The bitter harvest of Richard Bibb: A descendant of slavery confronts her inheritance The families of slave owners and the people they enslaved gather for a ‘reunion’ in Kentucky

RUSSELLVILLE, Ky. — That morning, I took my measure of the place. I toured the former Bibb plantation house turned museum and explored the nearby work cabins. I paid attention to the ways the ground shifted beneath my feet. By early afternoon, I’d settled in the community room to talk with the museum director who got the idea to bring together the descendants of the slave owners and the enslaved when some of the white families arrived for a tour. I heard their voices in distant parts of the house and sensed the anger rise in my throat. It was dark, sudden, impolite. I was not ready to meet these people. They had done nothing to me, yet I felt as if they had.

Do not come in here, I warned silently.

Their voices got closer and I grew more anxious, though you wouldn’t have known by looking at me. We wear the mask. But it felt like mine was about to slip.

The author, Lonnae O’Neal, watches from a window of the Bibb House as guests begin to arrive for the reunion.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

I had joked with the only Bibb cousins I’d ever known that we were being lured into a trap. But now, the trap was real. It was all plantation houses and the ghosts of black people and white voices coming closer. I had stepped into a house of mirrors. I wanted to escape.

A couple of could-be-relatives reached out to shake my hand, and I extended mine to them as well.

Why had they come? I wondered.

Lord, why had I?


2.

The Bibb House was built around 1815 in this small Western Kentucky town about an hour north of Nashville, Tennessee. It was originally home to Maj. Richard Bibb, an officer in the Revolutionary War, his second wife and the scores of people they enslaved. In 1832, Bibb sent 31 of them to Liberia. When he died in 1839, his will freed 65 others, who were also given money and land. His white descendants included a U.S. senator and the originator of Bibb lettuce.

Granville Clark, a lawyer and president of Historic Russellville Inc., and genealogist and museum director Michael Morrow began restoring Bibb House nearly a decade ago. Along with four other historic buildings located in Russellville’s Black Bottom, an area settled by freed black people before the Civil War, it became part of the SEEK Museum (Struggles for Emancipation and Equality in Kentucky).

Clark once fought to the Kentucky Supreme Court for the Bibb House, which had changed hands several times, to be a public charitable trust and hoped it could serve as “a realistic memorial to the Old South.” But deciding what that means is a whole different fight. And not simply with white people.

I did not know if I had it in me.


3.

The invitation to come to Russellville had kicked around Facebook for months before I saw it. It was the first reunion of the descendants of Richard Bibb and the descendants of the people he enslaved and emancipated.

My first thoughts came out in a string of curse words. Miss me on those plantation happenings, I told my cousins, but part of me couldn’t let it go. My father’s mother was Susie Bibb, and this was the first time I’d heard a word about her people. The first time I’d ever heard tell of any such thing as white Bibbs. A couple of white descendants were working on a documentary and would be filming at the reunion. I felt the ground shifting beneath me as I considered my options.

A copy of a sign advertising the sale of two boys on display at the SEEK Museum in Russellville, Kentucky.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

I have constructed a life with the resources and standing that allow me to encounter white people on my own terms — to decide for myself when and where I enter. But the Bibb reunion would be a departure from that. It represented something aching and unresolved that put me and mine on the shoulders falling down like teardrops side of a power dynamic. Something painful and frightening.

Clark emailed me a photo of Catherine Bibb — or Granny Kate, as she was known — taken around 1900, when she would have been in her early 60s, and said we might be related. Of all the money and land left to the enslaved people who Bibb freed when he died at 86, Catherine, who was 3 at the time, was given the most: 250 acres. That preferential treatment supports the family oral history that she was Richard Bibb’s daughter.

Granny Kate was fair-skinned, with straight dark hair. She founded a school and a church on the land given to the formerly enslaved on the outskirts of Russellville, in what became known as Bibbtown, where she acted as the unofficial mayor. Granny Kate looked like my grandmother, Momma Susie.

She stared out from the photo and I felt implicated in her gaze. Dead black people are always judging. Having put their own burdens down, they’re always asking the rest of us what we’re going to do.


4.

I can read stories of the white Bibbs in American history books. But my black grandmother isn’t in those books. Susie Bibb was an American original, and she demands to be accounted for and remembered.

Susie was one of nine siblings raised in the coal mining and railroad town of Centralia, Illinois. She was the smartest of them all in math, she used to say, but the family had no money for college. So she wept bitter tears and got married at 18.

My grandfather was a hotel chef who eventually opened a restaurant and tavern in the black part of town. My grandmother, who specialized in making pastries from scratch, worked there when she was younger. But I rarely remember her leaving the house as I got older, and rarely smiling. My grandparents’ front door was never locked, and a steady stream of people would walk in, morning to night, and stand before Momma Susie to ask for money to pay bills, to buy diapers, to tide them over until payday. If she liked the terms — high interest rates or food stamps, as I recall — she’d leave the room to reach under her mattress for money. If she didn’t like the terms, she’d tell them she didn’t have it.

A reunion guest looks at a display of photographs and drawings showing the enslaved people freed by Maj. Richard Bibb. On the mantel from left to right: Andrew Bibb, Catherine Bibb Arnold and Martha Bibb.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

She never used any kind of muscle. She simply never lent again to anyone who didn’t repay her.

Momma Susie doted on the dogs, which she cooked breakfast for and might bite her grandkids if we got too close. So she’d yell at us, reasonably, to get our damned asses out of their way. She’d warn us, too, about men, husbands especially, or sometimes white people. But mostly she’d preach — often in loud, compound expletives — about the importance of college, about getting your education so you didn’t have to depend on anyone, and about having your own money. She was a bitter black woman, and she spoke bitter black words into three generations of college graduates and postgraduates.

Momma Susie’s black family is not to be mistaken for that of the white sons of Richard Bibb: pro-slavery U.S. Sen. George M. Bibb turned Treasury Secretary Bibb, or John Bigger Bibb, who developed Bibb lettuce.

