I live now about ten miles from Springdale, Iowa in a house that was built around the time Thomas Jenkins first came to the state. I arrived in this area in 1979, when I was in tenth grade at Scattergood Friends School, two and a half miles from Springdale. Mom had married her second husband that summer in the Quaker meetinghouse at Scattergood. Their marriage entailed moving into his house in rural Illinois so I ran a successful begging campaign and was allowed to go to Scattergood instead.
When things didn’t go as she planned Mom absconded to Springdale, where there were a few Quakers she knew and an old general store for rent with an apartment in the back which became my home base for the next several years. Her house was on a gravel street leading out of town to the cemetery, at the top of a rise, and that was the best place to head to for a walk. That means I probably first saw Thomas’s grave over Thanksgiving or Christmas of 1979. Springdale Friends Cemetery is a small plot with about six hundred memorials overhung by very old evergreens. Thomas W. Jenkins’s stone is in a back corner, bounded on two sides by walls of corn. In winter the stubble is a demonstration of the color “harvest gold” and by the end of June it’s happened all over again and the corn is ten feet high and deep emerald green. The air smells sugary. Respiration from all the corn makes the Iowa countryside even more humid then than it would be otherwise, so great is our hunger for high fructose corn syrup.
I have direct ancestors on both sides of my family who arrived on this stolen continent in the 1600’s and enthusiastically enslaved Black people for profit. On Mom’s side the enslavers were Nantucket Quakers*, and on my father’s side they were Virginia planters. My first ever genealogical motivation was to learn which generation of my forebears was the last to own slaves. I knew about Grandpa’s family but not because anyone ever said anything. I was trying to think, could he have known folks who used to own slaves? Yankees tend to be very naive about these things. The answer was yes, as anyone born near the turn of the last century and especially anyone from slave owning families might have. His grandfather was the right age, but by the time Grandpa was born our branch of the Clopton family had been in Iowa for a few generations. I narrowed it down to my 4x great grandparents, John Robert Clopton and Jane Perkins, of Kentucky, or perhaps their son and daughter in law, my 3x great grandparents David Clopton and Lavinia Jane Cogdal who migrated from Virginia to Missouri and Iowa. It’s all murky, as few families happily spotlight their ancestor’s transgressions.
I wondered about other kinds of distance, not just time and DNA but location and affinity. That’s when my Clopton genealogy went on hold and I began thinking about Thomas Jenkins. Initially it was a Reparational Genealogy project. I set out to make a family tree him, first to simply lift him up as a whole, connected person, and second, to make that basic information about his life available for his descendants. As I learned more I found that I really scored big on my new genealogical dimensions of distance from a historical figure: location and affinity. At that point I couldn’t really stick to building a tree. I knew too much.**
My first inquiries surprised me. Thomas was an integral part of the Springdale Quaker community for over forty years. In fact, there were more Black people living in the vicinity then, by far, than for many decades now. He probably shopped at the grocery store Mom lived in. He may have met John Brown! He knew Herbert Hoover as a boy. We were members of the same little conservative Quaker meeting 100 years apart. I found that he does not have any living descendants. I checked on Ancestry.com for him or his daughter Emily to appear on anyone else’s family trees. No one is looking for them. I’m not sure how that makes me feel – I guess just responsible. Maybe I’m their foster descendant.
Thomas’s life is not unknowable just because he was enslaved. The place he escaped in Missouri could be less than 100 miles from where I live in Iowa. Evidence of him does exist as tally marks on the federal census, decade after decade and someone always had to pay property tax on him, someone filed a deed for him at a county courthouse. Maybe his name is listed in someone’s estate inventory. Maybe his owner placed an ad in the paper promising a reward for his capture where they described him: his stature, scars, mannerisms, his clothing. The evidence is out there. Even though I feel like I am circling closer and closer to the truth he’s obviously remains, in some ways, a needle in the haystack.
Why is a White Lady Writing About a Black Man’s Life When She Has Very Little Business Trying to Do That?
So. Who gets to tell the stories of Black people? Obviously maybe not white people, and I definitely am what has been called a mediocre white woman.*** Maybe the story of Thomas Jenkins is not mine to tell at all and maybe the most respectful, dignified thing to do is let it be forgotten. My Quaker grandparents talked about having wooden grave markers that would last only as long as those who cared. (We used granite anyway, btw.) Oh well.
I’m extremely aware of being a white woman telling a Black man’s story and that I have batrillions of biases, prejudices and ignorance shaping the way I tell it. I could simply report the facts, but that’s boring and a waste of a lot of thoughts and ideas flawed though they may be. If you prefer the bleeped version (bleeped of my thoughts and feelings) I advise skimming.
*two pairs of my 8x great grandparents, William Worth and Sara Macy (Ishmael), James Coffin and Mary Gardner (Hagar). Also one set of my 7x great grandparents, Stephen Hussey and Martha Bunker (Sarah, Mark, Dorothy.) I’m sure there were others, and this doesn’t go into the uncles and cousins, as I’m related to most of the people who settled Nantucket. While this is not directly relevant to Thomas Jenkins it is always good to repeat the names of enslaved people if you know them.
**Plus there was a global pandemic and I needed something else to obsess about.
***If a more qualified writer/researcher wants to take this story over I will step back and let them have at it. I’m not even kidding.