What I Don’t Know About My Family Could Fill The Grand Canyon (Part 1).

I just learned about this place yesterday.

First of all, let me, for the record, make something clear. As many of you know, I wrote a book called Child of God

…that was very well-received and has also been optioned for film by hip-hop star, Kanye West. The storyline, which spans several generations, includes everything from prostitution, heroin addiction, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, rape, violent drug lords, homosexuality, the Vietnam War, murder, voodoo, rural Tennessee, and 60’s era Detroit.

One of the most predominant themes, however, is incest. Because that was a part of the storyline, many people have wondered whether the incest aspect was autobiographical. The answer is NO. I read lots of Greek literature and mythology as a child, and anyone who’s ever read the Greeks knows that their stories are rife with incest. I wanted to write something that was a nod to those stories and my favorite writers (Shakespeare, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, the Russians, and the Greeks). Apparently, however, incest occurs a lot more than I imagined, because since the publication of the book, several people have thanked me for telling “their story”.

That said, I’ve now cleared the air regarding my family. Back to this place:

What I’m about to discuss now is from a genealogical standpoint. My parents grew up in a town in rural Mississippi, deep in The Delta.

My father, the late Arthur James Files, Sr., had A LOT of siblings (I’ve never been straight on the real number, having heard everything from 17 to 21). Naturally, I don’t know them all, nor their offspring, and they are spread all over the place. My mother, Lillie Belle Files, who was born in Alabama and moved to Mississippi when she was eight, has 6 siblings (one of whom is deceased), and I know her side of the family much better because it’s more manageable in size. I also know her lineage better. Her father, the late Roosevelt Brackett, was a half-Choctaw, half-Irish man who was 17 years older than my grandmother when he married her (my grandmother used to stay with his first wife when my grandfather, who was a chauffeur when he lived in Alabama, would have to travel). Throughout my life, I’ve heard my mother mention that she was born in York, Alabama, so yesterday, while on the phone with her, I asked her about the place. She replied:

“Well, actually, I wasn’t born in York. It was Butler, Alabama. Well, it wasn’t really Butler, either. It was Oakchia, Alabama, but Charles (one of her brothers) says he can’t find Oakchia anymore.”

Huh? Okay. I was holding my laptop as I talked to her (natch), and, being the Google whore queen that I am, asked her to spell the name of the town for me (“O-A-K-C-H-I-A,” pronounced “OAK-chi,” last syllable rhymes with “eye“), and I commenced to searching. 664 items came up, but it was the eighth item on the first page that gave me everything I needed, which was both eye-opening and alarming. It was an article called Return To Oakchia. I began to silently read, then shrieked…

Ma, Oakchia was not a town!! It was a plantation!! You were born on a plantation????!!!!

…to which she gleefully cried…

Yes!!!!

…and it was though I had uttered some esoteric password, because she began to babble endlessly, parroting the very things I was silently reading in the article, down to the most obscure names. I let her talk first, then read the article aloud to her, alarmed at her absolute recall. This was stuff I’d never heard anything about. Turns out she and four of her siblings were born on this plantation, and this plantation was home to my mother from her birth in 1939 until her family moved to Mississippi when she was eight. Her father drove for the master of this house, a Mr. Green Berry Chaney Evington. I kept reading, and noticed that Green Berry Evington’s wife was named Lillie Bell. I scream, “Ma, his wife has the same name as you!!!” My mom says, “I was named after her. She delivered me. She was a midwife.” I then ask, “So grandma decided to name you after her because she delivered you?” and my mom replies, “No. Mrs. Evington named me herself.” “Was grandma cool with this?” I stupidly ask. “What could she do?” my mom replied. “Mrs. Evington was white. We worked for them and lived on their property. She could name me what she wanted.

Wow.

This stuff is like The Sound and The Fury meets Gone With the Wind. Here’s an excerpt from the article:

EVINGTONS OF OAKCHIA

The Evingtons had ten children, with three sons to die at an early age.

1. Stella, who was Stella Blanche Plattor and served as Post Master at Oakchia in 1898, but by the time her mother’s will was probated in 1900, she was married to Ed Kelly and lived at Mount Sterling. 2. Eugenia A.; 3. Minnie T., who died at age 28; 4. Nettie Mohr, who married Charles A. Batton and was Postmaster at Oakchia in 1901; 5. Marvin, who was mentally handicapped; 6. Green Berry Chaney Evington, who married Lillie Bell Lindsey; 7. Carrie H.; 8. W.H. Evington, Jr. who lived a year and three months; 9. W. H. Evington, 2nd, who lived three years and 10. John Kendall Evington, who lived only seven months,

After his two daughters, William H. Evington served as Postmaster from 1901 through 1913. His son Green B.C. Evington held that job from 1917 until 1928. when the mail was re-routed to Edna. The old wooden store/post office building still stands behind the house at Oakchia, which was built to face the river. W. H. Evington served in the Alabama State Senate representing that area from 1884 to 1887.

