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How A Cotton Sack, Passed Down Over Generations, Tells A Larger Story About Slavery

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Our guest interviewer, Arun Venugopal, has the next interview. He's a host and senior producer at public radio station WNYC in New York. Here's Arun.

ARUN VENUGOPAL, BYLINE: One winter day in South Carolina in the 1850s, an enslaved woman by the name of Rose discovered that her 9-year-old daughter was about to be sold off and that they'd, in all likelihood, be separated for the rest of their lives. So Rose made a quick decision, packing a cotton bag with a few personal items, and a little food, and placing it in her daughter's hands. That cotton bag remained in the child's possession and was passed on from one generation to the next, and at one point in the early 1900s was inscribed with the family's tale. And this journey of an embroidered cotton bag from the days of slavery to its eventual place in the National Museum of African American History and Culture is at the center of a new book, "All That She Carried: The Journey Of Ashley's Sack, A Black Family Keepsake."

In the words of author Tiya Miles, this book is about the burdens of being human in an inhumane world, and about how Black women in particular have responded to systemic erasure with art, compassion and love. The history of Africans in America is brutal, she writes. But we have made art out of pain, sustaining our spirits with sun bursts of beauty, teaching ourselves how to rise the next day. Miles is a historian at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and is also the author of "The Dawn Of Detroit" and "Tales From The Haunted South."

Tiya Miles, welcome to FRESH AIR. You've brought us from the 1850s, when Rose, the mother of Ashley, in sort of an act of desperation, but also, as you describe an act of love, hands her this bag. And she's sold off at the age of 9. And then decades later, her own granddaughter - Ashley's granddaughter, Ruth, Ruth Middleton, decides to inscribe this tale upon the cloth, to embroider in a few sentences the story of her family. What is it that she tells us in this inscription?

TIYA MILES: So this is what Ruth has sewn onto the sack. My great-grandmother Rose, mother of Ashley, gave her the sack when she was sold at age 9 in South Carolina. It held a tattered dress, three handfuls of pecans, a braid of Rose's hair, told her it be filled with my love always. She never saw her again. Ashley is my grandmother, Ruth Middleton, in 1921. So in this inscription, Ruth Middleton tells us those specific names and events and locations and emotions that really encapsulate her family's story of brutal separation during enslavement. Ruth Middleton has made a choice to sew this family record, to sew this story, rather than to write it down on a piece of paper, for example.

And I think that decision of hers is actually information about her, information about what it meant to be a young Black woman in Philadelphia in the early 1900s and what the value of a handicrafts and especially fancy sewing work was, two Black women who had for their entire lives and for many generations in this country been relegated to a lower category of womanhood, a category of womanhood that was viewed as deemed fit for brute manual labor, as opposed to being fit for the kinds of feats of artistry that Ruth Middleton is reaching for when she decides to embroider her family's story.

VENUGOPAL: You mention that there's hair, that - the lock of hair. And you mentioned pecans as well, which might have just seemed like, oh, here's something to eat on the way. But you write in the book that something even as simple as pecans, it's not something that Rose would have easily come by, that it was actually quite rare for someone in her position to have come into possession of. Is that right?

MILES: Yes, that is right. You brought up the hair, and you brought up the pecans in particular. Those are not just simple things. Rose actually cut off one of her own braids and packed it for her daughter, Ashley. This was such an incredible action, I think, of self-worth and self-possession and of communication because Rose, of course, didn't own herself legally. She was owned by a white South Carolinian couple legally. And so her hair was technically not her own.

And yet, through this act of taking a part of her body, which didn't belong to her legally, and packing it away for her daughter, Rose silently stated self-possession, self-worth. And I think that she passed that message on to her daughter through giving her that braid. By giving this braid to Ashley, Rose was making sure that she would physically be present with Ashley into the future.

VENUGOPAL: At some point in the life of this bag, it was no longer in the possession of Rose and Ashley's descendants. And it was rediscovered in the 21st century by a flea market shopper, a white woman who was rummaging through a bunch of old stuff. Where exactly did she find it?

MILES: She found it in Tennessee. She was a woman who used her garage selling and flea marketing afternoons and weekends to supplement her family's income. She would find interesting things, and then sometimes she would resell them on eBay to help pay for her kids' tuition, actually. And she came across this bit of rags in a Tennessee flea market, just rifling through the bin and noticed the inscription on the sack. She read it and recognized that this was something special. She then went and purchased the whole bin of old discarded cloth of rags for $20 and then started to research the names on the sack.

