November 12, 2013
ABSENT FROM THE TABLE: THE FAMILY STORY FROM SOLOMON TO THE PRESENT, BY HIS GREAT-GREAT GRANDDAUGHTER
“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but What is woven into the lives of others” – Pericles (c. 495-429 BC)
By Irene M. Northrup-Zahos
5:30 am. My house is silent with the quiet breathing of sleeping children. The friskiness of my daughter’s male Siamese stirs me awake. He is intent on chasing a toy rattle, then topples down the upstairs landing, his head and tail balled with a resonating, “THUMP!”, tumbling down each step to an abrupt , “PLOP!” No worse for wear, he scurries off to lick his pride, nestled in his basket haven. Arabica coffee beans, ground into an aromatic pungent brew, are now a brown liquid that I pour into a porcelain cup embellished with an old blue Delft pattern that had belonged to my maternal Dutch- English grandmother. A flood of memories course through my brain as I watch the hot fluid engulf the cup, lapping the center, rushing up the sides to fill. I escape back to a time and place thought distant and secluded in a cob-webbed memory.
My grandchildren, now 20 and 7 years old, have at different moments been curious and, in looking for a sense of self and identity, asked: “Where do my people come from?” or “Make a chart, Nana, that tells my story.” Today the impetus seems more intense, and with the recent death of a dear relative, urgency pervades my inner soul. My seventh decade is upon me, spurring further a need to fulfill my part of a legacy.
I reach to the uppermost shelf of my bookcase and once more am greeted with the one hundred and sixty-year old memoir of my great-great-grandfather, Solomon Northup. His 1853 narrative, Twelve Years a Slave, I handle gently as it has been passed from generation to next. Its cover has long ago disappeared, and the remaining fragile contents are wrapped in a plastic shroud. The first page identifies it as having belonged to my paternal grandfather, John Henry “Zip” Northrup, the son of Alonzo Northrup, the son of Solomon Northup.
Awareness of Presence
The first fragment of my genetic essence arose out of Africa. I know. You look at me in surprised wonder and nod in disbelief. All that is seen before you is an elderly, plump, white female. Funny! I am mildly amused. I begin to articulate a history that is full of life experiences and emotions: love, hate, responsibility, generosity, perseverance, faith, diversity, community and hope, all of which are ingrained in our handed-down legacy.
Beyond my furrowed brow, the immediate recall of native villagers attacked, pillaged, shackled ; their conquerors….white slave traders or the opportunistic and winning foe….ushering this file of Black tribesmen, women and children on board slave ships setting sail on a long and harrowing voyage to the New World. Once there, they are sold and distributed to plantations located in the South, to the Caribbean Islands, the West Indies, Latin America and some to homes in the North. With this last destination…more specifically, Rhode Island, begins my recorded family tree in 1700 North America with a slave named Mintus. Upon the death of his owner, Mintus was given his freedom via his owner’s last will and testament. Mintus took his owner’s last name, Northup, for his own, not an uncommon practice then. Mintus was excused from our table in 1829.
It is in this knowing of family history and lore that we find the strains of many people, traditions and nations meeting and blending into a nuclear fusion of diversity and substance. Diversity becomes a constancy that seems predicted from the early marriages of Mintus and that of his son, Solomon, since they and their wives were of a diverse mixed family tree. This refrain is repeated when John Henry “Zip” Northrup, Solomon’s grandson and my paternal grandfather, marries twice. Agnes May Parker, his first wife, was of African-American descent; his second wife and my paternal grandmother, Elsie Mae Zirbel, was of German-Italian lineage. They had five children, a daughter and four sons. Each child had complementary ethnic traits from these two blended tree branches. The trait being stronger lent more to the lightening in skin color and a slight relaxation in hair texture. Each of these gene determinants were further potentiated when my father, John Calvin Northrup, married my mother, Ethel Louise DeVoe, a woman of French, English, Dutch and Irish ancestry. Included in my lineage is the blood of Native America and a little known tribe that belonged to the Iroquois Confederacy, the Cayuga.
