While reading through my Facebook feed a few days ago I saw a notice about a new movie called “Gina’s Journey: The Search for William Grimes” (*1). The link given was for a trailer and as I watched that short clip I was intrigued. William Grimes was a slave in the pre-Civil War south and Gina was Regina Mason, his great*3 granddaughter who was trying to uncover the story of his life.
I was intrigued because Regina was doing all her genealogical research in the days before the Internet, Google, and Ancestry.com. But in addition, William’s escape to the north had him in New Haven, CT, and Litchfield, CT, two places with which I am intimately familiar and where many of my ancestors would have been living. So, while I have no African blood in me and William is not one of my ancestors, would there have been connections between he and my ancestors? I had to find out.
The full-length movie is over an hour (1:22), but it was viewable via streaming video for free with Amazon Prime. Since I had purchased a subscription to Amazon Prime a few months ago, I decided to watch it.
The story begins with Regina growing up in California during the time of civil rights and trying to discover her place in life as a somewhat light-skinned individual who nevertheless identifies as black. A fifth-grade assignment results in her asking her mother about their family history and she learns things about it that are new to her but which are very sketchy. She is directed to an aunt who is the family historian and gets a few more details, but no satisfactory answers. Gina mumbles her way through the presentation in school, but the many unknowns of her ancestry do not disappear.
Later, as a young mother, she begins to do some research about her ancestors and is quickly drawn in to this genealogical adventure. I did not begin my own adventure until later in life, but I could thoroughly identify with the drive that she experienced.
The movie then begins weaving together several related threads – (1) depictions of Gina and her efforts at doing research (remember that this is a time when looking up census record meant scrolling through microfilm at a major library, not sitting down at a computer); (2) depictions of some of the incidents in William Grimes life as a slave; (3) narrations by the present day Gina, and (4) narrations by William Andrews, a professor at UNC, Chapel Hill, and Gina’s eventual collaborator in getting this story published.
I quickly realized that this movie is really the story of how the book was written – a book that was 15 years in the making! What a tremendous labor of love from Gina as did all this research while her daughters were growing up – balancing taking care of her family, having to get a job when her husband was laid off, and spending untold hours in the library doing research into her elusive ancestor. I knew that I had to buy the book to read the results of her labors (*2).
As the story progressed and William escaped slavery by hiding between bales of cotton on a ship heading north, I leaned in to watch very closely. There were very few actual names given, but William was now living in New Haven and Litchfield – my own stomping grounds growing up. In the incidents in Gina’s life doing the research, she is invited to visit the Litchfield Historical Society where she goes through a copy of the history of the town (*3) and the movie shows a few pages from that book where William’s name occurs. Another book I needed to get my hands on! The hour+ of the movie went by very quickly, but I needed more! My fellow genealogists can appreciate how I felt – wanting to know the rest of the story!
History of Litchfield
The center of Litchfield is less than 20 miles from my family home in Wolcott and is roughly a 30-minute drive. But growing up we did not have too many occasions to go there. However, my grandfather was a member of the Appalachian Mountain Club which maintained a cabin on Bantam Lake and where we had occasional family get-togethers in the summer. Bantam Lake straddles the border between Litchfield and Morris, and Morris was a part of Litchfield before it was split off in 1859 (after the time that William Grimes lived there).
Before the advent of rail travel, when the primary means of transportation was horse or wagon, Litchfield was a much more important town than it is today as it stood at the intersection of the main east-west road between Boston and New York and the north-south road from New Haven to Albany. So William finding himself there in the early 1800s would have been natural if he was trying to get away from New Haven where there were too many chances of him being discovered as a runaway slave and being returned to the South.
I started my reading in the book (*3) which had been mentioned in the movie I had just viewed. William only shows up on two pages and just briefly, but there was much more history about the other men in the town and many of them were familiar to me because of my genealogical research. A list of the surnames of individuals who are relatively close cousins (but several times removed) included the following (presented here in alphabetical order, not in order of importance or chronology):
Beebe, Beecher, Beers, Bradley, Bushnell, Burr, Canfield, Catlin, Deming, Humiston/Humaston, Morris, Pierpont, Reeve, Sanford, Seymour, Strong, Tallmadge, Trowbridge, Wolcott, Woodruff
I have mentioned the names Beecher, Burr, Canfield, Wolcott, and obviously Pierpont in some of my prior blogs. But the others here are all descendants of my immigrant ancestors in either Boston or New Haven during the time of the Great Migration. It was fascinating reading. But, as one might expect, this book drew a lot of material from other sources, so I found myself also getting copies (online) of first a book from 1859 about Litchfield (*4), then a yet older book on the subject from 1845 (*5). I have not read these latter two in nearly the depth as the initial book which covered 200 years of the history of the town, as much of the material from them was incorporated in the later book from 1920. But many of the same family names occur in the earlier writings as well.
