In February I attended Lisa Lindsay’s talk, Atlantic Bonds: 19th Century odyssey from America to Africa. According to a 1975 Ebony magazine article, James Churchill Vaughn (1828-1893), nicknamed “Church” successfully traced his African ancestry to its roots. Church found his relatives in Africa because of tribal markings. At the time this was considered the first successful attempt by any African American to find their African ancestors. Unfortunately, as Lindsay’s research showed, Church’s story was not true, but the events in his life do tell a vivid tale of African resettlement. Throughout his life Vaughn left on slave society only to find himself in the midst of another. He left United states for Liberia and then settled in Nigeria, where he was almost sold back into slavery before finally escaping to Lagos. Here he found opportunity and with some hard work became a prosperous merchant. Eventually Church founded the 1st Christian non-mission established church in West Africa the Ebenezer Baptist Church leaving a legacy and wealth to his family. His story of reconnecting with his African roots was a tale written by two of his descendants. Church’s life story was one of profound importance within the context of early 20th century race relations in the United States. His story of resettlement in Africa and using individual skills and intelligence to acquire wealth and prosper serves as a positive resource for black American families living in a harsh racial society.
Lindsay’s talk immediately made me question what a story can tell us if it isn’t true, or what is its importance. Many of my resources for my thesis project are stories with little factual foundation. Church’s life story connected African American to a strong black man who despite his struggles found success. The fact that the story about finding his relatives in Africa turned out to be true did not take away this fact. Stories, true and false, say something about the people they were written for, the people who read and are inspired by them. Abolitionists tales of families being ripped apart and light-skinned slaves used in these stories show that slavery needs to end. I hope to make some connections to larger issues in my research and the fact that the stories may not be true matters little to their importance in the abolitionist movement.