Thursday, February 11, 1999


Director's family history fits mission of Freedom Center

The Cincinnati Enquirer

John Fleming
• Born: Aug. 3, 1944, in Morganton, N.C.
• Position: Director and chief operating officer, National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
• Residence: House in Yellow Springs. Apartment in Mount Auburn.
• Family: Wife, Barbara; daughters Tuliza Fleming, 26, Ph.D. student, University of Maryland, and Diara Fleming, 21, senior, Spelman College, Atlanta.
• Background: Director, National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center, Wilberforce, 1988-1998. Project director, Ohio Historical Society's Afro-American Museum, Columbus; senior fellow, Institute for the Study of Educational Policy, Howard University, Washington D.C.; program analyst, United States Civil Rights Commission.
• Author: The Lengthening Shadow of Slavery (Howard University Press, 1976) and The Case for Affirmative Action for Blacks in Higher Education (Howard University Press, 1978).
• Education: Bachelor's degree in history, Berea College; master's degree and Ph.D. in history, Howard University.
        Many of John Fleming's ancestors were slaves. His family tree, he says, is filled with everyday heroes, a few derelicts and everything in between.

        If he ever were embarrassed about slavery, he has long overcome it, and that is the challenge the new director and chief operating officer of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center lays out for other African-Americans.

        “If we are going to come to terms with the race issue in this country, white people have to stop feeling guilty about slavery, and black people are going to have to stop feeling ashamed,” he said.

        Mr. Fleming, 54, will lead a museum that's expected to be a landmark on Cincinnati's riverfront and attract national attention to the city.

        His professional background includes genealogy, history and civil rights experience, but he also has a personal history that fits the mission — and his view — of the Freedom Center.

        “My goal is to show how all of us are drawn from a rich fabric to make the rich American culture,” Mr. Fleming said in his first extended interview since coming to town a month ago. “We don't need to emphasize ethnic differences, but we need to know how all of us have contributed in our own fashion.”

        He speaks in the measured, polished sentences of an academician, free of distracting hand gestures. His personal organization belies the transitional chaos around him. His temporary office is on the 14th floor of the Enquirer Building, and his window looks directly out onto a rock-covered roof. He's still not sure what his office phone number is, and he's maintaining an apartment in Mount Auburn and a house in Yellow Springs.

        What Mr. Fleming's sure of is his job.

National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
        “I bring a deep appreciation and love for African-American history in the context of American history, and not only an academic understanding of the past but an emotional and spiritual understanding of where we are today,” he said.

        Mr. Fleming has taken his own advice, researching and verifying the family history he first heard as a child.

        Oral histories and the oral tradition will be important parts of the center, which will both serve as a repository of family histories and provide instruction for people who want to compile their own.

        Mr. Fleming's collection of interviews with family members and academic research resulted in his writing “Two North Carolina Families: A Reflection of the History of Black People in America,” a research document he often excerpts in speeches.

        My genealogical search began unknowingly some 40 plus years ago during the hot muggy days of summer in western North Carolina. It was not unusual for me to spend hours listening to grandfather reminisce about the past.

        So, there we sat on the front porch steps of the family house, in the cool shade of the overhanging wisteria intertwined in the trees, letting our imaginations run wild. Dee Pa, as we affectionately called him, began to speak of slavery days, a subject many older blacks chose to ignore.

        Mr. Fleming's grandfather, William Fleming, was born in 1872 and was the son of Isaac and Edith (Walton) Fleming. Isaac, born into slavery on a western North Carolina plantation in 1854, was but two generations removed from the family's African ancestor, Tamishan.

        The story of Tamishan had been preserved orally and passed through the generations.

        The history of the family has its origins in West Africa. Practically nothing is known of the family prior to the arrival of the first African, Tamishan. He claimed to have been born of a more noble race than the Guinea Negro, and that he was not only educated, but was also a leader among his people.

        He could speak and write Arabic and several other languages. He was captured and sold into slavery. He was brought to the port of Charleston (S.C.) during the late 18th century, where he was purchased by a local slave trader and businessman, William Walton. Tamishan was transported to Burke County (N.C.), where he was purchased by Waightstill Avery.

