Friday, July 4, 2008

Joseph "FreeJoe" Harris

Since our discovery of Göran's biological family last week, the floodgates of communication have been opened. Göran finally spoke on the phone with his Grandmother, who has a lively sense of humor and a great laugh. He's had conversations with his younger siblings, who are delighted to discover they have an older brother. His little brother can't wait to challenge him to a one-on-one basketball match! And there have been daily phone calls, emails and text messages from his Aunt Dottie and Cousin Nikki.

I finally spoke on the phone to Cousin Nikki for the first time a couple of days ago. Since her first phone call to Göran last week, I purchased some genealogical software on line and have begun to map out the families and relationships, filling in whatever information I could get. When I spoke to Nikki, she said, "I understand you're interested Göran's genealogy."

"I am," I said.

"Well," she continued, "We have a cousin who's researched all that, and wrote a book about it."

"Really?!" I gasped.

"Yes. About our ancestor FreeJoe Harris."

"Really? Can we get this book?"

"I think so," she said.

She gave us the titles of two books this cousin, a Mr. Earnest Lacey, had written: FreeJoe: A Story of Faith, Love and Perseverence (1996) and The Search for FreeJoe: Researching a Family's History (1999). We inquired about the books at the local Barnes and Noble, and were told they were out of print. But a quick web search turned up this web site where we were able to order the books directly from the author and publisher. Within an hour of having learned of them, I ordered them.

After receiving the automated confirmation of the order, I received a personal email from Mr. Lacey thanking me for the order and promising prompt shipping of the books. I responded to his email with an email of my own, introducing myself and telling him Göran's story, to which he in turn responded with the graciously expressed hope that we visit him when we come to Memphis.

FreeJoe Harris was born a slave in Virginia in 1796. Three years after becoming a Baptist minister in 1829, he was emancipated. Like other Americans in search of freedom at that time (though for him, certainly, more than for most Americans, freedom had a particularly precious meaning), he headed for the frontier and settled in what would later become Shelby County, Tennessee. Later he was able to purchase freedom for his wife and two of his daughters. Though he was forced flee Tennessee for Indiana for a time in order to avoid being forced onto the "Trail of Tears," he eventually returned to Shelby County, where his descendants (and Göran's family) live to this day. Among other activities, he was an agent in the Underground Railroad starting in 1841. He valued education and, at a time when education for women was not valued, he sacrificed in order to send his daughter and granddaughter to college in Indiana. He was the first person of color to handle mail as an official agent of the U.S. Government and owned his own stagecoach company. He founded the first and oldest African American church in Shelby County. He bought land and became a farmer. He was an incredible man.

It seems appropriate to remember FreeJoe today, on the 4th of July. His story reminds us that the Declaration signed 232 years ago today was a promise not always kept, a promise requiring struggle to achieve. FreeJoe reminds us both how precious a gift freedom is, and that freedom is a process. And FreeJoe also reminds us that freedom is meaningless without commitment, without family, without the ties and connections that fill our lives and our hearts with happiness and meaning. FreeJoe wasn't truly free until he had won freedom for his wife and children. And once they were free, he realized he still couldn't be free as long as there were brothers and sisters in bondage, which is why he devoted his life to freeing them through the Underground Railroad. There's a message in there somewhere for all of us...

And of course, for Göran and for me personally, FreeJoe has now become a symbol of Göran's new-found family; freedom from alienation and isolation; freedom to know who you are and who your family is; freedom to love and to be loved; freedom to build relationships; freedom to live for others and to build a life worth living for.

On this day when we celebrate freedom, here's to FreeJoe, author of freedom for his own family and for the families of many others! May we honor his life and sacrifices with worthy lives and sacrifices of our own!


Monte said...

WHo is Goran? I, too am a descendant of Freejoe Harris and I just returned from Memphis yesterday.

J G-W said...

Hello Monte!

Göran changed his name for complex reasons I've described elsewhere in this blog. His father is Granville Wesley Harris, Jr. His great grandfather was John Harris, who was the son of Willie Harris and Josie Hayes. Willie was the grandson of Peter Harris, Freejoe's first son.

We think Göran is also a descendent of Freejoe through his great grandmother, Electa Harris, but we're not quite sure how she's descended from Freejoe, only that everyone in the family says she is, possibly through Freejoe's second son James. We're still working on that line.

Göran's grandma Eloise is still alive in Memphis. Everyone in Memphis knows Göran as "Wesley."

How are you related?

Anonymous said...

it`s emerald send Solly your email.Ours is jeromebrooks40@yahoo