Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Tracing my ancestor’s footsteps

The Rev. George W. Richardson
For a number of years, I've been working sporadically on a biography of my ancestor, The Rev. George W. Richardson (1824-1911), who was Methodist circuit rider in the mid-19th century and the white chaplain to a black regiment in the Civil War. He went on to found a school for freed slaves, what is now Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, one of the historically African American colleges.

For several years I've been retracing his footsteps, and I've written about this for the Alicia Patterson Foundation of Washington DC, which is a terrific journalism foundation that funded me in 1993 to write a book about Willie Brown, the powerful speaker of the California Assembly.

My biographical essay on my ancestor has just appeared on the Alicia Patterson Foundation website this week, and appropriately as we mark the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War.

I hope you'll get a chance to read it, and please lend me your thoughts either on this blog or on the APF website. You can read the full piece by clicking HERE. I greatly indebted to Margaret Engel and the foundation for its continued interest and support of my work these many years.

Here is the beginning of piece:

My journey to the crossroads
of race, faith and family in America:
Tracing my ancestor’s footsteps 
By James Richardson

CANTON, Mississippi – Federal Union soldiers fought here in 1864, riding south from Memphis looking to ambush and kill rebel troops, and disrupt their supply lines. Moving swiftly on horseback, the Union soldiers slept on a bluff on the night before a surprise raid on a Confederate-held bridge. It was not a particularly notable engagement and never made the history books. It was just one of many sharp and lethal encounters that would eventually dismantle the Confederacy and destroy slavery.

What was extraordinary about this engagement is that the Union troops were ex-slaves – an all-volunteer “colored” regiment. And one of my ancestors, The Rev. George Warren Richardson, a Methodist circuit-riding preacher, was the white chaplain – and also a volunteer – to this black Union regiment.

Not long ago, I traveled to Mississippi to walk on the same ground where my ancestor and his soldiers slept on the night before the raid. I was brought to this place by his writing; I was especially moved by his journal description of the camp that night:

“The voice of prayer from so many at the same time, made the place seem wonderfully sacred. I said ‘Surely God is in this place.’ This circumstance impressed me deeply.”

I could not be sure if this was the exact spot that he had described. But all that I learned on that trip convinced me he was here, or in a place like it near here.

My journey to Mississippi was one of many trips I have made in the decade attempting to retrace my ancestor’s footsteps. Other trips took me to Tennessee, Illinois and Texas, and to the banks of the Sacramento River north of where I’ve lived much of my life in California. Remarkably, George Richardson wrote about all of these places in his handwritten journal that has come down through my family and to me.

To read the rest, please click HERE.


Janice Dean said...

I read your entire piece in one sitting last week. I couldn't tear my attention from it, and I was disappointed when the story started to wind down (similar to that feeling you get in the last chapter or two of a novel you've really enjoyed--at least, I assume other people get that feeling). I hope I'm not the only one who's made the time to read the entire piece because it's a great story, well told. Thanks for sharing!

Blue Ridge Gal said...

Did your ancestor, Rev. George W. Richardson, ever serve at a church in either Upperville or Paris, VA? If so, do you know when?

I came online to research his name and came across your blog. Today we closed Trinity United Methodist Church in Paris, VA., which is the church that I grew up in. After the Deconsecration Service, the pastor gave me the "Hymn Board" that was on the wall. When I got home I noticed that there is a label on the back of the board that reads "Rev. George W. Richardson, Upperville, Virginia". Upperville is 3 miles from Paris.

BTW, I am unable to read your entire story about him as the link doesn't appear to be working. Please let me know when it is working as I'd really like to read about Rev. Richardson.

Best Regards,
Sandy Adams

The Rev. James Richardson said...

Dear Sandy,
The link to the full article has been repaired. Please go back and click on the links marked "HERE."

Please send me your email address. Mine is I look forward to talking with you. A very intriguing find.

Thanks for being in touch.