A consistent and undying theme in the world in which I grew up was the persistent stereotyping and attachment to a person’s color. The superficial depth of one’s skin surface purportedly reflected the value and worth of an individual human being! The first ten years of my life, I was raised in a small rural, agricultural, mostly white community. Each resident treated the other with respect and dignity! Doors were left unlocked; help was never more than a phone call away; a person’s word was the trust in a firm handshake. Bringing in a crop or erecting a neighbors’ barn became an unplanned picnic where families gathered, women to prepare the table and food, men to raise a building or labor in the field. Children played in open fields and fresh air. Everyone knew each other and their ancestral heritage. Going to church every Sunday was an entire family event! It was on each Sunday that my family gathered for dinner, playing card or board games, racing around outside with our neighbors’ 21 children or listening to the Emerson radio to a news or special mystery/musical program. An Eden in retrospect!
Stirring Changes Midst New Movement
This idyllic homestead exploded after my grandfather died and the farm was sold. My father exchanged farm work, learning how to operate heavy equipment construction machinery. He participated in the original construction of both the Thomas E. Dewey Thruway (now New York State Thruway) and on the Robert Moses Electrical Plant at Niagara Falls, New York. Both were the behemoths of their era. Although he never became rich nor was academically proficient beyond the eighth grade, he can stand tall in knowing these two landmark structures are still viable, continuing to serve invaluable transportation connections and utility demands to a huge populace today.
Alonzo Northrup, Solomon Northup’s son, had moved his family from the Saratoga Springs area in an effort to acquire gainful employment that would support his growing family. He had been attracted to the need for laborers on the Erie Canal, on which Weedsport was situated and becoming a growing port village. Alonzo had served in the Civil War prior to his marriage. It is here in the Army that the last name, “Northup”, begins to have the letter “r” added in its spelling due to a clerical error. It has remained that way; his last name on his headstone was engraved with that spelling. Because of his familiarity with horses and because they were used on the Erie Canal for mooring boats and the loading/unloading of various manufactured goods, this seemed to be a good fit for him. It also paid very well. Alonzo was excused from the table in 1909.
John Henry Northrup, the seventh child of Alonzo, grew up to have an interest in playing baseball. At the age of seventeen, he began playing for a renowned village team called the Watsons. He could play any position but was excellent at pitching. Newspaper accounts of the games that he played would identify him as the “Negro twirler”, “the bronze warrior” or the “colored player”. Peculiar references one would think, as he was the only colored player on the team! With this talent, he was chosen to play on a professional Negro-League team called the Genuine Cuban Giants. He played three years with this team, leaving because he felt that the team played him “too hard” without any rest of his pitching arm. During this time the team traveled and usually played “pick-up” games, better known as “barnstorming”. There were no organized schedules as there is today and teams found games by visiting towns/cities where baseball teams were known to have formed. One can only surmise the harsh life of traveling about, literally as vagabonds. One can only surmise the spectators’ behavior and mentality as they watched the Negro players play baseball, the coarse words shouted, debris thrown, and the uncivil treatment of one human with another. Throughout his lifetime, he was involved with baseball, wearing many hats as a player, coach, manager and organizer. In October 2012, after the acceptance and approval of pertinent research I had gathered, I received confirmation that his name would be entered in The All-Time Negro Baseball Register of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). This register includes the names of over 7,000 Negro League Baseball players, owners, managers, umpires, batboys, bus drivers including women of the Negro Leagues from 1862-1960. John Henry resides in the same company of major league players such as: Willie Mays, Roy Campanella, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Larry Doby, Satchel Paige, Jackie Robinson and more. Grandpa Northrup left our table in 1944.
Grandma Elsie Mae Northrup, John Henry’s second wife, was a strong woman who kept her house neat as a pin! Her skin was the color of milk and her eyes were the crystal blue seen on a clear day in the sky. We were never allowed to enter her home from the front door, but instead came to the porch door off her kitchen. That was the best entrance, anyway! Grandma was always baking or cooking up some surprise that warmed our souls and filled our bellies! She was a seamstress that could match any designer of fashion today. She took great joy in playing her upright piano with the vivacity and assertiveness of any concert artist! From Bach to Beethoven, any popular sheet music of the day and any choral music, she played with the same conviction. She had the most warm, soprano voice, bringing to life the beautiful hymns from a song book that she had placed at center on the piano rack. Because Grandpa was usually away working, Grandma managed the farm and her home with equal adeptness while raising four children. A fifth child had died from pneumonia when he was 6 months old. Grandma left our table in 1958.