Lord, don’t you get mad about it — there was a U.S. Coast Guard cutter Bibb, but Susie Bibb loan-sharked in her pajamas from an armchair in her living room for most of my childhood.

These facts are always in historical conversation. Seven generations from Maj. Richard Bibb, these facts remain grafted onto us. They were the fire last time. They are the fire this time. They explain almost everything.


5.

Richard Bibb fought with the Virginia militia in the Revolutionary War, after which he inherited land and enslaved people. He moved to Lexington, Kentucky, where he was a land speculator and acquired around 200,000 acres from Kentucky to Arkansas. He later moved to Logan County, where the former Episcopalian became a Methodist lay minister with anti-slavery leanings. He grew tobacco, had a whisky still, raced horses and became one of the richest men in Western Kentucky. When his first wife died, he and his second wife moved from the country into Russellville. He was heavily involved in the American Colonization Society, which sought to send black people “back” to Africa, where the people he’d enslaved had never been. (On the 1832 trip to Liberia, a number of children died of cholera before they got there.)

His will, which freed everyone he’d enslaved, also gave them tools, livestock, $5,000 and roughly 3,000 acres, which the executor, his son John Bigger Bibb, deeded to them 40 years later. John’s brother George wrote a legally famous letter advising him how to continue to control the money and the land.

An 1897 Louisville Courier-Journal article about Richard Bibb said:

“Since his youth he had cared for them, and before that they or their parents had belonged to his father. He believed slavery was wrong and was taking the initial step toward putting into execution a long cherished plan. He was about to send one-third of his slaves to Liberia; the others he intended to liberate at his death. He had read a chapter in the Bible and had given out a hymn, and when his prayer was finished, many a black face was bathed in tears, and the slaves gathered about and shook Old Master’s hand for the last time and heard the accent of his kindly voice.”

This idea of Bibb as an emancipator is a source of local and white Bibb family legend. It is noted on the plaque in front of Bibb House and was an animating fact of the reunion. To me, it was simply a reminder that a complex 250-year system of human trafficking and violent plunder could only be sustained by intersecting applications of pressure and release. It just meant that Richard Bibb was arguably better than some. The gauzy lore feels like the columns and porch added to the Bibb House decades after the Civil War to lend the whole enterprise an air of magnolia.

“In an old conventional view, Kentucky was supposed to be more benign in its slavery,” said Jack Glazier, author of Been Coming Through Some Hard Times: Race, History, and Memory in Western Kentucky and a retired Oberlin College anthropology professor. He calls it a self-justifying myth. “It was without question a brutal and depraved system. That’s very much the case in Western Kentucky,” where tobacco farming required large numbers of people.

The slave quarters in the attic of the Bibb House, which is now the SEEK Museum in Russellville, Kentucky.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

After the Civil War, there was an out-migration to Illinois, said Glazier. “There’s a real story there.”

It’s the part of the story where I come in.

My cousin Marvin Vaughn, a financial analyst for an energy company in Houston, drove to the reunion with his mother, Sharon Bibb Vaughn. His grandfather, Morris, and Momma Susie were brother and sister.

As we sat in the car watching people go in and out of the Bibb House, Marvin told me a story that Morris had told him about Charlie Bibb, our great-grandfather, about whom the only thing I’d ever heard was that he was mean and yellow. “I guess he got tired of his kids talking about that they were hungry,” Marvin said. He went to the grocery store in the white part of Centralia, said his children were hungry and asked the owner if he could get some food and pay him back later. When the grocer said no, Charlie B. bagged the food anyway, and when the grocer tried to stop him, “Great-grandpa Charlie knocked him to the floor and told him, ‘Look here, I need to feed my kids. When I get the money I will repay you, and this is what I owe you.’ ”

I hadn’t known my grandmother had gone hungry. It explained some of the preoccupation with money that ran through our family. Explained other stuff as well.


Something else Uncle Morris told Marvin: His grandfather was the son of a slave owner in Kentucky. It was another story I’d never heard.

Marvin came to the reunion because something bothered him. If the white Bibbs were so wealthy, “Why did we get such s— portions?” If we had gotten a fair share, how might that have changed our lives? These are Bibb family questions, but they stretched out across America like the arms of Jesus. Marvin came to the reunion because he wanted to land on some truth and help put a face to it. “We could be a part of the family that they don’t even talk about,” he said.

And neither did we.


6.

Two months ago, the white ancestors who hovered over my features never crossed my mind. I couldn’t name one.

But that was about to change.

Suddenly, I wanted to hear the stories. I wanted to see the documents and learn what had happened to these people and what that said about me.

The morning before the reunion, I pulled up to Michael Morrow’s research office in the Black Bottom, three blocks from the Bibb House.

Maurice Hardy (left), his wife, Latisha (right), and their son, RayShawn Payton-Kilgore, explore the upper room of the SEEK Museum.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

“I’m Lonnae O’Neal, my people are from Centralia, Illinois,” I said to Morrow by way of introduction. “My grandmother was Susie Bibb. Her father was Charlie Bibb.”

“Her father was Charles Smith Bibb,” Morrow said, correcting me. “And his mother was Pocahontas Wright.”

Morrow held the door open for me, but I needed a minute. I had never heard my great-grandfather’s full government name. Had never heard of my great-great-grandmother at all.

Morrow, 57, was raised on stories of Bibbtown. He had a speech impediment, so he hung around old people, who were less cruel and would let you listen as long as you sat still. He dropped out of college to care for his sick mother. He worked at a neighborhood food hall, did a little bootlegging and some such, but he remained fascinated by family histories and started keeping notes. People got word and started giving him their artifacts, and telling him their stories.

In a few keystrokes, he pulls up documents where my great-great-grandfather is listed as mulatto on the 1850 census in Russellville. In 1860, he’s listed as black. By 1870, John and Pocahontas lived in Centralia, where John and Pokey, as they called her, were listed as white, and they had a 6-year-old son who’d been born in Russellville, and a 2-year old daughter and an infant son who’d both been born in Illinois, as were the seven children who followed.

