What If My Ancestors Were Never Stolen From Africa?
Updated: Apr 27
My Great-Great paternal grandfather, Anthony Gray, a person of African descent was a merchant and a sea man. Grandpa Gray three times over (3), owned a grocery store somewhere between the 1840’s and 1860’s. It has also been reported that Grandpa Gray 3 made money by serving as a ferryman or ship owner.
“Anthony Gray and Harriett Cooke Wilson were slaves in Warren County near Vicksburg, Mississippi of the Gray Family. While officially designated as “slaves,” the Negroes of Master Gray were treated like ‘indentured servants’, in that they were compensated for their work, and offered the opportunity to purchase their freedom. Anthony and Harriet worked, saved and purchased their freedom from their slave owner “Master Gray,” and taking (sic) the Gray Family name. They had 3 children Elsie, Matilda and Simpson Gray. Their son Simpson Gray (1871-1948) and his wife Hattie (Maxson) Maxwell (1873-1952) were Sharecroppers who worked the Gray’s farmland in Mississippi right after the United States Civil War. It is an area where former plantation owners and their descendants have been forced to resort the sharecropping their land in order to continue some semblance of their Pre-Civil War way of life.” - The Gray Matter Family Tree Nooklet, 2019.
What if .... Great-Great Grandpa Gray was born in Ghana? He clearly was gifted in nautical skills. He had to have been shrewd and adept in negotiating a difficult situation for his benefit. He must have known how to read people. He definitely learned their spoken and unspoken languages. How do I know? It's simple. Great-Great Grandpa Gray GG3, was a broad nosed, dark skinned, thick lipped Black man who learned to adapt to his oppressors ways to survive, and to some measure, thrive.
But what if….
What if GG3 had a thriving shipping business from Gabon to Morocco? What if his sons and grandsons designed, built, sold, commandeered their shipping acumen to serve every industry? What if their trade was agriculture, textiles, spices, minerals, hemp, iron, precious metals? As they extended their shipping business, my Great-Grandpa Simpson Gray who made a living as a preacher after the US Civil War, could have trained as a Babalawo in Nigeria or a priest of Akan in Ghana. Instead of preaching a message of salvation that violently forced, cajoled, encouraged, demanded, and extolled the people stolen from Africa to look outside of themselves for freedom and hope, he could have continued the tradition of guiding our family, and his community, to navigate their individual spiritual journey and embrace their destiny. Great-Grandpa Gray could have been the person who led the community, in partnership with his wife, in making connections to nature, science, sustainability, and spirituality ushering in the next generation of thinkers, doers, makers, innovators. What if…?
What if my maternal grandmother, Mama - Brazilla Ryan, at 14 years old, would have not had to leave her home in the dead of night? What if, when she was walking down the street of downtown Tuscaloosa, Alabama, she would have been able to just… walk? What if her teenage response, “Where’s yours?” to a white man’s question of, “Girl, where’s your mammy?,” did not cause her family to send her away from them for fear of the Ku Klux Klan coming to teach her a lesson for “talking back to her betters?”
What if Mama was able to teach her patchwork quilting skills, her needlepoint, knitting, sewing, cooking, and crocheting skills to her children, extended family, and community on her family compound in Nigeria instead of scraping to make ends meet as the owner of a room and boarding house in Black Bottom Detroit? Make no mistake about it, Mama was an entrepreneur. That rooming house that she owned, and those skills she employed? She did so while having debilitating rheumatoid arthritis and using a wheelchair for mobility - from when she fell and broke her hip at the age of 33 until her passing at age 67.
"Granddaddy Gray, Harry James Gray (1894-1974), escaped from Mississippi with a bounty on his head for killing a white man with his bare hands for hitting his mother. He moved to Detroit, Michigan taking up residence on the east side of the city just north of the Black Bottom community, where he met and married his first wife Wilma Joyce Leslie (1917-1988) a Hamtramck, Michigan residence. From this union six children were born. After working in a filling station as a mechanic in Hamtramck, Michigan Harry and Wilma purchased the filling station during the 1960’s adding another server station in Pontiac, Michigan with his son Collin." The Gray Matter Family Tree Nooklet, 2019.
