Discovering Your Family History
BLAC contributing writer Desiree Cooper looks into her family's past and finds a love story
According to family legend, a white man named Montezuma Logan Birdsong ("Logan") is my maternal great grandfather. As part of the powerful Birdsong family in Sussex County, Virginia, he supposedly fell in love with a mixed race woman, my great-grandmother Mary Parker, and fathered eight of her children.
My mother's family has always contended that "Mr. Birdsong" never loved any other woman but Mary, although the two were prohibited by law from marrying. They tell stories about Mr. Birdsong caring for Mary financially (in addition to employing her in his house as a cook), and using his power to curry favor for Mary and the children.
Professional genealogist Kenyatta Berry has helped me jumpstart the research I started more than 15 years ago on the relationship between Mary Parker and Logan Birdsong. Her research into the slave schedules in Sussex County revealed that Logan Birdsong's father owned many slaves. Since Logan was born in 1855 during slavery, he would have grown up with slave children his age. "We do not know how this shaped his thinking and impacted his relationship with Mary Parker or their children," says Berry.
According to census records, Logan never married and he died without a will. Both of these facts seem odd for the son of one of the most powerful men in the county. (Berry discovered that Logan's father had the tallest headstone in the local church cemetery "to commemorate the height of the man who sleeps beneath it," according to the church history.) Perhaps Logan never married because of his fidelity to Mary and their children. Or perhaps he was "tainted" and ostracized because of his taboo relationship with a mulatto—no decent white woman would marry him.
Berry's revelations made me wonder how Mary and Logan met in the first place. Had they known each other for years, even before their relationship began? I started investigating connections between the Birdsong family, the Parker family and their servants/slaves.
Slave schedules show that in 1850, a White woman named Fanny Parker lived in Sussex County and owned two dozen slaves. That means that the Parkers were likely as well-known and powerful as the Birdsongs in that little county, and that Mary Parker's parents could have been slaves on their plantation. I also found a record in 1870 for Robert Parker, a White farmer whose household consisted of a mulatto teenaged housekeeper named Sally Birdsong, and a laborer named Parker Bird.
These are thin clues that the Parkers and the Birdsongs lived in the same county, they owned slaves and they seemed to have shared their slaves and domestics between the families. Perhaps this is one more hint as to how Mary Parker came to work for Logan Birdsong.
I don't know if my research will eventually unveil a real love story. But it does confirm what genealogists know: The truth of human lives is so much more complicated than our history books will ever show.