“Now let’s do one more thing. Let’s go to 1900,” Morrow said and showed me a census record for Charles Smith Bibb, 13, the first name where I know where I am. Then he shows me a later census with the names of my grandmother and her siblings as children. “The amazing thing is, we got the slave documents. We can prove this all the way back to slavery,” Morrow said. To a woman named Old Keziah. But the documents also leave some unanswered questions, including the identity of John Bibb’s father. Morrow has been putting the pieces together for decades, and he thinks there’s a good chance my great-great-grandfather John was the son of one of the white Bibbs.

It was too much life to hear about in one day. And we hadn’t even gotten to the reunion, which would start the following day. I closed my eyes and pictured Granny Kate, who I asked for strength.

“I think one of the reasons why African American people tend to stay away from this is because of the trauma,” Nicka Sewell-Smith, a genealogist and consultant for Ancestry.com, told me later. (Sewell-Smith also shared that her great-great-aunt Sarah was married to a different John Bibb.) People are getting killed because of race now, “and I’m going to introduce additional trauma, historical trauma, into my life?” she asked.

It’s a history that can’t be sanitized. “So we just move away from it because it’s painful and we don’t know what to expect, and we have to check our emotions,” she said. “You don’t want to lash out at someone who’s not involved just because you don’t know how to properly process, and a lot of our experience has been to just deal with it and push it down.”

Sewell-Smith reads part of Richard Bibb’s will, which frees those he’s enslaved on Jan. 1, 1840, nearly a year after he died. Some of those emancipated seemed to sell their land, but it’s hard to say since slavery was still law and some of those who’d been emancipated were re-enslaved. John Bigger Bibb moved to Frankfort, where he continued enslaving people as he perfected his lettuce. He had agents look after the land and the formerly enslaved, doling out piecemeal the $5,000 that Richard Bibb left them and not officially handing over the property until 1881.

“There was a monetary value placed on us, and because money was involved, people were going to document things,” she said. “There’s a tangibleness of slavery that you get when you can see the names of your people associated with these enslavers.” She was plainspoken, but I had a hard time following her. I think it was because I was unable to think of my ancestors as fungible. I kept attaching them to the names of my children, then viscerally resisting the thought. I eventually succumbed to the sadness of it all.

Clark, 64, who attended segregated schools until sixth grade, calls the SEEK Museum a chance to teach a history of both slavery and emancipation that he hadn’t learned growing up.

We’re “lucky to have a site that does deal with both edges of that story,” Clark says. “It wasn’t emancipation that was as pure and as perfect as you want it to be, but it lets us talk about these things.” He thinks America may finally be ready to have these conversations. But I have my doubts. I am reminded of recent stories of white anger over talk of slavery, also known as American history, during plantation tours. (This, by the way, is partially why black people prefer to sit with each other at lunch.)

From 1883 to 1908, 14 people were lynched in Logan County, the second most in Kentucky. In 2008, Morrow put up an exhibit about the 1908 lynching of four men in Russellville that led to a change in postal laws to prevent people from sending postcards of hanging, swinging, charred bodies through the mail. The men killed hadn’t been involved in the argument over wages that had left a white overseer dead; they simply passed a resolution at their local hall to help the accused raise money for a lawyer.

Morrow got a call when somebody finally cut down the “lynching tree” 20 years ago.

Descendants of Richard Bibb look at old photos and maps in the front room of the SEEK Museum.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

The night before the reunion, as part of Western Kentucky’s annual 8th of August emancipation celebration, a statue of Alice Allison Dunnigan, the first black female journalist credentialed to cover the White House, was unveiled in Russellville’s Black Bottom neighborhood, which is on the National Register of Historic Places but had a tough time getting the city to pay for streetlights and sewers. Several of Russellville’s elected officials were there. None of them is black. Of the nearly 7,000 residents of Russellville, nearly 20% are black, and more than half of those residents live below the poverty line.

The Black Bottom sits on a flood plain and has a history of getting deluged. A half-mile away, the Confederate Monument, erected in 1910, which is also on the National Register, sits atop a pedestal.

Sometimes, white people tell themselves fictions, but they need us to play along. When we disbelieve them or don’t co-sign, they turn punitive or murderous. And that’s why we didn’t believe them in the first place.

“I don’t want everybody to come together and have a Kumbaya moment,” Morrow said of the reunion. “Our people have had so many Kumbaya moments. I want everybody to come together and be real about what has happened. If they are real, maybe people can go back and start changing things.”

They are asking for our truth, I told Morrow, but I don’t think they really want to hear it.

“I don’t think it makes any difference whether they want to hear it or not,” he replied.


7.

Rachel Knight and her brother, Jonathan, are descendants of Richard Bibb’s daughter, Lucy Slaughter, and grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Their grandmother chronicled their family history in the 1960s with a lengthy entry on the major. After the 2017 white supremacy rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that left a young woman dead, Rachel, a doctoral student at Teachers College, Columbia University, wanted to learn more about their family history. Jonathan, a filmmaker, was looking to make his first documentary. A woman they’d known growing up happened to be a professor of African American studies at the University of Kentucky and connected them with a black doctoral student and journalist to help produce it.

Traci Ellis delivers a speech at the Bibb House near the end of the day’s events.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

“Our country hasn’t dealt with issues of our country being founded on slavery,” Rachel Knight said. And neither had their family. “Our family had a history of enslaving people,” but growing up in the North, “we don’t talk about that history that much.” When she found her grandmother’s entry about Richard Bibb, “I was like, well, why isn’t that a story that we talked about?” When she learned the Bibb House was still standing, she and her brother brainstormed about adding something meaningful.

Morrow and others questioned the siblings about the proposed documentary before agreeing to cooperate. “I trusted them to do what’s right,” Morrow said. I had no such trust. As a journalist, I’m always on the lookout for the ways whiteness, power and self-interest align.

I told Jonathan Knight I’d only learned there were white Bibbs a few weeks before and he seemed surprised. “I don’t mean this to sound harsh,” I told him, “but you all aren’t centered in our lives.”