Seeing so many individuals who are related to me and all in interactions with one another in the 1700s and early 1800s made for several hours of interesting reading. And since I am so familiar with the geography of that part of Connecticut and the roads which connect Litchfield with the neighboring towns of such places as New Milford and Cornwall where other of my direct ancestors lived made it all the more interesting.
All the prior watching and reading had been done via the Internet while sitting on the sofa in the living room. But they were activities that helped to pass the hours while I waited for the arrival via UPS of my copy of the book that was the subject of the movie. Being a recent book, I had ordered a copy so I could read the particulars about which Gina had written. I was not disappointed.
The format of the book is interesting. After the typical preface and table of contents, there is a long introduction by William Andrews, Regina’s collaborator, which gives the historical context of the times in which William Grimes lived as well as puts his writing in perspective as not only one of the earliest books about slavery, but its importance as it was written without the collaboration of any white men (who would have put a slant on the writing that may have distorted it).
The center part of the book is from the 1855 version of William’s book which was itself simply a reprinting of the earlier 1825 version with several added pages giving a synopsis of what had happened in the intervening 30 years. The first 30 years of William’s life (1784-1815) were pretty brutal and give a first-person account of the beatings that he endured at the hands of his several masters in Virginia and then in Georgia. Having seen the depiction of these events in the movie the previous day, I knew what was coming, but it was still difficult to read.
After William’s escape to Connecticut in 1815, I was surprised by how much he moved around. He lived not only in New Haven and Litchfield, but in Bridgeport, Stratford, Norwalk, Fairfield, New London, Newport, Providence, New Bedford, MA, and Southington.
An incident from his time in Southington was particular intriguing to me as he wrote, “while I was living in Southington, Conn., I went up on a high mountain and prayed to the Lord to teach me my duty, that I might know whether or not I ought to go back to my master.” Knowing the geography of Southington, the “high mountain” which William speaks of can only be one of two places. One is the escarpment to the west, the top of which is the town of Wolcott where I grew up! The other is the outcropping to the southeast, the top of which is currently the site of Castle Craig which overlooks Hubbard Park in Meriden and which I have climbed myself on many occasions.
William does not mention a lot of names of other individuals from his time in Connecticut, but there were a few that I recognized as being related to me. These included Gov. Oliver Wolcott, David Sanford and Seth Beers from Litchfield, and Stephen Twining from New Haven.
The final part of the book is an afterward by Regina Mason which recounts her 15-year journey in gathering the information about William and all the documented evidence that supports the narrative of William as he was growing up, getting sold and resold by various masters, and then his life in Connecticut. This paralleled what had been in the movie.
The last few days have been ones of a lot of watching and reading as I have delved into the fascinating life of William Grimes and did a lot of introspection into the part that my ancestors played in it. While Connecticut was one of the first states to emancipate slaves in 1784, it was a gradual process and the process of arresting runaway slaves from other states and returning them to the south continued for several decades (as William could attest).
I’ve written previously (*6) about my cousins Henry Ward Beecher and Harriett Beecher Stowe. They were both born in Litchfield (1813 and 1811 respectively) and lived there until 1826. Thus, they would have been children growing up during the years when William Grimes was living there (1819-late 1820s). He would have been one of the few [former] slaves that they encountered on a regular basis in what was not a large town (about 4500 at the time). Harriett later wrote “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in 1852, and Henry became a well-known abolitionist preacher. I can only speculate that William Grimes may have been a part of the inspiration for both of them.
I did not expect that my interest in genealogy would get me so involved in the story of slavery. But I am grateful to Regina for the research that she has done and helping to open my eyes to a part of history that I had not fully appreciated until seen in this book at such a personal level. I heartily recommend both the book and the movie about how it came to be.
*2 – “Life of William Grimes the Runaway Slave”, 2008, Edited by William L. Andrews and Regina E Mason, Oxford University Press, 145 pages
*3 – “The History of the Town of Litchfield, Connecticut 1720-1920”, 1920, available as a paid download (pages being quality photographs of the original with an extensive index of names appended), 472 pages
*4 – “Sketches and Chronicles of the Town of Litchfield, Connecticut”, Payne Kenyon Kilbourne, 1859, 284 pages
*5 – “History of Litchfield, Connecticut”, George C. Woodruff, 1845, 70 pages