Some years before my grandmother died in January, 2000, the subject of her maternal grandmother came up in discussion. She told us at that time that her grandmother, Theresa Spurlock, had been "bought" out of slavery by her husband, Benjamin Spurlock, a member of the U.S.Colored Troops. In my grandmother's collection of family photos, was a portrait of a man in uniform, taken in Ohio, but with no date on it. We grandchildren were led to believe this was our ancestor, Benj. Spurlock, and were we proud of him!
After my grandmother's death, I began the process of researching my family's history, starting with attempting to identify the people in her photo collection. Next, I went to Census Records for the states where my grandmother's grandparents had lived, and Pension Records of the U.S.C.T., to find out as much as I could about them from the public record. Lo! and behold, BOTH of my grandmother's grandfathers had served in the military--one from the state of Kentucky (Benj. Spurlock) and the other from the state of Kansas (Gabriel Gray). Both men had been promoted to the rank of Corporal, and both had files in the Pension Records.
To make a 3-year story short, I will reveal the punch line now. My great great grandfather Spurlock was still enslaved when he entered the U.S.C.T., and his military service was his ticket to freedom. But, he left behind his wife and first two children, in Kentucky, in the summer of 1864. At that time, the Spurlocks had been allowed a legal marriage in the local Catholic church, even though they were still in bondage. No evidence suggested that Benj. Spurlock had even been in the military long enough to "buy" his wife out of slavery.
On the other side of the Mississippi River, my great great grandfather Gabriel Gray, had been a FREE man of color, employed in the city of Lawrence, Kansas, by the year 1863. He married my great great grandmother, Caroline Clopton Gray, the following year. Their marriage license info showed that Caroline's last "home" had been in Missouri, where she was the property of the Cloptons. Only after the marriage in Kansas, when both my ancestors were free, did Gabriel join the U.S.C.T., in 1864.
My conclusion? My grandmother, a highly educated professional who was mentally sharp until her death at the age of 97, had always mixed up the names of her children and grandchildren in ordinary conversation; this was a source of great amusement to us. Once I had the historical "facts" about her grandparents's lives during the Civil War, I had to infer that my grandmother had again confused names with stories, because those facts made it pretty plain that her Grandfather Gray, not her Grandfather Spurlock, had "bought" his wife out of slavery.
This story illustrates a few points. First, oral history is invaluable in the search for ancestors of African descent. Secondly, we should always keep our minds open when we try to verify the stories of our ancestors, so that we don't miss additional, equally invaluable information from the public record. Thirdly, though much of the history of Africans in America is fraught with pain, there were those moments of immense courage and honor, as well as moments of confusion and humor, all of which make the endeavor of uncovering that history endlessly engrossing and entertaining.