When I was growing up, my family was working class. But my mother, whose parents had been owners of small businesses, had ambitions for us.
My parents, both African Americans from the South, had talked about the past, but my father had always been reserved about his. His parents had died within months of each other when he was only six, he’d said; reminders of them and of his life growing up were painful memories. I knew my mother’s family—I had spent summers with them in Florida, where they lived, but of course I was curious about my father’s. However, to please my mother, I more or less willingly lived in the dark about the rest of my antecedents.
In 2013, my husband Joe, his sisters, and I were invited to spend the exhausted, overfed days between Christmas and New Year’s with his youngest sister in North Carolina. My deceased father’s birthplace of Hamlet lay a mere 70 miles away so I planned to spend a day trying to unearth my absent history. There’s no stopping determined resolution; and, as my mother used to say, “The truth will out.”
Once in Hamlet, Joe’s sisters and I headed for the Richmond County Registry of Deeds. I was skeptical that we’d discover anything of value there, imagining my little crew and me spending our afternoon wading through piles of dusty documents of little interest.
But my sister-in-law Cathy, an ardent research librarian, had insisted. “The Registry at least can show us where your father lived.”
“In that case I’m in,” I said.
However, none of us anticipated what we ultimately found.
Inside the Registry, Joe and I lifted from the shelves the General Index to Real Estate Conveyances of Richmond County, NC, from 1784. One of the first items we noticed was a cemetery with Dobbins, my grandmother’s maiden name. Excitement rose within me.
My husband and I called out information from the index to his sisters, who stood at computers. A yell erupted from them. “Look! Here’s a whole neighborhood named Dobbins.”
My sisters-in-law pointed, with well-deserved pride, to a scanned legal document. On it were numerous contiguous plots of land. The map was titled, “For the Benton Heirs.” My father was a Benton; I am a Benton. A grin broke across my features.
My father’s family had owned a great deal of land in his hometown. His forebears are described as “original settlers” of the area. But my mother had described my father’s family as “Nothing special.”
Then a mitigating thought struck me.
“Of course!” I reasoned. “Mom probably didn’t even know about Pop’s family’s property. Surely it would have been sold before she met and married him in New York.”
A moment later I tucked in my chin and stared at the General Index, speechless. There was my mother’s fluid signature on documents confirming that she, with a couple of my father’s siblings, had held power of attorney over the sale of some of the property owned by my father’s family.
My mother had known about his family’s holdings. Why did she keep this information from me? She was particularly closed mouth about money; this is just the sort of thing she would hide. But why? There remain many more questions to be answered, like how did African Americans amass all that wealth in the early 20th century or even before?
Something odd happened when my Joe, his sisters, and I returned to the center of town.
I used my phone to take photos of the Art Deco movie theatre, as well as of several other buildings. Except for the images of the movie theater, all my photos came out disturbingly double exposed, fractured in ragged vertical and diagonal lines with borders reaching towards other borders, something that’s never happened before or since.
Like the edge of a myth bleeding into facts, the truth about my family is a rich, mysterious collage. And I’m eager to find out more.
To see more about my family’s secrets about money, click on My Mother’s Money: A Memoir of Suspense.
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