He and his sister worried a film could seem exploitative, so they were trying to listen to criticism and challenge their own privilege. “Of course it’s hard,” he said. “But I really want to be up for doing it.”

“In my experience, white people don’t have the muscle for this conversation,” I said. Jonathan assured me that they did. I decided to take him at his word.

I noted that they’d asked my cousin, attorney and author Traci Ellis, to facilitate a discussion about race, and that white people were good for asking black people to do work — physical, emotional, spiritual — for free. “Black people are always you all’s raw material,” I said. The “you all” wasn’t specifically Jonathan and Rachel. It was a collective, a cohort of whiteness, organized in a system of racialized privilege. The royal you all.

Rachel owned her house in Brooklyn, New York, and I pointed out that my daughter lived in a Brooklyn townhouse split into three apartments where she splits her rent with two roommates. I felt angry, though she had done nothing to me. So few white people show up for these conversations that the ones who do come in for a lot of the work of the race. I wondered aloud if we were going to talk reparations.

After hours of talking, Rachel, who hadn’t been feeling well all day, looked peaked, and I felt for her. “It’s a lot, I know,” I said. “It’s a lot for us too.”

Speaking our racial truth can feel physically, socially or financially unsafe. There’s a wide berth we often give white people so as not to make them uncomfortable or angry. But in the shadow of the Bibb House, I couldn’t do it. The black ghosts of Russellville weren’t having it.

I don’t know if she got it. But I finally understood why I’d come to the reunion: to give the white Bibbs, as stand-ins for the people who baked inequality into America, their bags to carry. And all their crosses to bear. The ones that have been forced on black people that rightfully belong to the whole nation.


8.

The morning of the Bibb reunion, I wore a green dress to remind me of the green chair my grandmother sat in as she received borrowers. I lingered in the hotel parking lot praying to Momma Susie that I might represent her at this gathering.

Chairs and tables covered the front lawn and dozens of people, black and white, from 28 states, were milling about, with more steadily arriving. The center hall of the Palladian-style Bibb House museum features two pairs of iron shackles under glass that were found in the dirt on the grounds. In an adjacent room, a copy of an enlarged notice hangs on the wall: “One or two likely Negro boys, about 10 years old” for sale.

I forced myself to approach a middle-aged white woman in one of the upstairs rooms.

Old shackles found on the grounds of the Bibb plantation house on display at the SEEK Museum.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

Michelle Anderson, a schoolteacher from Redlands, California, was a descendant of Lucy Booker Bibb and Thomas Slaughter. She was there with her son and daughter-in-law, both professors at Knox College in Illinois.

Her cousin took a DNA test, which is how she found out about the reunion, the documentary and Richard Bibb. The stories are powerful, “but you know it’s historically what it is, and we just embrace it to understand and, you know, make at least sense of it today.”

It all sounded perfectly reasonable, but I wanted to get away. The shackles. The 10-year-old boys for sale. The picture of Granny Kate staring at me. Minute by minute, this place felt oppressive, frightening and surreal.

I excused myself to talk to Latisha Hardy, from Louisville, Kentucky. She was there with her husband, Maurice, and their son. Until a few months ago, she hadn’t known there were white Bibbs either.

Maurice had white people in his Georgia family tree and understood the push-pull of wanting, but not wanting to be there. “It gives you feelings you don’t want to feel,” he said. “Because you know their money is built off your work.”

I sought out my cousins Ellis, from Oak Park, Illinois, and her sister, Amber Johnston, from outside Atlanta. Their late father and my late father were brothers. “This is opening up some stuff I didn’t even know I felt,” said Ellis. “I’m trying to hold that in.” To not come unglued thinking about “the wealth and the atrocities that happened in this house.”

White people kept coming up to her, “and they’re being appropriate, and wanting to talk and wanting to engage, but I feel like I need a minute,” said Ellis. “I might need forever.”

Ellis said she thought of Charlie Bibb, who had been an abusive man, and how abuse ran through the Bibb family, “and I never interrogated that further.” But now, she was thinking of “post-traumatic slave syndrome” and generational trauma. Her son, Jalen, 25, had visited the lynching exhibit the night before, and this morning he decided to stay at the hotel instead of attending the reunion.

Several Bibb descendants gather in front of Arnold’s Chapel Church, which was founded by Catherine (Granny Kate) Bibb in Bibbtown.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

Her sister, Johnston, said they left Atlanta three hours late because she obsessed about retwisting her nearly waist-length hair. It’s similar to how black people dressed up for demonstrations and marches. It’s part of the armor we don.

When the formal program began, Morrow talked about discovering Maj. Bibb’s will and how he’d made finding the Bibb descendants his life’s work. “The Bibb family and these Bibb slaves have went all over America and done all kinds of things,” he said. The Bibb story is “a story about race. It’s a story about family. It’s a story about slavery. It’s a story about wealth. It’s a story about abuse. It’s a story about neglect.”

Ellis stepped to the lectern on the Bibb House lawn and told the hushed crowd, “When I pulled up, voices started in my head. Normally, I don’t hear voices.” She sat alone in the house’s 110-degree attic, the sleeping and work quarters for the enslaved, and she held a quilt. Spending time in the building and on the grounds, she said, “one of the strong feelings I had was rage.” She urged us to honor our feelings and have a “courageous conversation” about race.

My cousin asked the descendants of the enslaved what they would want to say to the descendants of the slave owners. And much later, when the moment was far behind us, I thought of plenty of words.

They went like this:

We are not like you.

We are not going to do to you what you did to us.

We are not going to burn your teenagers alive or put your grandmothers to work scrubbing our floors. We won’t break every bond of fellowship or citizenship to gain advantage, and then lie to ourselves and others about how precisely we’ve hoarded privilege in every institution of American society. We won’t call the police every time we feel uncomfortable or are made to share space. You are so afraid of us, of our anger and emotion, only because you know what you would do. It’s everything you’ve already done. This is why you’re always marveling at our power to forgive, because you, yourselves, do not.

That’s what I would have said later.

But in that moment I had just two bitter words. I said them out loud. And I meant every bit of them.

