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My Soul Is a Witness: The Spirit Keeps the Memory of the Ancestors Alive
By Rosalyn Terborg-Penn

My Soul is A Witness: African American Women's Spirituality

© 1995, by Gloria Wade-Gayles. Boston: Beacon Press

"The Spirit Keeps the Memory of the Ancestors Alive," by Rosalyn Terborg-Penn

In October 1969, Ma dreamed that she was crying at her mother’s grave. Six months later in April 1970, my grandmother, Mabel Van Horn, died. It was then that my mother, Jeanne Terborg, realized that she had prophetic dreams. From time to time she reminds us of what happened shortly after she married and left Indianapolis for Brooklyn in the 1940s. She dreamed that her brother and his friend were lying on the ground with an automobile tire on top of them. Soon after she learned that they had been in a car accident. The ability frightened her. I later realized her ability as a source of power.

Two months after Mabel’s death, in June 1970, Grandpa, her husband Earl, died. A few weeks later, my father’s uncle, Gus Bierman, passed away also. It had been a terrible spring. My parents’ generation was emotionally and physically drained. My father’s mother, Delia Bierman Terborg, grieved not only the loss of her brother, but also because now she was the only remaining family member in her generation.

The evening after the burial, my father, Jacques Terborg, Sr., napped on the living room couch and had a vision of Uncle Gus, moving down the stairways toward him. His fright awakened him and Uncle Gus disappeared. In hearing the story later in the evening, my brother and I asked if Uncle had communicated with my father. We were both intrigued, but not frightened by what we heard. It was then that Daddy shared things from his past that we had not known. We knew he had been born with a veil. Years later Daddy told us about his grandfather’s sister, Tanta Tet, who lived with them in Paramaribo. A Sephardic Jew, Tanta became very upset when her young grandnephew reported the dreams he would have because many of them came true. The African-descended people in the household, knowing he had been born with a veil, were not disturbed by Jacques’s dreams; he repressed them in order to keep the peace. Years and similar stories later, I accepted my father’s ability also as a source of power and wondered if other family members, now passed away, held similar power.

From time to time family members meet to celebrate occasions and talk about the spirits and our various experiences with them. Ma’s oldest nephew, Fletcher Robinson, and I have been researching our common ancestry since the mid 1970’s, after I began studying for a Ph.D. in history at Howard University. While an undergraduate student at Howard in the 1950s, Fletcher had recovered a biographical sketch of Grandpa’s grandfather, James Van Horn, in the 1880 edition of the History of Fayette County, Indiana. Fletcher had discovered the Genealogical Reading Room at the Library of Congress and proceeded to research his family. Why a young African American in the 1950s would presume that he would find his Black Family’s history recorded among the elite families found in the Library of Congress amazed me still, until I reflect—the spirit keeps the memory of the ancestors alive.

It is this spirit that Fletcher believes led me to become a historian so that I could gain the skills needed to help find and preserve the family history. When he put it this way, I had no choice in the matter. So in the early fall of 1978, several months after I received my degree, Fletcher and I traveled to Indianapolis to join his mother, Marian Robinson, and her friend Bob Criss. We were heading for Connersville, Indiana, the Fayette County seat, and the rural community where Grandpa had been born. Bob’s father had been an A.M.E. minister assigned to Connersville when Bob was a young boy. As a result, Bob remember the community and names of some of the African American families who had lived there.

The search was productive. We found plat maps with the Van Horn names listed on them. We found deeds, wills, birth and death records, but we could not find the cemetery my mother remembered traveling to after her grandfather died. Finally, as the day came to an end, we located a burial list that mentioned the graves of two Van Horn women, Eliza (1863) and Nancy (1880). However, no one in the Vital Statistics office knew where this obscure graveyard was located. I probed further, asking questions about the community surrounding the town. Finally, a young clerk told us about the Primitive Baptist Church near the Hanson family farm on Route 1. With no other leads we set out and found the farm. I remember the beauty of it all—the grazing cows, the hills lit by the late afternoon sun, the still well cared for house—and Aunt Marian uttering something told her we had found the old Van Horn family house. I now know what that “something” was—the spirit.

A farmhand directed us to the church and cemetery across the road. The church caretaker was leaving the building as we arrived. We asked him if he knew about the Van Horn graves, and he said, “No colored folks buried in this cemetery.” I could tell from his expression that he did not want us to enter the cemetery gate. At that moment, a long white Lincoln Continental pulled into the churchyard and an anxious woman of means ran over to us. “Who are you?” she asked. Without hesitation, I answered, “We are the Van Horns” She responded, “I knew one day you would come. I have hoped for that day.” Fletcher said it was the spirit of the ancestors who put those words in my mouth. The woman was Mrs. Greenbery Hanson. Her husband’s ancestors had purchased the Van Horn property at auction in the 1890s. During the bicentennial year, she had researched the history of the several farms their family owned in Connersville. She was most fascinated to learn that the beautiful house in which her immediate family lived had been built by and was property of a former slave. Hoping to learn more about James Van Horn and his family, Hanson looked to the day when his descendants would come to find their history. She invited us to join her at the house when we finished our search of the cemetery.

In the meantime, the caretaker observed the scene. After Mrs. Hanson left he became more cooperative, inviting us to enter the cemetery gate. The four of us divided the cemetery and searched until we found the Van Horn gravestones. They were located at a far end of the cemetery, near the church. Nearby stood tall markers with no names. The caretaker said these, with the remains, had been washed below from a hill above the cemetery many years before. The church minister at the time had decided to place them in the potter’s field section of the cemetery, which was adjacent to the area where we found the Van Horn stones. Fletcher asked the caretaker if there were any cemetery records, and he agreed to photocopy a map of family plots he had at home. We parted ways at the cemetery and crossed the road to the old house. There we learned that Mr. Hanson had been told that the graves and markers that had washed downhill to the cemetery during the 1930a were those of African Americans who had been buried on the hill before the church and the cemetery had been built. The next day the caretaker brought the cemetery map to us. One corner of the map was filled with names of family members we had found in the county records—Van Horn, Ferguson, and Roberts. The markers for these graves had disappeared; only shallow, grassy indentions remained in the cemetery. The spirit had revealed this history of our ancestors to us.

