Perplexing Beginnings

One thing I have learned from genealogical research is that there is no one alive who can’t find both pride and bewilderment in their roots. For me I have to go back three-four generations before I get to ancestors in born in the nineteenth century. Some branches I’ve traced back to the thirteenth century which adds up to a lot of ancestors. In my case they’re as diverse as this country itself.

I’ve written previously about the diversity of my heritage, and the pride I have in it. I have European ancestors, African ancestors, Asian ancestors, and Native American ancestors. While that is true, I also have a son who has light blonde hair, bright blue eyes and creamy white skin, but on his maternal side he can find roots in every corner of the globe. Honestly, his appearance is not much different from mine at his age, yet my genes tell a completely different story.

My maternal grandmother was a beautiful, black woman. There are many other (and much better) ways to describe her, and she was certainly defined by far more than the color of her skin, but that fact is undeniable. She was beautiful. She was Black. She was a woman.

Joan Marie Russell (7)
My grandmother, Joan Marie Russell Oldfield at age 17 in 1955.

I never knew her. I wished that I had been able to know her, but she died when I was 5 1/2 months old at the age of 49 in 1987. I never really knew my grandfather, either, but I at least was able to meet him and have conversations with him. I did not have that privilege with her. Everything I know about her comes from my mother and the research I’ve done on her and her family. There is no doubt that my grandmother was one of my mother’s heroes. Learning the details of my grandmother’s life, she’s become one of my heroes as well. The things she endured, many that had nothing to do with her race, make my troubles look like a walk in the park in comparison.

She was born in 1938 to Antonia Camille Glaudin and Charles Robert Roussell (the spelling of her maiden name was changed later in life). The couple lived in New Orleans at the time with their first child, a son, Robert. Antonia was herself no stranger to tragedy. She lost several siblings to varies ailments as a child, lost her mother at the age of 10, and lived in the segregated South as a woman of color.

Antonia Camille Glaudini (3)
Antonia Camille Glaudin Roussell in the 1940s

Antonia Camille Glaudin was born in 1901 to Vincent Nicholas Glaudin and Camille Remy in New Orleans. She was one of the younger Glaudin siblings. Her mother, Camille, died in 1911 at the age of 39 from kidney disease, just four months after the birth of Antonia’s youngest sibling.

Camille Remy
Camille Remy Glaudin in 1899 at the age of 28.

Antonia’s father,Vincent was born in 1869. The second of two sons and third of four children born to Maurice (born St. Meurice) Nicholas Glaudin and Louisa Pinta. I do not know, nor have I ever met anyone who knew Vincent personally. The only things I know about him come from what I have researched. He was a man of mixed heritage himself (listed as “mulatto” on multiple censuses and colored on many vital statistic documents). He worked as a drayman and grew up just a few blocks from the French Quarter of New Orleans. One colorful anecdote about him is that in 1891 he and his older brother Maurice  Jr. were arrested after an altercation at the dedication of a church in New Orleans. During this altercation, the man that he and his brother were arguing with opened fire and hit four people in the crowd.

Vincent’s father, Maurice, was a Confederate Civil War veteran. This is an interesting fact to me. Although he was freeman, he was a man of color. Nonetheless, he volunteered for service in the Civil War on the Confederate side. He was an Ordnance Sergeant in the 1st Regiment, Native Guards, Louisiana Militia. His unit was disbanded when the Louisiana legislature passed a law restricting the militia to “..free white males capable of bearing arms…” in 1862. Maurice was born to Jean (later John) Nicolas Glaudin and Bonne Marguerite Bonseigneur in 1838. Maurice’s father Jean was a tobacconist in New Orleans.

Jean Nicholas Glaudin
Newspaper advertisement of Jean (John) Glaudin’s tobacco shop which was located just a block west of the French Quarter.

According to all records, Jean Glaudin was a man of color. Listed as either negro, mulatto, or colored on every document I have found. Which makes the newspaper advertisement where he asks for help locating his missing slave extremely confusing to me.

Jean Nicholas Glaudin 2
Newspaper advertisement from Jean Glaudin offering a reward for his missing slave.

I try to remind myself that it was a different time. I try to remind myself that southern Whites were not the only people to own slaves. However, it doesn’t matter how much I attempt to adjust my perspective. It doesn’t matter how much I attempt to put myself in a different frame of reference. I do not understand how a human being could believe that they had the right to own another. Many white people believed the theory that they were superior to black people, and therefore had the right to own them as property. Jean could not use this theory. Jean was a man of color. He could not say I am white and therefore superior to you and you can legally and morally be my property. So what was his reasoning? Obviously slaves were an instrument of profit. Holding slaves was also legal. Maybe that was enough. We will never know. I will never know.

Some may ask “What does it matter?”. Valid question. I don’t know anyone who knew Jean or his slave, Robert. I will never in this lifetime know anyone who knew them. That doesn’t change the fact that Jean Nicolas Glaudin was a slave holder and was my great-great-great-great grandfather. That doesn’t change the fact that his own children, including his own sons who attempted to fight for the Confederate cause, experienced racial discrimination. There are many other (and likely better) ways to describe him, and he was certainly defined by far more than the color of his skin, but that fact is undeniable. He was my great-great-great-great grandfather. He was black. He was a slave holder.

Jean could not have imagined that 76 years after his death his great-great granddaughter would be born a Black child subject to segregation and Jim Crow laws in the same city in which he was a slave holder. Jean could not have dreamed that over 170 years after he asked for help in the return of his “property” that his white great-great-great-great granddaughter would be staring at his plea in wonder.

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