THIRD GENERATION OWNERS OF OAKCHIA

Green Berry Chaney Evington and Lillie Lindsey Evington’s daughters Coralie Bell and Kathleen grew up in the isolated area of Oakchia. Times were changing and young people craved excitment and companionship, not isolation. Coralie married Robert Seale Eddins and Kathleen married A. B. Stutts. After inheriting Oakchia, the Stutts sold the house and built a modern brick home in York, notable for its decorative wrought iron grill work. The old home had stayed in the family for four generations.

Resting in peace in the small family cemetery a few hundred yards from the house are Caroline and William H. Evington, the three youngest sons, daughter Minnie T. Evington and her sisters Eugenia and Carrie and brother Marvin, the last three with no grave markers. Probably other family members and slaves lie there also without headstones. There is an Oakchia African-American cemetery “deep in the woods” in a different place, land purchased in 1898.

My maternal grandfather was the one who drove the above-mentioned Evington daughters, Coralie and Kathleen, on trips during those changing times when the girls “craved excitement and companionship” outside of the isolated plantation. Those were the times when my young grandmother would stay with his then-wife and keep her company (this was long before my mother was born). I asked my mom what happened to her father’s first wife. My mom said he divorced her. I asked why and she said, “I don’t know. I heard she was a ‘rough’ woman.” I asked her what ‘rough’ meant. “I think it means she was a loose woman,” she said. Oh.*

I haven’t been able to stop staring at this house.

It’s like finding out you’ve got a long-lost brother, sister, mother, father…something…that you had no idea even existed. Something about it has shifted my universe, although I can’t exactly pinpoint how. I just feel something’s…different. Maybe because I feel so blindsided by it all. My mom was born on a plantation? A white midwife forced her name upon her? At some point during my childhood, my mother added an “e” to end of her middle name to make it more sophisticated, but that doesn’t take away the fact that her name was not of her family’s selection, even though I can’t imagine my mom having any name other than Lillie Belle (my dad always called her “Belle“).

Oakchia is now a hunting lodge.

There’s some irony in that somewhere. I just haven’t figured it out yet.

*This is the same woman who once told me that my alarmingly well-read grandfather, in a fit of strictness, called her a ‘strumpet‘ as she was about to go out on a date when she was a teenager. “What is a strumpet anyway?” she asked me. I could barely keep a straight face as I explained to her that it was an Elizabethan term for ‘whore.’ With a family like this, what else could I be but a writer (or a strumpet)?

From the web: Return To Oakchia

19 thoughts on “What I Don’t Know About My Family Could Fill The Grand Canyon (Part 1).

  1. >"Fast tail strumpet" was a name that a neighbor, Big Momma, used for many a fast woman. I havent heard that term in a gazillion years.Lo, this is amazing stuff and I can understand your "unexplained" pull to this place. Your mom is close in age to Ernest Gaines and as you may recall the plantation where we taped the Oprah episode for A Lesson Before Dying was where his maternal grandmother worked as the cook. Standing on that ground with him was transformative but I couldn't explain how so I definitely know how you feel.Ironically or perhaps as a form of poetic justice, Ernest and his wife, as a result of the sales from that book after Oprah's blessing were able to buy about 5 acres of the plantation where he grew up to build their dream home. He was even able to buy the old church/school house and have it moved to his property where he had it restored.I am gonna have to re-read Child of God but I would say there is something in that house that you need to experience up close and personal.Talking to our elders is so important; we learn so much.

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  2. >Unbelievable, Lo.I have no doubt that you will be visiting this house soon. The pull of the land is just too strong.I hope you'll embrace your journey. Stories like this one are just too powerful to ignore.

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  3. >its like if you look at the picture long enough, your mind goes back to where women were drinking tea on that front porch. Then look again and you see kids running in the yard. again all I can say is awesome

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  4. >simply…"wow". you have to visit there….your soul won't rest til you do. and if you can, be sure to videotape and bring your mom with you. as your learning now, the information you're getting now is so invaluable and so personal it's like a time capsule being opened.

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  5. >I feel another book coming on. What an amazing story. My grandfather's second wife, who he married when my father was a teenager, turned 92 yesterday and I always make it a point to call her, ever since I was a teenager. My grandfather passed in the summer of 95' and since that time, I make it a point to make sure I see her when I go home. Each time that I go, something new is revealed. I need to go back in the new year and tape record our conversations, considering her age and all. Anyway, the last time I was home, I learned from her that I could possible have an older brother. She matter of factly asks, so have you met your older brother yet? And then she goes on to tell the story about my daddy's youthful adventures that I still have yet to substantiate. I can't imagine not being the "oldest" son of my father. So, I know how you feel regarding this new information. This page in your life should prove to be the beginning of an amazing journey. I'm sure being who you are you will embrace it and then scribe it so that we can all share in the experience, I can't wait to hear all about it.Sometimes learning about your past is the best gift someone can give you.

