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Sunday, February 23, 2014

My Mama's Story, A New Cousin and Art to Teach Black History.

Grandma Belle Vaughan Webster;
 wife of Tom Webster  and mother Ernest Webster
my mom's adoptive father.
What?  You're Adopted?  
Somewhere in between my 35th or 36th year of living on the planet earth – my mom told me she was adopted.  I thought to myself “What?  You're kidding? You are just now telling me?  I am damn near 40 years old!”    She explained further that she was about five years when her mother died.  Her grandmother Belle let the "cat out of the bag" that her mother – was not her real mother – she was adopted!  My initial understanding of what my mom said got a little mangled.  I though she meant her father Ernest Webster was her real father and his wife Julia somehow came late to the family party (and died) -- and she wanted to know more about her.

Sojourner Truth
Grandma Belle
I eventually got the story straightened out. Mom was adopted as a toddler by Ernest and Julia Webster.  It would take some time, lots of phone calls and letters to sort it all out.  But I think Grandma Belle is real hero (and thank you God) because she told my mom the truth and that story stuck with my mom so this mystery could eventually be unraveled.  I love the photo of Belle. I nearly tore up my house this morning looking for it!  Grandma Belle was a Sojourner Truth in her own time. I think my mother's spirited independence, kindness and sassy-ness is a gift from Grandma Belle. I think I got a little bit of it too...

Woolworth's Lunch Counter
Protest, Greensboro, NC
My mom really wanted find out if she had any family – living or dead.  She had even made attempts of her own to uncover the truth by hiring an attorney to investigate; but he died in the process.  So I thought I’d give it a shot. I love solving mysteries – particularly the family history kind – but you already know that right!  Sometimes even after many years have passed; and the principal players in a family are dead --- some resist telling or hearing the truth.  My part in genealogical research is in defiance or a protest against silence for the sake of keeping a secret.  The details leading up to my mother's adoption and the intervening years in between are sordid and painful.  So I will skip directly to the easiest part of the story to tell. 

The Birth Certificate and Writing the Judge
I thought it was odd that my mom's birth certificate had numbers which were crossed out and written over.  "This is a messy birth certificate," I said to myself. "Shouldn't it be pristine with no markings?"   I learned during the research process that when someone is adopted a new birth record is created with their “new name."  In this case; her birth record has new numbers hand-scrawled over redacted ones. 
W. E. B. DuBois -- Founder of the NAACP's
The Crisis magazine and author of
The Souls of Black Folks
The short version of the story (and this is a really a long one)  is this all began to move forward in February of 1999.  I drafted a letter for my mom to sign addressed to the judge of the 45th Judicial District -- the Honorable Carol Haberman of  Bexar County Texas requesting her adoption records be opened. I researched the law and discovered that her records could be opened with the help of an attorney. My confidence had been bolstered and inspired by an attorney friend in Long Beach, Jeff LeBeau who said he didn’t practice that kind of law; but he’d help in whatever way he could. Well, I was off and running. 

To my surprise the Judge Haberman responded and confirmed that yes, my mother was adopted and she noted the case file number too.  To get the records open we’d have to go to court.
I spent what seemed like months trying to figure out my next steps. I got the impression that my mom was uneasy about going to court – mostly because we really didn’t know what to do nor have the money to hire an attorney and fly to San Antonio.  At the time Ian, Evan and Erin were all under 10 years of age.  I had a full plate.  
Mary McLeod Bethune Founder
National Council of Negro Women (NCNW)

The Adoption Papers
Besides writing the judge --  I had my mom apply to all the adoption registry organizations in the San Antonio area which facilitated connecting adoptees with their birth family.  After more research, I found an attorney who would go to court for a very nominal fee of $65 to unseal the adoption record.  The adoption papers were mailed to my mom while she was visiting Columbia in the summer of 2005.  The record provided some interesting details. My mother (Julia Ann Webster-Wilson-Mass) was born Jo Ann Cobb on April 28, 1945 to Marshall and Frances Cobb.  No place of residence was listed for her parents and no maiden name for Frances.   Further “…that the father of said child is Marshall Cobb and his residence is known to be out of Bexar County, Texas; that the said mother Frances Cobb was deserted by said father Marshall Cobb; and that the mother of the child left her with the Children’s Services Bureau and both parents are negro…”

