both of whom are clearly of mixed-race. I do know that her father was a preacher, and her mother had that long, straight hair indicative of Native-American ancestry. She was a very stern-looking woman in a high-button collar black dress. I would dare to guess that she was very unhappy.

My grandparents, Nina Clinton and Dr. Henry Floyd Gamble

The fact that Henry Gamble was named after a king of England was not lost on my grandfather, as he named his two daughters after the first two wives of Henry VIII – Katherine and Anne. In 1920, Nina Clinton Gamble gave birth to my mother, Anne Lucille Gamble; and in 1956, Anne Gamble married my father, Matthew Kennedy.

My parents, Anne Gamble and Matthew Kennedy

It is so difficult for me even to imagine the lives of the women of my grandfather’s family. Imagine being a female slave on a plantation where your own father is your owner, and could sell you off at any given moment. If Eliza was raped – and I’m assuming she was, since there was no "babydaddy" named in the article – what kind of love was she capable of giving to her own child? The child could have been taken away at birth and raised by someone else, which was a common practice during slavery designed to keep children from developing self-esteem. Imagine the abuse endured by slave children, who could not be protected or comforted by their own parents. It makes my skin crawl to think about it.

Sarah, my Native-American great-great-grandmother, did not have ancestors who crossed the Atlantic (as far as I know), and the predominant tribe in the area where my grandfather was born was the Powhatan tribe. A few years ago, April and I had an experience when we were driving through Virginia to visit a cousin on my father’s side of the family who lives near Richmond. All-of-a-sudden the navigation system started flipping out. “Turn back!” it said. “You are going in the wrong direction.” So April pulled over and made a U-turn. We drove for a few miles when again it said, “Turn back! You are going in the wrong direction.” By this point I pulled out the map and started looking at road signs to figure out where we were. After turning around again, I saw a sign that read, “You are entering Powhatan territory…” After seeing that sign (and pointing it out to April), the navigation system seemed to correct itself, and all was well. I do believe that this was my great-great-grandmother’s way of reaching out to say “Hello, Great-great-granddaughter!”

The hills of Albemarle County in Virginia, Powhatan territory

As I wrote earlier, the idea for this article started to percolate while on vacation in south Florida. To top it all off, on the plane flying home we happened to sit next to a man who was from my mother’s childhood neighborhood in Charleston, West Virginia. The world gets smaller every day.

A postscript: I do feel a special connection to Queen Victoria because she was very influential when it came to the success of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the choral group which my father directed from 1957 to 1986. She was the one who proclaimed that, “[The Fisk Jubilee Singers] sing so beautifully they must be from the Music City.” The family tree I spoke of at the beginning of this article also listed a Princess Irene as a direct descendant of Queen Victoria. In the early 1960’s, Princess Irene came to Nashville especially to hear the Fisk Jubilee Singers. They presented a Command Performance for the Princess in the Fisk University Memorial Chapel.

Queen Victoria listening to the Fisk Jubilee Singers in London

Another side note: It was Princess Irene’s sister – also a descendant of Queen Victoria – who married King Juan Carlos of Spain, who spoke to me on the phone while I was a student at Juilliard. I described the conversation in as earlier blog. It is unfortunate that I did not know at the time that The King’s sister-in-law had met my father in Nashville, and had heard the Jubilee Singers directed by him.

Princess Irene of Greece and Denmark

This article, which was originally intended to be for Black History Month, has turned out to be more about European History than Black history. But this is what is documented, and most of what is documented concerns Europeans. To reach my slave ancestors, I must go deeper into myself, and try to hear their voices. It is a huge challenge, especially in this age of electronic distractions. But sometimes they reach through the circuits to make their presence known. If only I can pay attention long and hard enough to catch the message.

Princess Irene with my father and the Fisk Jubilee Singers

¹ The National Medical Association was founded in 1895 because the American Medical Association (AMA) would not accept Black applicants.


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