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  6. >This is awesome LO. I agree with everyone…you have to visit this place. I know it will be an interesing experience. Sheletha…you are right..if you look at the picture long enough life starts to come into focus.

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  7. >I too just found out that my family also thought of Oakchia as a town. I did the research last night and discovered that it was a plantation. My mother is like the historian of the Chess family and she has always said that our elders claim that we are not decendants of slaves, but this discovery was shocking to me.I am still in search of Mount Valley, which is were my mother says that all of our elders and ancestors are buried (our family is still getting buried there). I plan to take a trip there with my mother (we are going to take my maternal great grandmother there as well to see if we can jog her memory a little.It is nice to know that others are looking to retrace their roots as well and to get back to this place which all of our elders thought was a town is a step in the right direction.Stay Blessed, Sister

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  8. >Hello fellow family history buffs,My family is from the same area of Alabama. I don't have the proof just yet, I believe that my Great Grandfather, Alphonso Chaney was also from the Oakchia Plantation. His mother was Loubella Chaney, sometimes called on the census records Roubella. She later married Simon Duncan. Any help connecting these dots will be greatly appreciated. I too want to visit the old plantation.

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  9. >Great StoryMy grandfather was also born on the Oakchia Plantation Choctaw Al. abt 1872.I am descended from a slave owned by one of Greenberry Chaney's twin daughters, Olivia who married a Dr. AJ Curtis.My grandfather changed his slave name from Curtis to his slave mother's overseer's son(his father) of the same name abt. 1900.Good luck on your journey

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  10. >Mount Valley cemetery is still in exsistence. Every since I can remember I was always told growing up that it was a family cemetery. I had the chance to be there this year May 10, 2008. This is the Saturday before Mother's day every year, there is a get together to clean the cemetery.It is located in Whitfield just before the Choctaw County line, on your left. When I was down there in May, to enter from Choctaw that road was closed. I am searching for my ancestors also who lived in this area. My family line starts with Caroline Dunn, I have heard that Caroline was a slave, a breeder who gave birth to many childrens. Somewhere between 1859 and 1861, she gave birth to a daughter Sally or Sallie, Dunn. I know that in 1876 Sally Dunn married Frank Harris, they lived in Whitfield, Ala. Blacks Bluff township. Sally, Sallie, Sarah, is the many spellings of her name according to the u.s. census. She gave birth to 10 childrens. Taylor, Judge, Louisa, Bob, (Francis or Frances), (Pinky or Pinkie), and (Mosetta or Mosienna) all Harris. Don't know about the 3 missing. Frances Harris is my great grandmother, she married Joe Chaney and they had 7 childrens: Enoch, Cora, Margaret,Sambo, Jim all Chaney, as well as David aka Snook,and Mariah Killings Graham. I am searching for information of my Dunn ancestors if you recognize the names in my family line please link us together. i am finally on the right track.

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  11. >Just so you know Oakchia wasnt a plantation when your mother was born it was the home of my great grandparents. You should research your times lines better because by this time the slaves had been freed. Which means Oakchia was a home and your grandfather got paid so you cant call that slavery it called a job.W.H.B.E

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  12. >My Family also is from Oakchia , they say the weren't salves, but my great great great great was from their (Chess) I do believe some of them was born into slavery there. And the rest not beign education was so call share croppers, as far as getting payed what a joke

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  13. >I have family members with the last name Chess. My grandmother's sister – my great aunt, Mary Rob Capers (we call her "May Rob") – married a man whose last name was Chess. They had a son named William Chess, and he, in turn, had children, etc.My aunt May Rob lived at Oakchia before moving to Mississippi like my grandmother did, so her husband was probably someone from the same Chess family mentioned in above comments.What a small world we live in. We are all connected somehow.

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  14. OAKCHIA WAS ON LOCK 3 ON THE RIVER AND AS CHILDREN WHEN MY GRANDMOTHER TALK ABOUT WE COULDNT FIGURE ON WHAT SHE MEANT, BUT LOCKS ARE WHERE THE BOATS CAME IN OFF THE RIVER. AFTER READING YOUR ARTICLE MY FAMILY HAVE BASICALLY THE SAME INFORMATION.
    THREE YEARS AGO I WENT TO OAKCHIA AND THERE IS A SMALL CEMETERY WITH A LOT OF MY FAMILY MEMBERS NAMES. MY LAST NAME IS ALSTON

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  15. Would love to communicate with you please note my email address. In your Oct. 18, 2008 post in connection with the Oakchia Plantation yo mentioned a lot of names that are the same as my family. I am a Harris and I can go four generations back from my father who was Willie Harris. Please reply.W

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