Black Gotham Stories

Memory and Forgetting

My search for material about my nineteenth-century New York family is as much part of my story as are the historical facts themselves. When I started my research, all I had was a single name, that of my paternal great-grandfather, Philip Augustus White, and a story about him that eventually proved to be only partially true: that he was born Philippe Auguste Blanc, a “white Haitian,” who fled to Paris at the time of the Haitian revolution, became a pharmacist, and then emigrated to New York anglicizing his name to Philip Augustus White.  I also had a few photographs—one of my grandfather Jerome Bowers Peterson, another of his wife Cornelia, who was Philip’s middle daughter, with their two older children, and a couple of others whose subjects I did not recognize at the time. 

Jerome Bowers Peterson

Jerome Bowers Peterson

I wondered why my father and his sister had not passed down any family stories or documents to me. Even now, I’m hard put to answer this question. Did earlier family members actually try to preserve mementoes of the past that then got lost with the passage of time and the dislocation of home? Did my father and his sister consider their nineteenth-century family history so irrelevant to their modern lives that they cast it aside? Did the trauma of a history of oppression lead them to want to suppress all traces of it?

Cornelia White  Peterson and children

Cornelia White Peterson with her children.