My cousin Sharon whipped her head around and tried to shush me, but I just faced forward steadily. I didn’t apologize. I said what I said.

I believe it was the ghost of Susie Bibb, answering my prayers.

Ellis had us break into groups and gave us a series of questions about race. My table included Michelle Anderson’s son, Jon, a scholar of African languages and linguistics at Knox College, and his wife, Nathalie Haurberg, an astronomy and physics professor at the college.

Toward the end of the program, I asked our table if white people talked to each other about race and what they said. Anderson stood up to tell the full group his answer: “No, I don’t think those conversations really happen. I think they happen in small circles, but in general, they are missing and I think a lot of people wish it would all go away. Each of us, as the white cousins here, as I will refer to them, are only where we are in life because of our black cousins, and we need to face those privileges that we have lived with for 200 years as the result of this house and the house across the street.”

Traci Ellis’ grandson, Christian, who is almost 2, takes a nap during the family reunion at the SEEK Museum.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

Ellis ended the program by facing the house to tell the ghosts of those enslaved by Richard Bibb that we had returned. That we were their wildest dreams.

I was spent, more invested than I’d wanted to be in desiring something meaningful to come from this gathering. I hugged those who’d sat at my table. A few white people came up to talk to me about their family, to share their opinions on race relations, what they’d done in the civil rights movement, and about the president. I could hear them better this time.

Rachel looked stronger, I thought. She was glad they had helped convene the reunion.

The next day, eight carloads of black Bibbs, the extended Knight family and a couple of others toured Bibbtown. I sat with Amber’s children on the steps of Arnold’s Chapel Church, founded by Granny Kate. The last resident of Bibbtown, Marilyn Gill, had died a few years earlier in a fire so hot it melted coins. Her nephew died of a heart attack a few weeks after that.

“Some of you all might still own property here,” Morrow told us. “More brains are better than one, and I’m hoping you all can start to sort this out.” He hoped we would help find out about every acre Maj. Bibb gave the black Bibbs and who was heir to what in 2019. That we would join the struggle for truth, and the land beneath our feet. We are each other’s harvest.

I followed Jonathan back to Russellville until it was time to turn down a different road. I pulled up alongside him. Hard to know what to say through open car windows to a man whose ancestors had enslaved yours. So we just said goodbye. I was glad to have met him. It was a start, I thought.

Or maybe it was no such thing at all.

At some point, my cousins will likely do a more sophisticated DNA test to figure out more precisely if and how we might be related to Maj. Richard Bibb, and perhaps we’ll figure out if we have a claim to some of that Bibbtown land.

But it felt like such an old fight. And at that moment I was ready to get back home to my carefully curated black life, where the ground was steady beneath my feet and the old ghosts were much more quiet.

This organization is dispelling the myth that black mothers don’t breastfeed Black Breastfeeding Week highlights health benefits and personal empowerment of breastfeeding in the black community

Last week Melanie Jones, a mother of two, learned it was Black Breastfeeding Week through Facebook. When the new mother (age 36) and science teacher found out she was pregnant with her now 2-year-old daughter Maycen, the decision she and her husband Ted made to opt for breastfeeding was a no-brainer, as long as her body would allow. They later welcomed a second daughter, Madycen, who is also breastfed.

“It saves money,” Jones said.

According to the United States Breastfeeding Committee, families who incorporate breastfeeding practices can save about $1,500 that would go toward formula in the first year.

Melanie Jones nurses her daughter Madycen. She is thrilled that Black Breastfeeding Week is an awareness campaign and hopes that numbers of black mothers who breastfeed will increase.

Photo by Jennifer Clements Wells

And the economical outcome is just one benefit.

Despite discouraging numbers, many mothers like Jones see the total benefits of breastfeeding and many organizations are taking time out to bring awareness to the nationwide topic.

Black Breastfeeding Week was established five years ago by Kiddada Green, Anayah Sangodele-Ayoka and Kimberly Seals Allers. The weeklong campaign continues to embrace breastfeeding in black families. The national awareness campaign ran this year from Aug. 25 through Aug. 31 and its goal is to highlight health benefits and personal empowerment of breastfeeding in the black community.

“For years, our communities have been viewed as places of deficiencies and lacks, but we reject that narrative and have full faith and confidence that we can create the solutions and support to improve infant and maternal health outcomes and save our babies,” said Black Breastfeeding Week co-founder and author of The Big Letdown – How Medicine Big Business and Feminism Undermine Breastfeeding Kimberly Seals Allers said in a press release.

Using this year’s theme, #BetOnBlack, the weeklong celebration was created in response to the unacceptable racial disparities in breastfeeding rates that have existed for more than 40 years.

“When we Bet on Black we will always win,” said Green, Black Breastfeeding Week co-founder and founding executive director of the Black Mothers Breastfeeding Association in Detroit.

Sangodele-Ayoka said, “We say ‘Bet on Black’ this year as confirmation of the passionate, tireless and innovative work being done by communities and families to protect the first food and this deeply nourishing tradition.” Sangodele-Ayoka, also a Black Breastfeeding Week co-founder, is a nurse-midwife in North Carolina and breastfeeding advocate.

The week included community events and a large social media presence. According the Black Breastfeeding Week, more than 60 local communities participated across the country. This year’s theme speaks to the growing need to create community-partnered solutions designed by the black community. Instead of looking to outsiders, researchers or other traditional “experts” to increase breastfeeding in the black community, the founders of Black Breastfeeding Week are calling on all to #BetOnBlack for solutions.

The trio knows it takes a deeper conversation and will continue to spread the word yearlong.

Meanwhile, other researchers are also in on the conversation. Regina Smith James, director of Clinical and Health Services Research at the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, recently wrote an article that stresses the economical and health benefits of breastfeeding.

“When it comes to providing our babies with the best nutrition ever, breastfeeding is not only economical, but it has positive health effects for both baby and mom … Breast milk is uniquely suited to your baby’s nutritional needs, with immunologic and anti-inflammatory properties,” she stressed. “Breast milk not only offers a nutritionally balanced meal, but some studies suggest that breastfeeding may even reduce the risk for certain allergic diseases, asthma, and obesity in your baby, as well as type 2 diabetes in moms.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2011 to 2015, the percentage of women who initiated breastfeeding was 64.3 percent for African-Americans, 81.5 percent for whites, and 81.9 percent for Hispanics.