Ernest Webster, son of Belle Vaughan
and Tom Webster; grandson of
Millie Manuel Childs Webster. 
New Parents: Ernest and Julia Webster 
On Oct. 19, 1947 -- my mom was only 2 years old.  She was placed with Mrs. Ernest and Julia (Knowles) Webster temporarily as a a foster child and they were 52 and 43 years old at time, mature adults I'd say.  The paperwork also noted about her adoptive parents: “...they have no children of their own; they love children and are desirous of adopting a child... the husband owns a Grocery Store on South Pine St., San Antonio, Bexar County, Texas...their net worth is approximately $3,000… their home would be a desirable home for a child…they own a four-room well built house and they are of good moral character and they can provide for the child… it is recommended that the petitioners be allowed to adopt the child.”   The Websters were vetted by the Children’s Services Bureau in 1948 to ensure their home and surroundings were suitable for a child. The adoption was entered as a legal record on June 2, 1948. 

FOUND...Trying to Connect
The Webster Family -- San Antonio, Texas
But, before the adoption papers arrived by mail --my mom got a call from one of the adoption registries!  Good news!  Her family was looking for her!  The adoption registry had requirements of families before “connecting” them together.
She needed to prepare a packet of information which included photos, a personal summary about herself, family, and proof of attending at least a one-hour psychological consultation with a certified practitioner.  I thought seeing a counselor before walking into such an encounter with a family you've never met was a good idea.
I don't know how my mom felt -- but she did it.
It seemed like a wise precautionary thing to do in order to sort out one's expectations and other emotional cliff-hangers that come with braving such a unknown journey. I helped my mom put everything together; but the other side for some reason was unable to comply.

Tuskegee Airman
My mom was sad and thought that her family had decided against meeting her.  I said no!  I didn't think that was the case.  My bet was that whole process may have seemed a bit too cumbersome for them.  I later learned that her brother Marshall Cobb III  had spent his lifetime trying to find my mom and sisters who had been separated by individual adoptions as well.  Along the way -- he found two sisters: Jaisun aka Geraldine and Flora Dean; but my mom was the last one to be found.   Her mother Frances had 5 children with Marshall Cobb II , but one died in infancy.  She divorced Marshall and remarried to Sonny Prescott and had 5 more children.
I think my mom is very blessed to have two living sisters and a brother. But her brother Marshall was the one who contacted the various adoption registries and submitted information about my mom in an effort to find her. After his death in 2003 -- his sister Linda Prescott picked up the torch and pressed on to find my mom. When the agency contacted my mom -- they told her that there were ten children born into the Cobb family including my mom.  Wow?  Can you imagine going from no siblings to knowing you’ve got a clan!   So we waited and waited for the family to respond but they didn’t.  So I jumped back into the research process.  
Martin Luther King, Jr.

Not Giving Up the Search
During this time, my research partner  Cuz aka Linda Hardiman-Palmer -- called to tell me that death records for Texas had been digitized and free via the website.  We are on the case every time some new database or website with FREE digital records or newspapers comes online.  I spent HOURS searching through that database.  Then I worked fast and furiously trying to compile a family group sheet on the Cobbs based upon what I knew.. but found next to nothing. However, I did find a death record for Gloria Dean Cobb who was born Sept. 17, 1947.  She was born a couple years after my mom and she had a twin sister named Flora Dean Cobb. Gloria died on December 7, 1947 – four months after her birth.  More importantly, Gloria's death record listed her parents as:  Marshall L. Cobb II (Columbus, Ohio) and Francis Holt (Nashville, TN) – and at the time of Gloria's death they lived at 603 Blue Bonnet St. in San Antonio, Texas

