Kinship and That Peculiar Institution

Albert Earl

By Albert Earl
Guest Column

I remember watching the movie Glory on several occasions and jokingly saying every time that Private Trip had to be some kin to me. His combative spirit and his undeniable courage to speak his truth, The Truth to power, is what I admired most.

If you are not familiar, Private Trip is the character played by Denzel Washington, for which he received an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor in this film. To be honest with you I think deep down in my spirit I wanted that kinship. Partly because he reminded me of myself in a lot of ways and it gave me a proud, yet fleeting, feeling to believe I was somehow connected to a man of such honor. A man who had the courage to fight and help defeat the evil – that represented that Peculiar Institution of Human Trafficking.

So, imagine my thoughts, 158 years after the Civil War ended, when me and my cousin Augusta, received a call from our cousin Chaka, telling us she had the military records of our great, great Uncle Alfred Robinson who served in the 3rd United States Colored Cavalry Regiment which was the 1st Mississippi Calvary Regiment of African Descent?

This Regiment is most noted for its raids in the Yahoo City Expedition and the Battle of Egypt Station, forming in 1863 until soldiers were mustered out in 1866.

My uncle Alfred is the older brother of my great, great grandfather Joseph Robinson. Alfred was born in 1843 in Wilkinson County Mississippi to my paternal great great great grandparents, James and Mary Robinson, who were both born in Virginia.

James was born in 1816 and Mary in 1818 and, according to family oral history, they were of the Melungeon People who were mixed heritage of Native American, Africans and Europeans. Although Papa Joseph was said to be a free man it is believed that his parents were sold as slaves from Virginia to a plantation in Mississippi.

History tells us that in order to relocate slaves to the Mississippi Delta during that time you either had to travel by ship, sailing the Atlantic down through the Gulf of Florida which could be expensive and treacherous. Or travel by boat from the Ohio River to the Mississippi River which was also expensive and treacherous because of rapid currents and changing water levels.

The slaveholders also transported their slaves by choosing to walk them, which could take up to seven weeks. Most slave holders chose walking because it was least expensive, however it was still a treacherous journey through mountains and other rough terrain.

After hearing and seeing his service documents, I instantly thought about what his personal journey was like after leaving the plantation to go up north to Philadelphia where he enlisted?

What did it mean to him to become one of the 186,000 African Americans to fight in the Civil War in which one-third would lose their lives? Did he have feelings of fear of retaliation toward his family who remained in Mississippi and where he would return after the war.

Like Private Trip in the film, I laughed to myself and said “Tare It Up” when I viewed a document of his military pay – a payment of $13.45 for the months of November and December in 1864. I couldn’t help but wonder what his reaction was which had to be difficult, especially being that white soldiers received $13.00 a month with no clothing fees while Black Soldiers received $10 a month with $3 clothing fees.

Most of all, I wondered what inspired Uncle Alfred to join the Union Army. Was it because of all the dehumanizing things he may have seen and watched his parents experience? Or maybe it was to help assure that his little brothers Solomon and Joseph would never remember life as enslaved children like he and their sister Catherine experienced.

Maybe he just wanted some get back or maybe he thought about the future generations of Robinsons. The future of those who would come after him, that would search and find him, 158 years later. Choosing to Fight for their Freedom as well, long before they were born.

Frederick Douglass said, “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pockets, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right of citizenship in the United States.” Up from Slavery they would come. Making sacrifices sealed with promises that tomorrow would be a much better day than yesterday.

Thank You, Uncle Alfred! I salute you and all the men and women who stood bravely and fought for the right to live free and to have Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness in a country that you learn to love but did not love you back.

I guess deep down it was the spirit of my Uncle Alfred that was speaking to me all along. Kinship to a man of such honor, who had the courage to fight and help defeat the evil, that represented that Peculiar Institution of Human Trafficking.