Their child, my father, had light blue eyes that sparkled when he laughed or had found some impish fun in telling a story while probing our intelligence with some off-hand question when he already knew the answer. His skin was an oak veneer that tanned to near mahogany in the summer as he worked on different outdoor construction projects. He had a cowlick and with the wiry hair of his ancestry found it difficult to keep it neatly groomed, even with the use of his favorite hair tonic. It usually tented in the center of his forehead, the reason why he generally had it clipped tightly to his scalp. Although he tolerated some of the unwanted attention to his pedigree, Dad always would laugh and state, “If they don’t believe I’m white, then I’ll pull my pants down and let them take a peek at my ass!” This area of his anatomy was always as pale as a sheet! John Calvin Northrup was excused from our table in 1990.
Targeting the Innocent
At different residences, we were baptized with some of the harsh vestiges of racial slurs and unaccustomed terms of “coon”, “nigger”, “zebra” and “Creole stew”, colorful personifications! This beginning sparked a terror I had not felt before. It brought me to the depths of a relentless insanity from which one rose upward with an innate strength to persevere!
My younger brother, Paul Raymond Northrup, came home from kindergarten one day with tears in his eyes as he explained to mother an episode that had occurred in his class. He related that his teacher had grabbed his shirt collar roughly in an attempt to have him move faster, as she had ordered him. She had left bleeding scratched areas on his neck and didn’t let him go to the nurse’s office nor give him first aid care. Mother immediately responded to his physical need and the next day she confronted the school principal and Paulie’s teacher. “Paulie” was so beautiful! An angel with his saucer-sized warm brown eyes, mop of loose curls and chestnut colored skin. He had been diagnosed with epilepsy and prescribed medication that thwarted his disease events but which, also, made his reactions slow to command. At times, his ethnicity became a ploy to be used by a prankish peer pelting him with unkind words. Noticeably hurt, “Paulie” would always smile, ignoring the innuendos and frolic at his expense. In September of 1965, “Paulie” was excused from our table when an engine block fell on his chest, one week before his thirteenth birthday. I still miss his smile and gentleness.
Hate Rears Its Ugly Head
Jacksonville, Florida of the late 1950’s, seemed environmentally beautiful and with a new push in highway development and opportunity, my father took a position as a crew boss. “More money,” he said! It was our home base for a year and offered another perspective that was part of a burgeoning, ripening Civil Rights unrest, segregation protest and a slew of atrocities that occurred locally and nationally.
I recall once walking with my sisters to go to the library on a Saturday morning and hearing what sounded like a parade of musicians with their horns blaring and drums in loud percussion marching toward us. Opening a store door and rushing to us was the proprietor. He emphatically ushered us into his store, closed the door abruptly, locking it and explaining that that noise was, “troubling.” As we inched our way nearer the windows, we stretched apart a slat in the blinds to peak out to the street. We gasped as we saw a group of white coned hats and white gowned people in front of and behind a vehicle with a mounted cross and an attached body! Signs bearing racial terms fueled with intense hatred were waved and pumped up and down in an attempt to garner support and recognition. The group was as loud and boisterous as the horn and drum throng. We had thought it some religious promenade only to be shocked in realizing that the “effigy on the cross” looked like a body of a Black man! The group had set fire to its feet and tended to it as it slowly burned while they continued marching down the street! The shopkeeper called our mother to let her know why we were so delayed in getting back home. Although this horrific event was embedded in our brains, it was this shopkeeper’s generosity and action that preserves the memory that there are good people in this world regardless of the events that grasp at insanity and disregard for humankind. I am sure that this shopkeeper and people like him are missed from their family’s table.
Mother’s Quiet Strength
It was uncommon to see a person of color with a white individual unless the person of color was employed by the white. More commonly was the separation of dining areas, bathrooms and water fountains. Entrances and all of the above were labeled color-specific.
While shopping one day, my seven-year old sister, Frannie, was thirsty and asked mother which fountain to drink from. Mother took her to the “White” fountain and let Frannie drink. Mother then was made strongly aware that she had chosen wrongly. The literal exchange of information and temperament intoned from this “instructor” made my mother’s alabaster face red with rage! Mother quietly gathered the seven of us to leave with the “instructor” following us close behind with further incensed babbling.
The “instructor” wasn’t aware of the strength it took for my mother to remain silent. My mother’s presence and strength are constant, though she was excused from our table in 2004.
