Monday, March 16, 2009

Sugar of the Crop: One Woman’s Journey To Find Children of Slaves

In 1997, legislation was introduced by white politicians, calling on Congress to issue an official government apology for slavery. But who would accept the apology? Surely there are no slaves still living. But what about the children of slaves - were there any still alive? This was the question that Sana Butler, then a young associate producer working for ABC World News Tonight with Peter Jennings, thought would be an interesting story to pitch to the late news anchor.

Sana first began by contacting the sponsor of the bill to find out if any children of slaves were still living. Sana’s great grandmother had died less than a decade before and was the granddaughter of slaves, so she figured that there was a slight chance that seniors were still alive who were children of slaves. As it turned out, the bill was meant as a symbolic gesture, and no one was tracking down either generation. A secretary told Sana sarcastically, “All the children are dead unless they’re 200 or something.” “I’m sure there are some out there,” Sana told her. Her ten year journey began.

Sugar of the Crop, My Journey to Find The Children of Slaves, chronicles Sana’s ten-year odyssey. Published in Black History Month, a month after the historic inauguration of President Barack Obama, Sana met with the children of slaves and everyone interviewed for the book is now dead. She shares, “Left behind are weeks of tape-recorded conversations that have completely redefined my perspective on American history.”

Sana enlisted the help of senior centers and black churches to find her subjects. She traveled from California to Virginia, from Kentucky to Indiana, and in Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama and both North and South Carolina. There was no database of where freed slaves went after the Civil War. She had to create one from scratch. Sana’s questions she wanted answers to were: How did slaves, with no experience of a normal family, become husbands and wives, fathers and mothers? How did they transcend the trauma of being abused and beaten? How did they overcome their fear of white people? After growing up as another person’s property, how did freed slaves raise their children to be self-reliant and believe in the promise of a better future? I learned the answers to these questions by reading the book, and I also learned so much more about black history – history I didn’t even know existed.

One subject who stood out to me was Crispus Attucks Wright, age 87, who was the second black lawyer in Beverly Hills and a self-made millionaire. (The first black lawyer was Martha Louis, the third wife of boxing great Joe Louis.) Sana learned about Mr. Wright from a University of Southern California (USC) press release announcing his donation of $2 million dollars to the USC Law School – and that his father was born a slave in Louisiana. The cash gift was the largest to USC by an African American. (This is one of the many awesome black history facts I didn’t know.)

Sana shares about her experience, “Interviewing children of slaves was something no one had ever done before which baffled me. The generation represented the hopes and dreams of slaves and if anyone was going to document how their parents raised them it had to be done now because the sons and daughters were dying....After the Civil War, slaves genuinely believed in the promise and greatness of America. No one has ever told that story. They voted at rates never since seen. Ran for office at rates never since seen in order to participate in the rebuilding of a new America.”

The Sugar of the Crop Foundation: This June, Sana is collaborating with the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture Junior Scholars Program to continue the search. President Obama mentioned children of slaves in both his acceptance and inauguration speeches that she did not interview, leading her to believe there are still more out there. Sugar of the Crop Foundation’s goal is to create an oral history database similar to the Works Progress Administration Slave Narratives, but of sons and daughters talking about how their parents raised them. If we don’t start the search now, their stories will be gone forever.

Sana with Walter Scott in Keysville, VA in 2000. Both of his parents were born slaves in Virginia. His father Robert was almost 30 when slavery ended and his mother, Alice, was six.

Sana is available for book signings and readings. For bookings contact Tangela Ray, publicist at or 901-331-9802.



Lola Gets said...

Oh, yeah, I think I am going to check this book out!


Tracey said...

You'll definitely love the book! Thanks Lola,

Melissa said...

this is so crazy!
the fact that black history was not written down until recently is sad!
My sis and I are always talking about if you have no foundation, values and morals have to be found else where, as far as culture, and black people in general are struggling with identity. My black politics teacher, always says that music gives blacks a bad reputation. I am in the middle with such a bold statement like that, but he is from the baby boomer era, and music and entertainment is all we can really highlight as our culture. I am not dissing it at all, becuase i love my people and my music, but it would be nice to say "well in my culture, we eat this food because, or marriage ceremonies are held, and etc.

black people are so unique becuase we really cannot trace back our roots, and say " i am this, 50percent, and this" - i know I cant. And it is becuase of how slavery divided us, and sold us, and made sure we had no connection to our families again. It's not right, at all. Like Nas says, we were existed way before black colleges, and we were millionaires way before the 1900's. but There is just no records to prove that!

I am definitely going to order this book! It sounds like an amazing journey she was on!

Ps. Have you heard of the Negro Year Book?

Angela said...

Definitely pick up a copy of this book! I am two chapters from completing it and have treasured every moment of it. I particularly liked the way Sana processed each visit and compared it to how we view family today! Still looking for that elusive "motivating force" that drove ex-slaves to push towards success in all areas. (wish I could bottle it.)

Tracey said...

To M or M: Your comment slipped by me, I'll have to check out the Negro year book!

To Angela: Isn't the book great?! I think its a must read, particularly for our youth.