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Akee Tree: A Descendant's Quest for His Slave Ancestors on the Eskridge Plantations - Stephen Hanks


NOTE: After a long conversation with Stephen Hanks last night, I am reposting this review and shamelessly soliciting attention for the book, which is a remarkable work of genealogy and American history. During last night's conversation, I learned the identity of my great grandfather and other ancestors (all the way back to Col. George Eskridge), all the result of Stephen's research.

"I felt the most frustration during my interviews with Eskridge family members when they would ask me how I was related and to which branch of the family I belonged . . . “Well, Eliza’s surname was Eskridge, but her son William changed his surname to Hanks, which name he borrowed from the plantation overseer, who in turn took Eliza and her children . . .” It was a complicated explanation to say the least. That is the legacy that slavery has bestowed on her victims – disruption of generational family lines which virtually destroyed connections to African ancestral lines of black Americans." p. 139

Interesting that Col. George Eskridge (d.1735), the first Eskridge in America, was brought against his will from Lancaster, England, as an indentured servant to a Virginia planter, whom he served for a grueling 8 years. He then went back to England, completed a law degree, returned to Virginia, and among other things was elected to the House of Burgesses and owned 62 slaves. He also became guardian of a girl named Mary Ball, who grew up to be the mother of America’s first president, whom she named after her guardian. George Eskridge’s grandson Richard (b. 1775) would own a Mississippi plantation and have a town named after him. According to my father, we are related to the “town” Eskridges, with whom his father’s side of the family (also known as the poor side) had a falling out.

"The day had come for me to start finding slave owner Richard Eskridge’s living descendants, if indeed there were any. As I dialed the county historian’s phone number I was as nervous as could be since I didn’t quite know how to word my request. Of all the books I had read about genealogy, none of them had addressed the etiquette required for contacting descendants of the very slave master who owned your great-grandfather. Owned. I still took issue with that word. How could a living human being be owned by another?" p. 75

I happened upon this book while exploring my branch of the Eskridge family tree, and it proved to be so much more than just personally interesting. It is personal, deeply personal, but it’s also a fascinating case study in American history. I was a history major, and while reading Hanks’ meticulously researched account (completed over several years on his own initiative) I was struck by how little I was taught about slavery -- the social, political, economic and every other sort of effects, because in fact it has affected everything to do with being American. In college my focus was American history, but what I could have told you about slavery was next to nothing – a quick sweep of generalizations, a handful of profiles, but no more than a superficial understanding of its pervasive influence. Maybe things have changed in the 30 years since I got my degree but mostly I’m self-taught on the subject, and Hanks has added much to my education, and I’m not the only one. Oprah contacted him about his Winfrey family findings.

How you recount all the begats of a genealogy without lapsing into tedium or losing the reader along the way I don’t know, especially given the frustrations of piecing together an African-American genealogy, but Hanks did it. Whether I was following the methodical steps of his research or navigating the many detours I felt involved, like I’d joined him on his journey, was sharing in the frustrations and discoveries. Yes, it has to do with the Eskridge relationship, but I believe I’d feel as involved regardless, because, as noted, he has written a fascinating case study in American history, of how we as Americans are related.

The book opens with this quote from Martin Luther King: I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood. The telling is an invitation to do that by way of a journey commencing in colonial Virginia and leading to the Ivory Coast, with stops along the way in South Carolina, Mississippi, Kansas and Oregon.

Just figuring it all out is so remarkable that to also share it so clearly and well seems like a bonus. I am grateful and delighted that Stephen Hanks took time to do so and I'm honored to have made this connection. Highly recommended.