Vignettes and Footprints
I can acknowledge those moments when being white (whiter) opened doors, offering me opportunity and recognition of substance. I can attest to those moments of clinging and bringing to life my African- American heritage, having it impact a positive, constructive change in an individual and in a relationship. I am inflamed, insulted and saddened when I hear the terms “entitlement” and “privilege” used in a disparaging tone and manner by family, friend or spectator, black or white! Sadly, these terms abruptly and figuratively close the door on discussion and in pursuit of any gainful understanding or growth.
I can refer to an aunt who worked diligently and creatively for our government. She was esteemed highly in our family and known as the “great communicator,” our local social network distributor. Regardless of what may have been going on in her personal life, she always had the time for each of us. There was not any birth, birthday, wedding, anniversary, holiday or other family or personal event that she hadn’t recognized by sending cards, letters, newspaper clippings or by calling one of us on the phone for a personal chat. She recognized a need among her fellow Federal retired workers and spearheaded the formation and first charter of a group that supports their transition of retirement into civilian life and activities for these same workers. It is still in place today. For her pro-active insight and resolve, she received letters of recognition and of commendation from Presidents Carter and Reagan, which were shown proudly in her home. Aunt Lois I. Northrup-Merkley was excused from our table in 2003. We all miss her.
Raymond Harry ( “Mic” or “Zip”) Northrup, a foundry laborer by trade, was an avid baseball enthusiast. When younger, he was an excellent baseball pitcher, who played semi-professional baseball with the “Homer Braves” in the 1940’s. They were a championship team that won local and state division titles during the years that he played. He continued to play baseball throughout his life and was instrumental in helping young people learn the game and how to play it well with an attitude of good sportsmanship. He was my mentor and confidante when I was young and well into adulthood. He always shared words of wisdom, insight and serious talk, throwing in a laugh or two. While lying in hospital, he had lapsed into a deep sleep after receiving Demerol, but every once in a while would comment about a baseball game that was being played over his head. There was never a moment in his company that we didn’t feel loved! There was never a time that we weren’t held in awe by his earnest concern and, in return, we showered him with deserved respect. Those days of his youth called him back to the game that he loved, and my uncle “Mic” was excused from our table in 1982.
John Dewey Northrup at seventeen was looking forward to his upcoming Junior Prom and graduation the following June. He had been looking into various career pathways with his school counselor. He loved working on anything mechanical, turning “nothing into something” with a surprising creative genius. Johnny was well-liked by his peers and his teachers. He was very attentive to his grooming and wore his hair in the familiar pompadour of ‘Elvis’ with one unique characteristic Elvis didn’t have…..a natural blond streak of hair that brought an added highlight of its own. With his ocean blue eyes looking at us, we each felt drawn to him instantly. He was so entranced by the teenage singer, Peggy March, that he played her 33 1/3-LP repeatedly. He loved to help out anyone for his sheer enjoyment and self- satisfying reward. June 1965, my eldest brother was excused from our table while helping another friend in need.
Beverly Jane Northrup experienced unimaginative and unanticipated hate and brutality in her married life. Hate grew and manifested itself from blind love and trust into a gladiator’s arena of corporal beatings and cruelty. Words cannot explain one’s luck in having this occur three times in one lifetime! Forgiveness was a common denominator, but not as strongly idealized as the closeness and strong singular unity of belief felt in Jesus Christ and her Savior. God was her fortress, confessor and the ultimate force that she gave her body and soul freely. While stationed in Korea with her husband, she decided to pursue the martial art of Tae Kwon Do. During the two years that she was stationed there with her family, she mastered this martial art and was awarded a 2nd degree Black Belt. She had to carry a license that depicted her martial art capability identifying her hands as a deadly weapon! During the time that she and her family were stationed in Turkey, she was instrumental in developing a support group and a program that assisted military wives in a seamless transition and orientation with their deployment to a foreign land the people, the language and the traditions therein. She was recognized for this sensitivity to the psychological adjustment need of first-time military families locating to a new environment. The company general had awarded her with a letter of recognition. Other American family military support groups in other parts of the world have benefitted from her endeavor with implementation of these similar organizations. In 2008, my sister, Beverly Jane Northrup, boarded the “Glory Train” to Heaven and was excused from our table.