James added that research shows the racial disparities in the African-American community occur for several different reasons.

“Healthcare settings that separate mothers from babies during their hospital stay; lack of knowledge about the benefits of breastfeeding and the risks of not breastfeeding; perceived inconvenience of lifestyle changes; the cultural belief that the use of cereal in a bottle will prolong the infant’s sleep; and embarrassment — fear of being stigmatized when they breastfeed in public,” James wrote.

Shalandus Garrett, new mother of 4-month-old daughter Logan agrees that breastfeeding is the best economical choice for her household and she appreciates the time spent with mother and baby.

“I like the bond it creates and the closeness,” said the 34-year-old cancer researcher at St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. She is employed in a “super mom-friendly environment” that provides a nursing room and supplies for mothers who work and are away from their children but need to periodically pump milk throughout the work day.

While Garrett has an overproduction of milk, she noted that other problems exist for many women who attempt to breastfeed. These issues include low production of milk and infants not latching on.

Shalandus Garrett stores milk she pumps into her freezer. She overproduces breast milk and is exploring ways to donate her extra milk.

Garrett recently connected with her two cousins who are also new mothers at a family reunion. Joi Miller and Jessica Fitzgerald-Torry both opted to breastfeed but had to stop.

“After not breastfeeding my first child [who is 13], I was adamant to breastfeed any children after,” Miller, 33, said. “It was the most bonding experience I’d ever felt, skin-to-skin is a beautiful feeling, but [also] looking down at my nursing baby girl. I never felt so needed or accomplished. Well, until three months passed and I didn’t produce enough, leaving feelings of inadequacy. But now four months later, all she needed was a couple of months and she still latches on to me from the mere smell of me entering a room. For my first child, I just didn’t value the advantages to breastfeeding. But note my son is still very attached and quite brilliant, I must say.”

Jessica, 26, attempted to but had problems with Legend latching.

According to an article posted on National Institute of Health’s website, “African Americans continue to have the lowest rates of breastfeeding initiation, 60 percent, and continuation at 6 months, 28 percent, and, 12 months, 13 percent, compared with all other racial/ethnic groups in the United States.”

Although improvements in breastfeeding rates for African-American women are evident from the 2000–2007 National Immunization Survey, African-American mothers are still 2.5 times less likely to breastfeed than white women. Organizations such as Black Breastfeeding Week are working tirelessly to change the narrative and turn a weeklong awareness event into a lifestyle.

‘Dear White People’ creator Justin Simien takes his story to Netflix The writer-director-producer talks about the transition from film to TV and working with a new cast

When Justin Simien created the 2014 film Dear White People, he had no big expectations.

“I think I had fears more than anything,” he said. “I was afraid that people would hate it or wouldn’t get it, so when that didn’t happen, the rest of it was sort of like gravy on the top.”

On Friday, Dear White People the series was released on Netflix, and it picks up where the film left off. It follows a group of students of color at the fictional Winchester University as they navigate a landscape of social injustice, cultural bias, political correctness (or lack thereof) and activism, all the while leading with laughter.

The series’ initial focus is on Samantha White (Logan Browning). She heads the Black Student Union at Winchester University and hosts a campus radio show called Dear White People, on which she confronts the campus’ lack of diversity.

Produced by Lionsgate, the series has a new cast. The stars include Browning, Brandon P. Bell (Troy), Antoinette Robertson (Coco), DeRon Horton (Lionel), John Patrick Amedori (Gabe), Ashley Blaine Featherson (Joelle) and Marque Richardson (Reggie). Yvette Lee Bowser (A Different World, Living Single) serves as showrunner and executive producer, while Stephanie Allain (Hustle & Flow, Beyond the Lights) and Julia Lebedev (Dear White People) executive-produce.

Jeremy Tardy, Nia Jervier, Ashley Blaine Featherson, Jemar Michael, Marque Richardson

Adam Rose/Netflix

The 33-year-old Simien, who was writer, director and executive producer on the film, attended Chapman University in Orange, California, where he saw many incidents that would become an inspiration for the film. He spoke to The Undefeated about his journey:


Was it a lot of work to create the series?

Yes, to say the least. It’s a marathon because I’m not sure if I’m completely recovered from making the movie. It’s just nonstop. I’m not complaining, because I got to live my dream for like a year and a half. But I mean, from the minute I could see the bible until the minute I wrapped the editing on the last episode, it requires full complete commitment.

There’s a lot of people that you’re working with. Not everyone has the time and the resources they need. You’ve got to be at peak level and I wouldn’t have been able to do it without Yvette Lee Bowser, who was my showrunner and created No Big Deal, created Living Single, and is doing A Different World. She’s been through this so many times. But still this was a very hectic, arduous process, laborious process and that took me for a loop for sure, but like in the best possible way.

What was the most difficult part of transitioning from the film to the series?

I think [for] the film, the hardest part was we just didn’t have a lot of resources at our avail. We were working with a very limited budget and a very limited timeline. … I wanted to honor my vision toward it closely as I could with the resources that I had and try to squeeze everything as close to a diamond as you can make it — that was the hardest part.

Every single day, fighting the insecurities, fighting the fact that you haven’t slept for days, problem-solving, and not only making it work, but like trying to make it shine, trying to make it dope. That was the hardest part about the movie.

I think with the show the hardest part was really just endurance. You’ve got to do that every day on a TV show. And it’s not like the writers and the directors, they’re just going to make it, you know what I mean? Especially when it came out of my head so specifically. It’s not like this existed already as a comic book and I came on board to figure it out as a TV show. These are characters that come from me. So it’s a very hand-on process and it’s a very long process. So just getting used to that, just getting used to the rhythm of it, getting used to the pace of it, that was probably the most challenging thing.

How did being at Chapman University inspire you?

