Confederates in My Attic

Black History Firsthand

Some years ago, when my grandmother died at 94, she was writing a novel based on her life. She left only a few pages and an outline, but her life was indeed novel material. The daughter of Chloe Curry, a cook and tenant farmer who had been enslaved in Alabama, and Will Campbell, a white Mississippi Delta cotton farmer, she was born at the end of Reconstruction and was raised by this pair, who stayed together until his death early in the 20th century. Since I started searching for more clues to the lives of my grandmother and her mother for a book two years ago, I have, for the first time, come face to face with my white ancestors.

In the past few weeks, I've discovered that not only my grandmother thought she should write. In a Springfield, Missouri, archive, I found several hundred pages of letters from the Campbell family, manuscripts for at least one novel and a few short stories, a memoir of the Civil War, and a host of essays on international political issues. I found three women writers and an extraordinary saga. Though I have mixed feelings about calling them family after just finding out about them, I did find in them a fascinating "backstory" to my grandmother's birth.

The Campbell family home in Springfield, Missouri, on the day of Will Campbell's birth in 1852
photo: Courtesy of the History Museum for Springfield-Greene County
The Campbell family home in Springfield, Missouri, on the day of Will Campbell's birth in 1852



"'Don't Grieve After Me': More Than Singing for Your Supper"

"Who's Who"

My great-great grandfather, John Polk Campbell, a pioneer out of Maury County, Tennessee, went west and founded Springfield, Missouri in 1832. His life, according to Campbell memory, was something like a Kevin Costner movie: He fought the Sacramento people in California, built roads in Mexico, and suffered a pitiful death from scurvy in Cherokee territory. His wife, Louisa Terrill Campbell, brought him several slaves on their marriage and later gave him 11 children. A Texan who ran across her amused two family members by describing her as "a dark-complected woman . . . with a long nose and a hatchet face."

Leonidas Campbell and his sister Sarah Rush Owen, Vicksburg, 1850s
(photo: Tara Engberg)

Louisa's life after marriage was very hard and she became tough with it. One of her grandchildren said the only time she ever saw Louisa cry was when the youngest of her Confederate soldier sons returned home alive. In this regard, she had a lot in common with my black female ancestors.

A widow by the time of the Civil War, Louisa unknowingly became a heroine for a granddaughter she had taken in—Louisa Cheairs "Lulu" McKenny. In 1892, in a memoir called A Confederate Girlhood, Lulu wrote down the fascinating story of their wartime lives.

And Louisa Campbell's daughter Sarah Rush Campbell Owen, known as Rush, wrote as a passion. She raised four children and a host of grandchildren and wrote letters and stories on the stationery of the Owen Coal Company, on grocery lists, and in blank church booklets. She had married at 16, and when her husband died less than 10 years later, she took over his company. To learn the business, Rush went into coal mines from east Tennessee to Pittsburgh, bunked with miner families, and lived on a diet of boiled potatoes and milk.

In 1901, at age 64, she published a small collection of vignettes, Anemone's People, which are—surprise to me—all about black people. The only white character in this little booklet is a landowner who's a businesswoman much like herself.

Finally, I discovered, in the collection at the History Museum for Springfield-Greene County, that Lucy McCammon, Rush's daughter (and another granddaughter of Louisa Campbell), drafted numerous letters to her children on her husband's office stationery and typed rather progressive political essays during World Wars I and II. I haven't read them all yet, but one envisioned a world court to deal with dictators, said America should stand for peace, and judged that if the U.S. chose to follow other countries that have been taken over by greed and "gone down," it should go down too.

Chloe Curry, Mississippi, 1870s
(photo: Tara Engberg)

Finding the Campbell women jarred me, simply because for so many years it did not even occur to me to look for them. I know very few other African Americans who don't have their "white folks," but none who have searched them out. My uncle, Arthur Davis, gave me his unpublished autobiography to edit before he passed, and his early-20th-century childhood was replete with neighbors who knew their white kinfolk, usually former masters, so there was no mystery. But for the rest of us, relatives stopped repeating all the details, and in my own childhood, for instance, the white folks' papers were kept in a segregated library I could not visit.

More important, though, life for me as a Davis growing up in Virginia, with no knowledge of how we came to be called Davis, was still one of rich family lore. My great-grandfather was born in the county where Nat Turner lived and was an adolescent at the time of the revolt. Later on, he was in my hometown when Union troops came, and he rescued his family from the farm where they were kept. I have always felt how recent slavery was because my Davis grandfather was born in slavery and told of seeing the sea battle of the Monitor and Merrimac. We weren't missing anything, and what we knew of the white ancestors was none too good.

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