VENUGOPAL: And when the bag first went on display, this was at Middleton Place - correct? - A museum that was once a plantation. I'm just wondering, how do you feel about that?

MILES: Well, I mean, that's the question, right? I felt that it was, in some ways, a betrayal of everything that Rose had attempted to accomplish and everything that Ashley had attempted and Rosa, Ashley's daughter, had attempted and Ruth had attempted. When Ruth finally actually moved to the North, I mean, Ruth had gotten out. She had gotten out of South Carolina. She had gotten out of this place that had enslaved generations of her four mothers. She had gone north like thousands of other African Americans in this first wave of the Great Migration. And yet, this object that she clearly cherished and that she devoted her time and her artistry to transforming was sent right back down to the very state where her four mothers were separated from one another and where they suffered this terrible loss.

So I did feel all of that when I went to Middleton Place. I felt a sense of sadness and a sense of resentment for these women. And yet, when I sat with not only the feelings, but also with the complexity of the situation, I came to realize that this was the way that this sack had been rescued, in a sense. Middleton Place was the institution that acquired the sack and that devoted its own people power to, you know, researching the sack and to curating it for the very first time, to trying to understand who the women were. And so my feeling of it is that, yes, we wish that Ruth's descendants had been able to continue to steward this sack. Or we might wish that a Black managed and a Black-owned historic site or museum or institution actually owned the sack. And yet that's not what happened. Middleton Play Foundation is the owner of the sack. And the staff members there are caring for it, and they view it as their most important artifact.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview our guest interviewer, Arun Venugopal, recorded with historian Tiya Miles, author of the new book "All That She Carried." We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOS SUPER SEVEN'S "CALLE DIECISEIS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview our guest interviewer, Arun Venugopal, recorded with historian Tiya Miles, author of the new book "All That She Carried." It's about what we can learn from slavery and survival from one cotton bag that was passed on from an enslaved woman in the 1850s to her 9-year-old daughter, who was about to be sold.

VENUGOPAL: You found your own family story tethered, as you say, to that of Rose and Ashley in part because of something that happened to your ancestors during Jim Crow, a story that was often recounted to you by your grandmother Alice. What is it that she kept on telling you over the years?

MILES: Well, my grandmother was one of these women who was a natural-born storyteller, and one of the stories that she continually returned to was the event of the loss of her family's farm in rural Mississippi. And what happened is that she and her family were doing well. They had livestock. They had, as she puts it, plenty to eat, which was always very important to her. And they, I think, expected life to go on in this way, to go on in a way that they had some degree of protection from the worst that the South could hand Black people.

But it didn't happen that way. Instead, there were some white men in this Mississippi town who came to our family's farm and who demanded that her father, who had actually lived quite a long life, had married a woman who was much younger than he and who had been enslaved as a child - they asked her father to sign a document which he couldn't read because he had not had the opportunity to be educated. And then they came back, these white men with guns, saying that the documents that he had signed - his name was Price (ph), my great-grandfather - basically gave over his farm and his wife's livestock - because she owned the cows - to them.

And because they were white men and because they had guns and because it was the early 1900s in Mississippi, many decades before the civil rights movement, terribly unsafe place, the family had to move. And they had to move right then. And my grandmother talked about how her big sister Margaret was able to save one cow and take it over to the neighbor's house for safekeeping. And even though they were quite poor after the loss of their farm, the memory of her sister Margaret saving that cow had always stuck with her, and she passed it along to me.

VENUGOPAL: And you actually inherited a quilt from this same Great-Aunt Margaret, didn't you?

MILES: Yes. Yes, I have a quilt that she made, and it's on my wall right now. I'm just turning to look at it. It's a quilt that my grandmother cherished because, of course, it reminded her of Margaret. And so for me, this quilt represents that resistance, that resilience, that creative action in the face of pressure and that insistence on carrying on despite trauma.

VENUGOPAL: Tiya Miles, thanks so much for joining us today.

MILES: Thank you so much, Arun.

GROSS: Tiya Miles is a professor of history at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and author of the new book "All That She Carried." She spoke with guest interviewer Arun Venugopal, a host and senior producer at public radio station WNYC in New York.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll remember actor Michael K. Williams. We'll listen back to two interviews with him. He co-starred in "The Wire," "Boardwalk Empire," "The Night Of" and "When They See Us." He's nominated for an Emmy for his performance in "Lovecraft Country." I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLIFFORD BROWN'S "DELILAH")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering today from Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Kayla Lattimore and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLIFFORD BROWN'S "DELILAH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.