        John Fleming started researching his family in 1972, 12 years after his grandfather died. Mr. Fleming traveled to Nigeria and Ghana to mixed success and returned to the United States to enroll in graduate school at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

        He received an emotional boost when he read an article by Alex Haley in The New York Times that would later become part of Mr. Haley's groundbreaking book, Roots.

        Waightstill Avery had 24 slaves in 1790 and 55 by 1800 on his plantation at Swan Ponds (near Morganton, N.C.). Tamishan, evidently unhappy with his lot and feeling himself superior to his fellow slaves, refused to associate with them “but sought the company of intelligent whites.”

        Waightstill Avery became interested in this man and asked him to come to his house. When he saw Avery, he informed him that he was of a noble race and was a leader among his people. Avery appeared fascinated by the man and asked him if he could write. Tamishan replied, yes, and proceeded rapidly to write a sentence in Arabic. (Research has uncovered a number of Africans who practiced Islam.)

        When it was translated, it was discovered that the words were from the Koran.

        While he was in graduate school, Mr. Fleming wrote to Mr. Haley at the Kinte Foundation to request help. Mr. Haley had indicated that he wanted to help other African-Americans find their roots.

        In reply came a letter saying Mr. Haley was in West Africa.

        Undaunted, Mr. Fleming continued and conducted a series of oral interviews with family members.

        Tamishan petitioned his master to permit him to return to his homeland. He promised that once he arrived he would send four men to take his place. Both men agreed, and Tamishan was sent to Charleston.

        The captain of the vessel was instructed not to permit Tamishan to venture ashore unescorted until he had fulfilled the terms of the agreement.

        The family's oral traditions led Mr. Fleming to records in several key repositories, including the National Archives and the Library of Congress in Washington and state records in North Carolina and South Carolina.

        For months, Mr. Fleming pored through these and other documents — census records and family papers. Then he found a booklet that his grandfather long ago had said existed. It was titled “Sketches of the Pioneers in Burke County History, Being Reminiscess (sic) and sketches prepared by the late Col. T.G. Walton for the Old Morganton Herald.”

        The pieces fell into place and produced a fuller portrait of Tamishan and the Fleming family.

        During the journey, Tamishan convinced the captain to allow him to go ashore alone. After a short time, Tamishan returned with a group of his people and $400 in gold dust, the amount necessary to purchase four men. He stated that “he did not believe it right to send others into slavery that he might become free.”

        Tamishan's master did not act completely out of a desire to see this unusual man reunited with his place of birth. Avery was to receive four slaves in his stead. Avery could have been fearful of a slave uprising, (because Tamishan) sought to make the slaves discontented, and deemed it wise to return him to Africa.

        Tamishan was not entirely aloof. Sometime during his sojourn in Burke County, he took a wife. It is not known how many children they had, but one was named Alfred, commonly called Big Alf.

        From Big Alf, Mr. Fleming researched his family through the generations. It was Big Alf's son, Alfred, born into slavery in 1817, who lived to see freedom and choose the family surname, Fleming. Fleming was a white man in Burke County greatly admired by Alfred.

        Freed slaves commonly took the surname of their masters. Alfred chose the name Fleming and not Avery, his slave master, as a means of disassociating himself from the institution of slavery.

        Alfred Fleming was the grandfather of William Fleming, grandfather of John Fleming.

        “To black folks,” John Fleming said, “this story clearly means that we can break the barriers of slavery and get back to our roots by using a variety of methods.

        “We're looking at the Underground Railroad and all of its ramifications. People just look at it as slaves going from the South to the North to Canada. We know that people went to Mexico, the Caribbean, England. Some people went back to Africa. This is an example of one who did.”

        But the Fleming family story remains a small part of the story of American slavery.

        “If we are to profit from it, we should learn the lessons of history,” Mr. Fleming said. “We want people to understand the nature of slavery, its harshness. Only one in 40 slaves was able to escape.

        “We want people to celebrate people — like Tamishan — who made it to freedom but honor those people who didn't.”


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