Marshall Leon Cobb III -- my mom's brother and
Major Cobb's father. 
Finding the Cobb Family -- Ohio
Armed with this new information (specifically that Marshall was from Columbus, OH)  – I woke up very early the next morning and began sleuthing for clues to crack the case.  I searched through every free database I could trying to find Cobbs in Columbus, OH.  Using Lexis-Nexis by credit card and -- I bought several Cobb obituaries. Then I went back to the census and started putting pieces together. I followed the Cobb family backwards from Ohio all the way  to North Carolina in 1870 and to Marion County West Virginia where Novel Cobb and Ellen Duncan (parents of the first Marshall Cobb) were married on October 29, 1893.  My initial research on my grandmother Frances Louisa Holt's family line was incorrect. Her family came from Tennessee and I had connected her to a HOLT family in Bexar County, TX. However, after my mom spoke to Aunt Geraldine -- I got steered in the right direction.  Frances mother Aline Harden Boulware -- was the daughter of General Harden and Ellen Gentry who were married in on November 7, 1907 in Marshall County, Tennessee.  

A Tough Cold Call
Major Cobb -- The Artist 
With all these pieces of new information,  I got busy trying to find living relatives.  With my obits,
I created a Cobb family tree; then used the White Pages online to see who I could find.  Around eight in the morning, I had finished putting together the family tree and had some phone numbers.
Impressed with my handiwork, I called my mom and said: “Hey, I think I found your family!”
I explained what I uncovered and had some phone number she could try… it was up to her if she wanted to call.  I’m willing to do a lot of things – but making that cold-call wasn’t one of them.
I hung up the phone and waited. I didn't think my mom would call.  I figured she'd chicken-out.
But she surprised me. She was brave, called the number and within 30 minutes called me back.  She had just been on the phone with her Aunt Geraldine – her father Marshall Cobb’s sister.
My mother was elated and I was in SHOCK!  
L-RT: Meeting my cousin
Melody Chambers
Aunt Geraldine and me!

Brown vs. Board of Education
Topeka, Kansas
Separate is NOT Equal

New Family -- New Beginning, Art and Black History
Soooooooo.  That's my mama's story.  I felt it was necessary to explain all of this in order to introduce one of my fabulous new cousins Major Cobb and his drawings!  His beautiful chalk-works illustrating this blog is a part of the story and I hope it continues to be a part bringing all of the families together and building on our history . You see, now I have all these new 1st cousins and it is a pretty awesome and amazing experience getting to know them.  While doing recruitment travel for my old job at the MU School of Medical – I ended up at places where my new family lived: Atlanta, Ohio and New York.  I already had friends in all those places but now I had cousins -- LOTS of THEM and was actually able to meet some of them along the way.

Never Again
Introducing My Cousin -- Major Cobb
Major has been drawing images from “The Struggle” on his daughters' chalk board easel this month in honor of Black History Month.  He’s teaching them by example to be creative to think out of the box and show what you know.  More importantly, he is also teaching his children about African Americans who risked their lives, comfort and safety by waging a one hundred year battle; after two hundred years of slavery to abolish America's institutionalized system of racism emboldened by Jim Crow laws. 

1968 Olympics in Mexico City

I am very proud to call Major my COUSIN -- and thrilled to share his creative work. I am also very very happy that we have been able to re-connect with my mother's family and her history.  I know that family love and bonds can prevail despite the pain and loss of the past. 

Left to Right: Sisters  Linda Prescott aka Bahtquashyah
my mom Julia. Mass,  Jaisun McMillan and Sharon Prescott.

My mom met her sisters for the first time last summer in Atlanta Georgia. One of her sisters Linda Prescott or Bahtquashyah Baht Levi,  passed away a few weeks ago.  I am very pleased that they were able to finally meet and share a very special time together.

Marshall Cobb III
Peace and Thank You!
Peace to your soul Aunt Linda -- and thank you for doing your part in making our future as a family possible.  And thank you Uncle Marshall for never giving up and passing the mission on to find my mother.  Peace to your soul.. my mama is in good hands with your family.

I hope to be sharing Major's work in future missives

Traci Wilson-Kleekamp