Legacy, Longing and The Lake

Image from a letter written to Riley R. McGimpsey, my great-great grandfather, 119 years ago

Ancestors and family are subjects I often write about. Like here and here. So I was excited when a reporter from The Charlotte Observer reached out last week for my input on a piece about Fonta Flora, the storied community of my paternal great-great grandparents.

“There once was a vale of peace and beauty in the NC foothills, the story goes, where crops grew tall and neighbors both black and white lived in harmony. Even its name sounded lush: Fonta Flora.”

The newspaper article includes an account from my family’s oral history that I shared. Below is an excerpt.

“Just the connection to the land and what’s under that lake is strong and really powerful for all of us,” (Valaida) said. “There’s also the sense of loss, in my mind. After the Civil War, for families that had been enslaved people, even though we didn’t have grand plantations like in other parts of the South, people still struggled to make lives for themselves in a new place, and work for decades. And then to be uprooted.”

The full Observer article by Bruce Henderson is found here, and it features a beloved family portrait from around 1903.


A History of Giving

Soon after my elder cousin Nettie’s passing about two weeks ago, I spoke with my mom to arrange coming home for her funeral service. Later that morning a reporter from The Charlotte Observer called, requesting an interview on my family history and genealogy for a story he was writing.

While initially reluctant, I began to feel a heightened sense of legacy and responsibility to share a family history that Cousin Nettie committed her life to teaching me, her children, my cousins and the people of Burke County.

The Observer ran the story on Sunday, in observance of Black History Month, and I’m honored to have shared some fascinating aspects of my family, about the lost community of Fonta Flora and stories of my great-great grandfather Riley McGimpsey. Below is a link to the story, which also includes a family story from Giving Back photographer Charles W. Thomas, Jr.

Read Research into African-American families shapes 4 Charlotteans by Mark Price, The Charlotte Observer, 2 Feb 2014.

My drawing of North Carolina's Table Rock in the Linville Gorge area with my family tree that we used for the t-shirt at the 2013 Fullwood Family Reunion

My drawing of North Carolina’s Table Rock in the Linville Gorge area with my family tree that we used for the t-shirt at the 2013 Fullwood Family Reunion

Seven Generations and One Hundred, Ten Years Ago

Christian and Riley McGimpsey with family and friends, 1903

Christian and Riley McGimpsey with family and friends, 1903

This is a story about Riley R. McGimpsey (28 Mar 1845 – 20 Apr 1934), my great-great-grandfather, as told to me by my elder cousin Nettie McGimpsey McIntosh for my book Giving Back:

Despite common perceptions, Black men have long been industrious. And evidently my grandfather Riley was as hardworking as men of any race come. I call him a Black entrepreneur, but back then industrious is the word people used.

I archive and keep our family’s history. I have scoured over family artifacts and Census data. Some time in the mid-1800s on the McGimpsey farm in Burke County, North Carolina, a slave named Clarissa gave birth to a son she named Riley. While born into slavery, Riley eventually became a sharecropper who sold his part of the produce—corn, wheat, molasses and such. Documents I have come across show his products sold as far away as Mullins, South Carolina, which was hundreds of miles from the farmland of Fonta Flora. He even owned one of the county’s few reaper-binders and loaned it out to others.

Fondly remembered and respected by people all over the county, my grandfather prospered in farming and with various small enterprises. He grew well known for giving away fresh produce and all kinds of things to community people, regardless of color. Riley was born a slave, but died an entrepreneur and philanthropist. Don’t let a meager start or scant resources limit what you do in life.

The portrait above is on display at the History Museum of Burke County. Riley is seated on the far right and his wife Christian V. Moore McGimpsey is seated next to him. Their daughter Mary Maldonia, who is my great-grandmother is seated on the far left.

Fast forward one hundred and ten years: There will be a family reunion this summer, kicking off at the History Museum of Burke County, with five more generations—the far-flung descendants of Maldonia McGimpsey and the man she would later marry John Wesley Fullwood. Cannot wait!

— VF