*Warning! this entry maybe long. Go get popcorn and soda or water. Most of all enjoy!*
As my family reunion has come to a close this weekend, I thought it was only fitting that I reflect on a past journal entry from my private collection. Despite the times we’ve huffed and puffed because aunt so-and-so got on our nerves, the various opposing opinions backed with strong personalities and all the other gunk that may cloud our own judgement of our family at times, the love is thick and it’s deep.
I love the fact that both sides of my families come from a legacy that’s…. inexplicable when trying to make sense of the talents and work put in, especially from my father’s side. It’s my father’s side that I know where this writing “thing” came from; my grandfather was a school teacher by day and local playwright by night. My grandfather is only one example of such colorful talent. Yet, as with most African-American families, there are scars.. and secrets to those scars.
Though it pains me that a lot of things have been kept a secret, I understand why…to a certain point. It was just the times my elders lived in as they lived in fear; fear of God for one (the good kind) and the fear of a racial society whose actions aren’t so covert as they may seem today. The laws of the land were against them and which also may have deepened the seasoning of their thinking; i.e. along the lines of self hatred….thinking being black was never good…enough. Their so many other domestic ills that contributed to the scars and secrets that our families bare, but that’s a different discussion that will leave everyone talking until pigs fly and the cow jumps over the moon.
Still, what I wouldn’t give to enlist the help of Henry Louis Gates to go on a quest to go BEYOND what I’ve learned thus far about the Brownes and the Camps.
This is (part of) my story…..
What’s In My Name: Browne, Camp, Mitchell, Ramsey
Originally written Monday, June 23, 2008
My name is Tiffany E. Browne.
From as far as I’m able to go back…
From my mother’s side I’m a decedent of Curry and William Camp; my great-great grandparents.
From my father’s side I’m a decedent of Florine and George Browne Sr.; my grandparents.
I grew up proud of both families equally. However, it wasn’t until I became older that I realized I’m a part of something much larger than me alone. Each relative, dead and alive, has led extraordinary lives. Each has left their own unique imprint in this world, big or small. Though sometimes in my life I feel the weight to carry on and contribute to the legacy of both my families, and perhaps trying to live up to the same caliber and beyond as those before me, I feel honored to carry such a responsibility.
Yet in recent days I’m learning that the two names I’ve been taught to respect and honor may be a facade for something that took place in the past. There are family secrets to unlock, and I’m thirsty to know its truth. Who allegedly did what to whom, when, why and how? Not to take anything away from the heritage of my counterparts, but it’s pretty known that there are deep rooted scars in the family history of Blacks in America; from slavery to the reconstruction era to Jim Crow to Civil Rights to now. Obviously as I’m learning, my families there are no exceptions.
So what happened?
Pieces of the puzzle are still being put together; at least on my mother’s side.
I’ll start with my father’s side first… The Brownes. I don’t know all of the history and I may need to make a couple of phone calls to my Aunt VJ and Aunt J. Both have the bulk of the family history written down or memorized. (2011 edit; my father actually gave me a breakdown a few months ago, but got a little fuzzy on some of the details.) So honestly at this point I can’t tell who is who, just to say that according to my father a patriarch down the family line carried the surname Mitchell. It’s unknown what kind of trouble he was in, but it was big enough at the time to change the family name to Browne. I do know that despite some mixed cultures in the family (Irish, Italian and maybe Creole) the name “Browne” is English. Some years ago, a family of Brownes in Australia contacted my father to invite him and the rest of us Brownes to a family reunion ”down under.” According to the person that sent the letter along with a panoramic photo of the Browne clan there, he had looked up the name Browne in a data base and found my grandfather’s name. My grandfather had been deceased for some time and so the next in line to contact was my dad.
Needless to say, we never made the trip to Australia. Maybe that was the first hidden clue then. We aren’t really Brownes. We’re Mitchells.
On my mother’s side the mystery seems to keep unfolding as we are preparing for September’s reunion. Growing up I always envisioned a love story to explain my great-great grand’s marriage that resulted in 11 children; six boys and five girls. I always knew that Curry and William Camp originated from the Athens, GA area, but later moved to Washington, DC. My great-grandmother, Jeanette C. Camp, was number 5 (?) in the line of children. She was born in GA, but sometime before she reached the age of 5 that’s when her parents made the move to DC.