Out of high school and fresh-faced with all of the promise of a bright tomorrow, Donald Dewey Northrup, Sr., set his sights on furthering his education and attended business school. After graduation, he enlisted in the United States Air Force. He was surprised to find that he had a teaching acumen. He learned all about jet engines and was sent to various locations where his expertise was invaluable as America entered the Korean War. The need for well-trained mechanics and his added benefit to a pilot’s knowledge enhanced his value. Throughout his tenure with the Air Force, he was awarded letters of recognition and commendation from his commanding general and that of President Dwight David Eisenhower. Leaving the military and venturing into the corporate world, he again was promoted moving from one company to another and then from New York to California. Ever mindful of his roots and his father’s encouragement as a child, Uncle Don involved himself in his community’s Little League. He was a coach from the time that his son began playing at seven years old through the next ten years. Nearing retirement, he moved back to New York State to his rural origins. He became an officer in the Port Byron Central High School Alumni Association and worked hard many years to promote local events for the benefit of the students. He was also instrumental in having a military plaque placed on the grave of Sam Errico, his uncle, and a veteran of World War 1. Others had reaped the rewards of his expertise and determination to follow through and accomplish each goal. He was excused from our table in 2002.
Some family members have led quiet lives and seemed reclusive or distant. Others, as you have read here, have been more colorful and drawn to community service. Sam Errico and Charlotte Northrup had married with their intent of owning property and starting a family. The first goal was accomplished; the second was less fruitful. But they were blessed in being chosen to raise a nephew, Robert Cooper. Robert grew up to participate in baseball and have a family of his own. Aunt Lotte, in 1960, and Uncle Sam, in 1964, were excused from our table.
Frank Northrup was an avid baseball player, as well, and along with his brother, John Henry “Zip” Northrup, who managed the team, played. Frank married a woman known as “Eva” Stewart. She was the great grand niece of Harriet Tubman. This union secured further the association with the history of the Underground Railroad and the involvement of Solomon Northup. Frank, in 1962, and Eva, in 1964 were excused from our table.
Occasionally, life throws a curve, either from the pitcher’s mound of a baseball diamond or by misplaced information prior to a walk down the aisle of wedded bliss. Robert L. Northrup had been a baseball player encouraged by his father, John Henry “Zip” Northrup. Robert was the able catcher of the Weedsport Watsons and had a good playing record with the team. He worked at the International Harvester plant in Auburn, New York. He had met a woman with whom he fell in love with and planned to marry. Their engagement photo was placed in the local paper with the heading, “White Girl, Negro to Be Married Saturday.” Their marriage took place. Three months afterwards a shadow loomed overhead when it was found that his wife had omitted the fact that she had still been married to another man at the time of their nuptials. Eventually, issues were straightened out and they became officially married. Life seemed to be offering the promise of good things happening in the future for them, especially when they found that they were expecting their first child. Prior to their child’s birth, Robert was the victim of an automobile accident and left our table in 1942.
Mystery and Hope
There are many stories left untold. Some have never ended in closure, yet others were lost and kept silent forever. One such story is that of the death of Solomon Northup; a question of when and where he may have died has remained unanswered, but frequently speculated and weighed upon. Perhaps, with the upcoming film of his narrative new information may surface giving closure. Perhaps then, we can say that Solomon was excused from the table on_________. And perhaps, with a global viewing and rekindled interest in the inhumane treatment of one man over another, a motivated, concerted pure effort will invite to the table a serious dialogue seeking answers and closure so that this heinous crime called slavery may never rear its ugly head ever……and that color will never be the decisive instrument used to weigh ones worth!
Remembrance and Introspection
For me, I will continue to set my table with the extra place setting and candle lit on holidays when family sit to enjoy a shared meal and chat of all that is going on in their lives or at the moment. The place setting and candle recognizes all those who are missed and are absent from the table. We await their company.
THE ASSUMPTION (RACISM 102)
You’ve greeted, then asked of me
A question most perplexing it be
White girl? Black girl?
Quizzical eyes in the air whirl….
Shoulders shrugged as about face you twirl.
Hey, stop! Don’t escape away.
Come! Sit! Opportunity waits to say…
My hair? My face? My nose? My skin? What curiosity lies within?
What boundaries have you seen broke? Were they so tight….enough to choke?
A man and a woman united as one, In love, blinded by their heart’s sun! The mingling of their DNA….
Gave essence to my French vanilla latte!
May I remind and impress on you
My road to adulthood had barriers, too.
A door would open and then abruptly close, When my parents entered in proud pose.
And you say, “That was way back then!”
Oh, no, it is still alive and well today, my friend. Like Lucy in the Awash Valley found….
I am, too, a bridge to which we are all bound.
By Irene M. Northrup-Zahos, copyright 2013