What if Granddaddy Gray, had his own oil fields in Ghana instead of a gas station in Detroit. Let’s talk about that gas station. How does a Black man, with NO formal education, secure ownership of a Standard Oil gas station from the 40’s to the 70’s?? How? What skills must you have to negotiate with those in power to allow you to operate a filling station? With whom must you negotiate to have fuel delivered to said station? What did it cost Granddaddy Gray to safeguard and protect the filling stations - that were reliant on white people for the delivery of fuel? How did running this business affect his family?
What if my dad, Reverend Dr. Samuel Simpson Gray (educator, lawyer, minister, entrepreneur, television producer, real estate broker) was allowed to grow up in a healthy household? What if he and his siblings did not suffer with and grow up in abject poverty and debilitating asthma? What if the oppressive circumstances they suffered did not cause my Grandma Wilma to despair and abandon her children? What if my dad and his siblings were able to grow a garden and eat the food they grew instead of existing close to daily starvation? What if they lived in a home that was airy and bright and safe? What if they lived in conditions that did not cause the health department to quarantine them IN THEIR HOME THAT WAS INFESTED WITH RATS? What if their childhood memories were filled with joy, wonder, curiosity, warmth? What if?
Yet, in captivity, through the American Civil War, Emancipation, KKK Night, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement, Affirmative Action, the 80’s, 90’s and today, our family members continue to improve upon the accomplishments of the first and second generation by concentrating upon education and technical skills. Many of Harriet and Anthony Gray’s descendants have attended Colleges, Universities in the Armed Services of the United States and many have lived abroad.
Black people of African descent were generally cultivators. They also possessed a wide range of skills that they had used for generations to create a living and thrive. The millions of Black people who were stolen from Africa were skilled artisans. They were architects who built houses for their families and other structures. They were blacksmiths who forged iron tools that allowed them to clear and maintain their garden plots. They were farmers, basket makers, teachers, philosophers, spiritualists, musicians, potters, engineers, designers. Black people who were stolen from Africa lived successfully throughout the continent, in environments of extreme heat, prolonged rain, and dense forest cover.
What if my family did not have to fight for and implement our own definition of education, excellence, and economic growth? What if my ancestors, and countless other Black people of African descent did not have to fight for or assert our natural born capabilities to fulfill our destiny? What if my ancestors were not interrupted in taking their rightful place in advancing the compassion, growth, and development of our families and communities?
What if my parents had not been rudderless, disconnected from traditional practices and culture? What if my parents had the explicit, in-person guidance of their ancestors? Even though they did not have the benefit of ancestral practices, the universe, Olodumare, Olofi, Olurun, Orunmila, Egun, and their individual Ori still led them to live the best life that they could given the circumstances before them.
Imagine what could have happened if my ancestors were left undisturbed on our own land in our own countries. What if all that we designed, engineered, created, cultivated throughout the Americas was developed in Africa? What if the resources, raw materials, and Africa herself, was not carved up in 1815 in Belgium for the explicit purpose of feeding the world and keeping her underdeveloped?
Then there is the subject of reparations. Reparations? Reparations?? America, France, Spain, Britain, Belgium, Portugal, and Italy owe the descendants of enslaved Africans so much more than reparations. Financial reparations are the bare minimum and only the beginning of scratching the surface of what is owed. And that topic is another discussion for a future article.
“What if…” What could our ancestors have accomplished? Where would our wealth have come from? What if my ancestors were never stolen from Africa?” My brother, Dr. Darin M. Gray, a Bio-Medical Electrical Engineer and leading STEM Educator in California, pondered, “If we were left undisturbed, would we have adopted the Western style of exploitation of people and land? Instead of aspiring to greatness or wealth, we may have aspired for family, love, community and oneness with our land. We would probably still be an agrarian society living in peace. Much of the inventions of the Western world may not have become as technologically advanced as they are now.”
I invite all people of the African Diaspora throughout the world to pause, think, consider, wonder, and write about, ponder, and research the topic, “What If My Ancestors Were Never Stolen From Africa?”