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Family ties forged in slavery: Two women join in a journey of discovery

Ann Banks was nervous. Landing at Charlotte Douglas Airport in Oct. 2018, the journalist and Island resident said, “I felt like I’d signed up for a week-long blind date.”

But it wasn’t a romantic liaison. She and Karen Orozco Gutierrez were meeting for the first time to finalize a search into their families histories, and the ancestors who bind them.

Ms. Banks and Ms. Orozco Gutierrez spoke about that search and the discoveries they made together — as well as the birth of their friendship — at a Nov. 13 Zoom presentation by the Shelter Island Library and the Shelter Island Health and Wellness Alliance.

Hosted by Donnamarie Barnes, the curator/archivist of Sylvester Manor Educational Farm, the hour-long discussion was a compelling story, involving America’s crime of racism and how reconciliation and knowledge can be realized only if it’s addressed and not hidden away.

The two women are connected by a man who was a slave owner and the boy he enslaved.

For Ms. Orozco Gutierrez, it began as an investigation to document stories handed down to her by her relatives. For Ms. Banks, it was finally going through an archive of files given to her by her father about her roots in Alabama, which she referred to as “The Pile,” and had kept untouched in a closet.

The files told the story of her great-great-grandfather, A.J. Pickett, a plantation and slave owner in Montgomery County, Alabama.

Their meeting in Charlotte, the first stop on a journey to Alabama, was to uncover documentary proof that a boy named Milton Howard, who became Ms. Orozco Gutierrez’s great-grandfather, was owned by A.J. Pickett.

They found each other through AfriGeneas, an online site that assists African Americans in finding information on their enslaved ancestors, and got to know each other via email. When Ms. Orozco Gutierrez heard that Ms. Banks was related to A.J. Picket, she wrote, “I’ve been waiting for this day!” 

Ms. Banks said her nervousness evaporated when she spotted Ms. Orozco Gutierrez in the Charlotte airport. “She gave me a big hug,” Ms. Banks said. “I was so incredibly happy. It was a sense of completion. I didn’t have any goal. But Karen wanted evidence that Milton had been on the plantation.”

Sold down the river

Growing up, Ms. Orozco Gutierrez was told about the remarkable life of her great-grandfather, “born in Muscatine, Iowa as a free person of color,” she said.

But when Milton was not quite two years old, he, along with his mother, father and several sisters and brothers, were kidnapped from their home and taken south “and sold to Ann’s ancestor,” Ms. Orozco Gutierrez said.

Answering a question from an audience member attending the Zoom presentation, the two women discussed the effects of The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which gave license to so-called “slave-catchers” to return enslaved people who had escaped bondage in the south and return them. Many times, slave catchers kidnapped free people to sell “down the river,” Ms. Banks said, for profit.

Milton Howard was on the Pickett plantation until A.J Pickett died. Soon after, Milton, at age 7 or 8, was separated from his family “and sold to another planter named Howard, from which he took his surname,” Ms. Orozco Gutierrez said.

Family ties 

Ms. Banks had learned about her relative, A.J. Pickett, through the “pile” of archives her father left her that she kept in a closet. (She writes about her family and her experiences on her website, “Confederates In My Closet.”)

A.J. Pickett (Credit: Courtesy Photo)

During the presidential campaign and election of 2016, and the rebirth of open expressions of  white supremacy, Ms. Banks said she found herself seeking out the archives.

At the Zoom presentation, she spoke about the “Lost Cause Movement,” which started at the end of the 19th century and is still alive today, propagating the idea that the Confederacy’s war against the United States was a glorious but doomed attempt to defend Southern culture, when it was of, course, a war to preserve slavery and institutional racism.

Ms. Banks has described her great-great-grandfather, A.J. Pickett, as “not just a planter but a pioneering historian” who wrote a history of Alabama, published in 1850, which, “on the subject of plantation slavery, Pickett’s book is mostly silent … I had imagined that my ancestor led a life of the mind, removed from the brutal realities of his time. I could not have been more wrong.” Slavery, she discovered “was essential to his life and work.”

Meeting in Montgomery

When the two women arrived in Alabama in October 2018, they went out to the old site of the plantation, which is now just farm fields, with a marker that describes Pickett as a “Scholar-Planter-Trader.”

They then went to the county probate office and looked at deed indexes from morning to late afternoon for transactions where Pickett had been involved. They took a break, but Ms. Orozco Gutierrez returned alone for another look at deeds before the office closed. Finally, she came upon the name she had first heard from her family’s storage of memories. 

“It was painful to discover positive proof that my great-grandfather, Milton Howard, was enslaved as a two-year-old,” she said. “But it was also joyous to realize that Ann’s ancestor A.J. Pickett was the same Pickett” that she had heard about.

The probate records said that, technically, Milton Howard was owned by a judge. Further research showed the boy had run away, escaping bondage by crossing into the North. There, a Union soldier named Murphy, escorted him back to Iowa, and freedom.

Ms. Orozco Gutierrez learned that Milton had been a servant in the Howard house, and had learned French. A report in The Quad-City Times (Iowa) from last month said that, later in life, Milton was known by the nickname, “the Linguist,” because he also spoke German “and dabbled in Indian, Spanish and Irish Gaelic.”

Once home in Iowa, and of age, he joined the Union Army, was injured with shrapnel in his knees and legs, and assigned to light duty, including digging the graves of Confederate soldiers.

After the war he worked at the Rock Island Arsenal in Iowa for more than half a century, from 1866 to 1920.

Milton Howard (Credit: Courtesy photo)

Sealed in silver

Ms. Banks wrote about these explorations into the past in a story for The Smithsonian Magazine, which was published in September.

She gave half of her payment from the magazine to Ms. Orozco Gutierrez.

“I gave my half portion of the fee for replacement grave markers for eight of Milton Howard’s children and grandchildren, who died as children,” Ms. Orozco Gutierrez said.

Beyond memories, records in a probate office and in a box of closeted files, there are solid pieces of history that bind the two women.

Ms. Banks explained that “there are two engraved silver serving spoons that I had in my drawer in the kitchen.” She had “a vague sense they were passed down by ancestors,” she said, and noted that the engraving read, “LP Walker to Eliza.”

Researching LP Walker she found that the name corresponded to LeRoy Pope Walker, the first secretary of war of the Confederate States of America. “I thought that Karen should have the spoons,” Ms. Banks said. “Her great-grandfather probably polished them.”

Around the same time, a relative of Ms. Orozco Gutierrez was cleaning out her garage when she came across what she thought was an old end table. “It was covered in layers of green paint and black lacquer,” she recalled.

Ms. Orozco Gutierrez took it home and “put it in a shed outside because it had a terrible odor.”

She finally had the piece refinished and the restorer told her it was a late 19th century mahogany silver chest. “It almost certainly belonged to Milton Howard and my great-grandmother Lena Smith Howard,” she said. “Then I got an email from Ann about the silver serving spoons.”

She told her friend she would only take one of the spoons. “I told Ann to give another one to her granddaughter. And now I can add one silver spoon to the Howard’s silver chest.”