Several years passed, and from time to time I would arrange to stop in Connersville on the way home from a trip to Indianapolis or Cincinnati. Fletcher’s and my ongoing search for the family history seemed compelled by an unknown force. Once his Cuban housekeeper in Washington D.C., revealed that protective spirits, which made themselves felt, were present in Fletcher’s library. One spirit in particular she described as a man who had been a slave. Fletcher knew immediately that it was the spirit of James Van Horn and showed the housekeeper James’s dining room table, now housed in Fletcher’s dining room. It was in the library, however, where Fletcher maintained photographs of family members no longer living. Over the years, some of those same photos we had shared, making copies for one another.

Three of these photos are restored portraits of James and of Nancy Van Horn, plus a picture of another woman, whom Fletcher said Grandpa identified only as his aunt. At the turn of the century, Grandpa said, his father had restored the old photos,first taken in the 1860’s. Fletcher restored them once again in 1970, following grandpa’s passing, and gave me a set. I framed and placed them prominently in my living room.

Perhaps the spirit of at least one of these three ancestors resides with me, the woman whom Grandpa called his aunt. Fletcher and I assumed that this woman, like Grandpa’s father, was one of James and Nancy Van Horn’s children. We presumed that she was Eliza, who was about twenty when she died in 1863. However, further research discredited our assumptions.

On one of my trips to Frankfort, the Kentucky state capital, I found the family papers of James Van Horn’s former owners. There were wills, deeds, family biographical sketches, but also a court case over the ownership of a slave woman called “Yellow Becky,” whose given name was Rebecca. In the mid –1980s I had copied the handwritten transcript, thinking that the case was a good example of how slave women had been exploited. Not connecting Rebecca to my ancestors, I set the case aside. However, by 1990 something about “Yellow Becky” drew me back to her. I seemed compelled to reopen the case to return to Frankfort to find additional information.

Before the trip, I reexamined some of the old photographs and asked a colleague, who specialized in restorative art, to look at the photo of my nameless aunt. In his opinion, she could not be James’s and Nancy’s daughter Eliza because she looked too old. The photo put her more in the age range of James. Perhaps she was a sister. Well, this cast the photo in another light. My mind began to play tricks, as the spirit led me to speculate. After reviewing all the extant photos of Van Horn women for six generations, beginning with James and Nancy Van Horn’s generation, I found at least one “yellow” female in each generation, except for the one where I had no women’s photos:
“Rebecca” – 1800s
Harriet - 1840s
No photo – 1880s
Jeanne – 1910s
Lynne – 1940s
Carmen – 1960s

Arguing my new case, family members seemed convinced that the woman in the photos was James Van Horn’s sister, and that several generations of Van Horn women thereafter favored her in looks, but how could we prove that she was Rebecca? Everyone encouraged me to continue the search, so I returned to Frankfort to find the answers to the elusive questions raised by this Pendleton County, Kentucky, court case.

Rebecca was listed in the will and the court case as “Black Hannah’s” first-born child, who had been promised to James Van Horn’s owner by his grandparents. They had given Hannah as a wedding gift to their daughter and her husband. However, the husband decided to keep Rebecca, a mulatto slave, and she remained with Hannah and her master until he died in the early 1820s. Soon after his death, his wife sold Hannah and then gave Rebecca to another one of her sons, who proceeded to “sell her down the river”. This son fraudulently claimed to be his father, Rebecca’s owner, and sold her to a notorious slave trader of “fancy women” who expected to take her by boat down the Ohio River to be sold at Natchez, Mississippi. Instead, the trader decided to keep her as his own concubine, but when she became ill, he
About the Author
Buy My Soul is a Witness: African-American Women's Spirituality at

Dr. Gloria Wade Gayles earned a B.A. in English from LeMoyne College, an M.A. in American Literature from Boston University (as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow), and a Ph.D. in American Studies from Emory University. She was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Meadville-Lombard Theological School of the University of Chicago and named the CASE Professor of Teaching Excellence for the State of Georgia.

A recipient of the Emory Medal for outstanding scholarship and service of an alumna of Emory University, she has been a DuBois Fellow at Harvard University and Eminent Scholar’s Chair at Dillard University. Other awards include the Spelman College President’s Award for Outstanding Scholarship, the LeMoyne-Owen DuBois Scholar’s Award, and the Malcolm X Award for Community Service in the City of Atlanta for work as an activist in the Civil Rights Movement continued work for justice.

Her publications include numerous articles in national journals and six books, among them Pushed Back to Strength: A Black Woman’s Journey Home; No Crystal Stair: Race and Sex in Black Women’s Novels, and “My Soul Is a Witness”: African American Women’s Spirituality . Her most recent publications are In Praise of Teachers (Beacon Press, May 2003), and Conversations With Gwendolyn Brooks University Press of Mississippi, December 2003).

Currently, she is conducting research on a critical study of the community as savior in selected African American novels. In August 2000, she was named Eminent Scholar’s Chair in Independent Scholarship and Service Learning at Spelman College. In addition to being the faculty mentor for Spelman's Independent Scholars program, she is founding director of the SIS Oral History Project and RESONANCE, a choral performance group at Spelman College.
Copyright 2004 The University of South Florida and The Africana Heritage Project. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. For more information, contact the Africana Heritage Project via e-mail.