Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, Blogger, Speaker

Our History of Slavery

History of Slavery

I’ve been saving this intriguing article on our history of slavery to share with you. “I Named My Mixed-Race Daughter for a Slave-Trading Town – Bristol!” was an opinion piece in The New York Times on July 16.

The mixed-race author Susan Fales-Hill always admired her Fales ancestors. She had a portrait of her great-great-great grandfather who had established the family’s shipping business.

History of slavery was in her family!

Susan Fales-Hill discovered history of slavery in her family

She and her husband agreed to honor her New England ancestors by naming their daughter for Bristol, Rhode Island, where family members had first settled.

Then she learned that Bristol had been a slave port. She was surprised. But she says, ” I decided that naming a multicultural African-American after a slave port was in fact redemptive, the ultimate act of reclamation.”

A few years later she learned in an email from a Yale professor that her ancestor had been a slave trader.

She was truly shocked. “That email dealt a death blow to the pride I had always felt in hailing from a family of industrious and, I thought, uniformly upstanding Anglo-Saxons. It was devastating to realize that our ‘fortune’ had begun with America’s original sin.”

She tells her now 13-year old daughter what she has learned. “I reminded her that her father and I had no idea at the time. ‘Couldn’t you have found out?’ she challenged.”

Memoir of author who discovered history of slavery in her family

Memoir by Susan Fales-Hill

Fales-Hill concludes, “With that simple question, my child demolished all of my excuses and reminded me that the truth of our family history, like our country’s, had always been hidden in plain sight. It’s our duty to seek it out.”

Can we find the history of slavery in plain sight? I think so, if we want to.

She has written a memoir about her mother called Always Wear Joy, My Mother Bold and Beautiful, and several novels. Here’s a video of her interview on NBC when her novel Imperfect Bliss came out. (It loads slowly, so if you’re in a hurry don’t try!)

Shame in Nigeria

I’ve been reading about the cruel conditions in the refugee camps for IDPs, or internally displaced persons, in north-eastern Nigeria.

Boko Haram has wrought destruction in many towns and villages. Although some territory has been recaptured and some people have been able to return home, many more are stuck and destitute.

Charlotte Alfred, World Reporter for The Huffington Post, wrote, “The hunger crisis has been growing since militant group Boko Haram captured swaths of northeast Nigeria in 2014, crippling agriculture and the local economy and displacing more than 2 million people.”

Reading the article is difficult. “Humanitarian officials with decades of disaster experience said the situation was among the worst they’d ever seen,” the author said.

I had such a sense of sadness and disappointment in the country I love. And it made me think about first world, and third world, problems.

Promised pic of Nkiru

Granddaughter Nkiru showing her birthday gifts – cologne and shiny sandals – in Bryn Mawr, PA.

I talked to my granddaughter Nkiru about these as she was driving us to the store on Sunday morning.

“Two months ago my gym announced it was closing. Since then, locker room conversations have been all about where we were going,” I said.

“I’ve been struck by how upset some of the women are. Almost all of us can afford another gym, and we all have a car to drive there.”

I told her it was an excellent example of a ‘First World problem.’

Then I mentioned the refugees in Nigeria. That’s a real problem, I said, “when you don’t have food for your children and you are watching them die.”

Adichie to Speak in London

Can you believe it’s been ten years since Chimamanda Adichie published Half of a Yellow Sun?

In honor of the upcoming anniversary Southbank Centre is presenting the author speaking on Love and War, the themes of the novel. The program will be at the Royal Festival Hall on August 7.

The promo in the blog Africa In Words says, “Ten years on, Adichie discusses why her story of star-crossed lovers caught up in a bloody civil war still resonates, and why she keeps being drawn back to the theme of love.”

If you go, please tell us about it!

Mount Holyoke Donor Story

In 1915 a woman from China entered Mount Holyoke College. She had been selected “through a rigorous examination process to go abroad.”

Vong-Ling, Chinese student, 1915

Vong-Ling, 1918, from Mount Holyoke newsletter

I read about her today in a newsletter from the college.

She was a gifted writer and published in the college newspaper in her first year.

She adapted well despite occasional homesickness. “Records from the MHC archives show that Vong-ling was a beloved and vibrant part of the MHC community. . . she was voted the “most loveable” student in her senior class.”

She returned to China to marry a man she had met on the ship coming to the U.S. He had also completed his studies, though at MIT.

Less than 20 years later, China was in turmoil, her husband was in hiding, and she was caring for six children on her own.

She died in 1947 but had already corresponded with Mount Holyoke about having her daughter attend. Four years later Chinnie enrolled!

Now Chinnie has created the Vong-ling Lee 1919 Scholarship Fund for a student in financial need, with a preference for a student from China.

As a result, the college’s newsletter said, “Vong-ling’s story will continue in perpetuity. Each year a student will arrive at MHC to live and learn, to become part of a community, to find her passion and her purpose.”

Isn’t it a lovely story? And a wonderful way for the daughter to honor her mother!

Author: Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, blogger, speaker. Born in New York, grew up in mid west United States, lived in Nigeria for 24 years, back in U.S. since 1986. Advocate for racial justice.


  1. What a great story about the meaning of “named gifts” like scholarships and rooms and such. I used to think they were just ‘vanity philanthropy’ but then when I traveled with the Serendipity Chorale to sing at an anniversary celebration of Storer College in Harper’s Ferry, WVA, a historically black college founded in 1965 to educate freed slaves. When I saw all of the stained glass windows in the chapel where we sang were the names of UU churches in New England that had contributed to the creation of this unique institution I realized how important it was to keep that special story alive. Named gifts are so much more than vanity – they keep some important values and history alive in the present.

    • I completely agree about the value of named gifts. Even for donors who aren’t thinking about the history or their legacy, their children, grandchildren, and other family and friends may love seeing the name years later!

  2. That IS a wonderful story Catherine and you’ve told it so well. Thank you for sharing this connection to your college and to mixed race children. I had missed the article in the NY Times, as I was away. A very meaningful blog post.