It’s my alma mater so I ain’t mad, all right. It was a good education, but the biggest thing was the culture shock. Going from Houston, Texas, and living in the city really … I was surrounded by all kinds of people all the time and it’s a bustling city and you see black people everywhere.

At Chapman, it really was a very white, Republican majority of people. The film school was pretty international and you could chop it up with people from different cities and different races and stuff like that within the film program. But, by and large, that part of the country is very white, Republican and they’re just people who honestly had never met a black person before. They were well-intentioned, but poorly informed and just that awkwardness of just trying to find myself in that kind of environment — that’s really what spawned the movie.

There certainly wasn’t a “blackface party” that I was aware of on my campus, thank goodness, and some of the events in the film were certainly borrowed and condensed and movie-ized versions of things that happened. But the thing that was true for me at Chapman was just getting used to such a lack of diversity amongst a general population of that city, of that town.

It was the culture shock of it all as opposed to like someone being openly racist or antagonistic against me. That I did not experience. No. It’s a lot of lovely people there, but it’s a still very specific part of the country.

But then I have a career in Hollywood, so I had to get used to that culture shock. There’s a lot of black folks working in the industry, but Hollywood’s a predominantly white place. I’m certainly almost always the single black person voicing my particular opinion in a given group of people, so I had to kind of get used to it and in a lot of ways that’s what the movie was about too.

It was like if you’re a person of color and you’re trying to navigate your way in this country, at some point in time you’re going to have to deal with people that have very specific ideas of what and who you are before you even open your mouth. It’s just going to be a part of your experience and that’s what the kids are going through in the movie too and in the show, of course.

How did you come up with that satirical technique in telling the story?

I think it starts with me as an audience. Remember, that’s the stuff I’ve always loved. I love movies and I love television shows that challenge me or force me to confront something. 2001: A Space Odyssey is my favorite movie of all time, but I was so pissed at that movie. I was so angry because I tried to watch it all of these times and I just didn’t get it. I could not get through the monkey sequence and I was so mad, so it was like, ‘What is everyone talking about? This movie is so f—ing slow. I hate it.’

It’s my favorite movie of all time and so I’m attracted to doing work that provokes an emotional response, but provokes a response for a purpose, to illuminate something. I think being attracted to that stuff, I just naturally try to emulate it, make stuff that was like it.

It wasn’t like this master plan. It’s like I sit down, an idea occurs to me, and what comes out is what it is. I’m either pleased with that or I’m not. It is kind of a process of like eliminating the things I don’t like until I think it’s OK. That’s just kind of how I work. I don’t know that I set out like, ‘Oh, I’m going to make Jurassic Park.’

What’s the difference in having a new cast?

Well, when we set out to do the show, I wanted everybody back. That just wasn’t possible for a bunch of logistical reasons. Like a lot of those m—– were like, ‘We’re in Marvel movies now, Justin, so we’re not available.’ That was just amazing.

Everybody’s busy and of course, if you throw one new cast member into the mix, like it changes the dynamic of everything. It’s sort of everyone has to be re-evaluated now. But what I loved about Logan and Antoinette and John Patrick and DeRon is that they absolutely paid respect to what the actors before them did, but they weren’t afraid to sort of put it in their own language, or own body language.

Like Samantha White in the movie and Samantha White in the show are the same character, but Tessa [Thompson] as Samantha White and Logan as Samantha White are very different people. I could see them having a conversation and not vibing or getting along, but there being some tension, but they’re both playing the same character on the page.

That’s a really hard thing to do as an actor, particularly in TV. In theater it happens all the time. I mean, actors play roles … I mean, you don’t expect to see the same person in Macbeth that you did the last time or the last time it was performed. That’s not even an expectation in the theater. But in film and TV … it can be a little awkward, especially if the actor that’s doing it is like doing an impression or doing an impersonation of the person that came before them. It just feels flat.

What do you see yourself doing next?

I’m a storyteller. It’s what I was born to do. It’s what I want to do till the day I die … I want to keep going with the series, but I also have some projects that are in the works and some projects that I’m writing right now before the strike may or may not happen, so there’s stuff I’m finishing up.

I want to work in all medium. I want to be able to carry a show and have a movie come out. One day I want to do Broadway. One day I want to write a novel. I want to keep experimenting with the way in which I can tell stories. I want to make big movies. I want to make small movies. I want to do it all.

How do you feel about creating roles for African-American talent?

It’s really exciting because I think that we push each other. I don’t feel a sense of competition with Barry Jenkins or Ryan Coogler or Ava [DuVernay], but when I see their work, I’m so inspired by it that it pushes me to be a better filmmaker. There’s just something really unique about this moment that’s not lost on me. I don’t know if this is how directors felt in the early ’90s when black was en vogue at that time, but I just feel like we’re about to do some really special things in the culture as we come of age and keep working.

To me, it’s really exciting and I love that there is an appetite for all the different versions of black people. Like the fact that me and Issa [Rae] and Donald Glover have shows about young black people on the air and couldn’t be more different is really, really cool. Because for the first time it’s not like, ‘That’s the young black show. That’s the adult black show. That’s the black sitcom and that’s the black drama. Good night.’

President Obama leads talk at University of Chicago in first public appearance Obama has returned to the spotlight to keep spreading words of hope

Excellence. Class. Hope. Commitment. Service. The Obama family embodies the new American dream — a dream that includes all people. President Barack, a biracial boy with a funny name. First lady Michelle, a hardworking girl from around the way. Their daughters, Malia and Sasha, millennials who grew up in the public eye while navigating normal teen life.

For eight years, the nation witnessed the power of a black family, woven together by love for each other and love for their country. And, although those eight years have come to a close, the Obamas’ legacy is just beginning to unfold. The Undefeated will be following along every step of the way. Whether they’re on vacation, going to a show or speaking at an event, we’ll be there to give you the latest and greatest of our favorite family. Because after all: Yes we can, yes we did, and yes we will continue.