Picture the majority of a housing complex taken up by one large family. If you grew up along Maryland Ave. in northeast, DC during the 50s, 60s and maybe the 70s.. chances are you knew a member of my family. There’s a photo of William Camp that is among all of our households. He stands while slightly leaning on a fence in a long winter trench coat in one of the courtyards along Maryland Ave. Dressed in his Sunday best, with a hat fixated on his head his look is strong, stern, yet settling. Don’t mistake the somewhat relaxed mode projected from the picture. He was on guard, keeping watch over something he knew.
It’s known that the girls of Curry and William knew a big secret. My mother recalls times of when she overheard the sisters talking about past dealings, and if you asked any of them about the Camp name they would get very defensive and swear to the heavens just about that WE ARE CAMPS. No one dared to challenge or question the Camp name.
Knowing how big my Camp family is, anytime I noticed anyone with the last name I had to stop and ask them questions. Sometimes a connection was made and I find that the person is a cousin from another sect of the family. Other times I was still left scratching my head. The name Camp isn’t all that popular, especially in the DC area, so that means the person has to be family; at least that was my way of thinking. When I was about 13 a discovery was made. Someone found out we have a whole clan of cousins, aunts, uncles and so forth based in Ohio. The real connection was unknown at the time. Whomever made the discovery was trying to crack a secret code, but it wasn’t moving too far. Actually somebody knew the secret.. they had to know….
A big reunion was planned that year, and a bus load of cousins made the trek from Cincinnati,OH to DC. Little me was confused at the time. Here we were having a Camp Family Reunion, but the folks from Ohio carried the name Ramsey. Who was related to who? It was a known fact that the folks in Ohio were related to my great-great grand, William Camp. Yet, I still didn’t know how. In two or three years time, the Ramsey cousins invited the Camp cousins to a reunion in Ohio. I missed that trip.
Here we are in 2008 and the code starts to crack. A Ramsey found a picture of an unknown man. Something must have been written on the picture, because all they knew was that the man’s name was Marlow Ramsey. For the longest time no one in the family could say who Marlow Ramsey was and they assumed he died suddenly at a young age. Meanwhile here in DC, a few of my cousins have been in constant contact with the cousins in Ohio. Sometime later in a barrage of exchanged emails, pictures and phone calls Marlow is also identified as William Camp.
A few weeks ago, I attended a family reunion meeting as I am (partially) on the committee. I listened as stories were flying about Marlow Ramsey. All 11 children of Curry and William aka Marlow are now deceased. They took their daddy’s secret to their graves, leaving the rest of us wondering what took place. So far, all we know is that William/Marlow was some kind of outlaw on the run and changed his name. (2011 edit: It is said the name “Camp” came about because he ran and took refuge in a work camp in Florida). As for the folks in Ohio, that was his family he left behind; the decedents of his brother and sister.
Ever since I’ve learned of this truth I’ve been feeling a range of things. I’m mostly stunned and curious as to know what was going on in that point in time to force my great-great grandfather to live another life. I look forward to helping my cousins dig further for the truth.
As I said from the beginning.. this is bigger than me. This is my history of how I came to be.
Tiffany E. Browne as Mahoganie Jade Browne
William Camp’s Secret
Scattered pictures carry
Weight and wisdom
Cinnamon, sweet potato, pure molasses brown
Big legs and big smiles
Locked in a secret taken to their graves
Muted while alive
The truth they denied
What their children knew was a lie
Still, they silently chanted
We are The Camps and will remain
We are The Camps and will take this to our grave
But “Grandpa” wasn’t who he was
A drunken slip told of grandpa and “the fuzz.”
A mixed bastard on the way?
Either or Grandpa couldn’t stay
He took his flight
And changed his name
No longer a Ramsey
A Camp instead
Scattered pictures carry
Weight and wisdom
Cinnamon, sweet potato, pure molasses brown
In their graves, locked in a secret