“My fellow Americans, it has been the honor of my life to serve you. I won’t stop. In fact, I will be right there with you as a citizen for all my remaining days.” – President Barack Obama

During his farewell address, President Barack Obama made a final promise to serve the country as a private citizen. After a well-deserved vacation where he spent time with his wife, Michelle, and their daughters; sailed the high seas with the likes of other influencers, including Oprah; and quite literally glowed, President Obama is making good on his final promise to his constituents: to serve.

Former US President Barack Obama participates in a ‘conversation on community organizing and civic engagement’ at the University of Chicago in Chicago, Illinois, USA, 24 April 2017. The event is the first public function for Obama since leaving office in January.

EPA/TANNEN MAURY

Monday marks his first official post-presidential appearance, leading a talk on civic engagement and community organizing at the University of Chicago, where he formerly was a law professor.

Former President Barack Obama greets youth leaders at the University of Chicago as he arrives for a forum to promote community organizing on April 24, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. The visit marks Obama’s first formal public appearance since leaving office.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Held at the Logan Center for the Arts, Obama is joined by six activists: some from local Kenwood Academy High School, some high school students and some older, Obama spokesperson Kevin Lewis told the Chicago Sun-Times. The talk serves as the first installment of the 44th U.S. president rolling up his sleeves alongside the American people. After today’s conversation in Chicago, there will be several other high-profile events around the country and in Berlin and Milan.

Former President Barack Obama (C) visits with youth leaders at the University of Chicago to help promote community organizing on April 24, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. The visit marks Obama’s first formal public appearance since leaving office.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Chicago has always held special meaning for Obama, as it is the city where he became a highly regarded community organizer. It is no coincidence that his first post-presidential engagement is spent alongside young people discussing the very thing that sparked his legacy — service. Obama has long credited his three-year stretch as a grass-roots organizer as “the best education I ever had, better than anything I ever got at Harvard Law School.”

Obama got a little much-needed rest and relaxation, and now he’s back in action.

Elise Neal dreams of being Liam Neeson — and loves the Grizzlies Plus she’s into Lena Horne and has a passion for fitness

Just one year ago, actress and dancer Elise Neal reached a milestone. She turned 50 — and took the internet by storm by posting bikini photos to her Instagram page. She attributes her toned body to a relentless fitness routine, and this year she’s sharing her secrets via her Elite Body Boot Camp that kicked off in Houston over the Super Bowl weekend.

A Memphis, Tennessee, native, Neal has a catalog of work that includes 2005’s Hustle & Flow, as well as TV One’s reality show Hollywood Divas. She recently starred in No Regrets, which premiered on Urban Movie Channel in February. Now she’s playing the role of Kathryn Munson in the latest Marvel movie, Logan — featuring, of course, Hugh Jackman as Wolverine.

Her favorite throwback show is A Different World and her go-to things to read are scripts — something she’s written or something she’s studying.

What are you reading?

I’m so not a reader. I do not read anything other than a whole lot of scripts. In terms of my career, I’m writing now, so I’m rewriting and writing and reading a lot of my own projects. I am 100 percent clear and focused that I will create and produce something that everyone will see by the end of this year.

What are the go-to inspirational songs on your playlist?

I like a lot of hip-hop. I need a lot of beats and energy. Turn the music up. I do that to get ready. I like that energy. I need it to be loud. If it’s a lot of music and beats, honey, it’s going to push me out the door. It’s going to really give me the energy I need for the day.

My mission is to make sure that women of all ages feel better and look better, and be their best selves.

Is there something in your acting career that you haven’t done that you’d like to do?

Everything I see Liam Neeson do, anything in those Taken movies, if I could do the female version of that for myself, I would love that. That would be fun.

If you could play a famous person in a movie, dead or alive, who would that person be?

That’s a great question. Lena Horne. Someone who was glamorous and really made a change and really had to struggle.

What are you looking forward to most this year?

I’m excited about Logan and getting everyone to see that project. That’s going to be fun. Almost every day someone is asking me about fitness. I think a lot of women don’t understand that [fitness] is not simple but it is something that you can add into your life. My mission is to make sure that women of all ages feel better and look better, and be their best selves.

Where does your courage come from?

I think it comes from my mom and I think it comes from my older sister. My mom was a nurse and then decided to go back to school so that she could teach nursing. So I [grew] up seeing all that. My older sister decided to move away from Memphis and went [into] finance and I was able to see all that growth. I feel like we’re all strong women in my family and it got passed on to me.

What will you always be a champion of?

I’m always a champion of being yourself. I’m a champion of definitely being who you want to be.

What is your favorite social media hangout spot?

My Instagram page. I like it because I can give all the things I want to share. If I want to do workout videos, if I want to do any type of silly posts, if I want to show people what’s going on, I feel like I can give them all of that on my Instagram.

What’s your favorite throwback TV show?

I used to love A Different World. And I used to watch the show, because I was in musical theater and dancing, [and] I remember Debbie Allen used to be on there a lot. I liked to check her out. But I also liked the fact that it was just a little different, and it was about a college experience. A Different World was very cool.

How does it feel to be a triple threat in the industry?

It keeps me sane. It keeps me from being stagnant. I don’t like being put in a box. So it allows all of my creative juices to flow. I’m dancing, I’m singing, I’m acting, I’m silly. I like all of those things.

Anybody from the Memphis Grizzlies team, I’m down with.

Who is your favorite athlete?

Anybody from the Memphis Grizzlies team, I’m down with. I love them. They’re doing really good this season.

Which do you enjoy more: reality TV or scripted television?

I like both. I was just talking to somebody about this. My favorite reality show is The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. It’s just inspirational, let’s just keep it real. Those women are balling out. They have amazing homes, they have amazing careers, and they’re really kind of untouchable.

What can you tell me about your role in Logan?

I enjoyed it so much. When you’re doing something of this scale, just to be a part of it, is — when I got the call that I got the job. I mean I literally did cry. I’m from Memphis, my journey started as a musical theater girl and being a dancer. And to be able to go to set and work with Hugh Jackman, who is huge in the musical theater community, I literally tap-danced over to him when I met him for the first time. He got a chuckle out of that.