The biblical passage Jeremiah 29:13 can be an inspiration for those trying to find leaves on their family tree.
“And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart,” the verse assures.
Bernadine Anderson took those words into her own heart, and by so doing discovered her great-great-grandfather, Calvin Stevenson — as well as a passel of relatives she didn’t know existed.
Her search was particularly daunting, because she is a descendant of slaves.
“If your ancestors had been slaves, you would almost have to know the name of the slave owner to trace them,” said Anderson, who, before her retirement in 1994, had worked for the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health.
“When they took the slaves off the ships from Africa, they made them give up their names. Then they were only identified as male or female and given an approximate age. When they were bought, they were given a first name only.
“Some slaves did decide to have a surname so, if they ever got free, then maybe they could connect up again with their family. But in order for many of us to find our ancestors, we have to have some form of oral history.”
After watching the 1977 television series “Roots,” Anderson promised herself that when she retired, she would trace her family tree. The search that started in 1994 recently resulted in a get-together between Anderson and Charlottesville psychologist Jeffrey C. Fracher.
Fracher’s great-great-grandfather, Gen. Albert G. Carter, had purchased Anderson’s great-great-grandfather at the slave market in New Orleans in the early 1800s. An existing record estimates the worth of “Boy Calvin” to be $350.
Carter built a stately antebellum house that still stands near the Mississippi River, north of Baton Rouge, La. The house and surrounding sugar cane plantation were given the name Linwood.
At its height of production prior to the Civil War, the plantation had about 100 slaves. Today, a number of descendants of those slaves still live on land their forebears purchased from the Carter family after the war.
Anderson credits “divine intervention” for helping her find some of her distant relatives. Celestial assistance is one way to explain the improbable meeting between Fracher and Anderson last August.
“My younger son is interested in genealogy,” Fracher said recently as he relaxed with Anderson in the living room of his Charlottesville home. “For his 21st birthday last year, we were going to take him to see Linwood.
“I was online Googling Linwood to find out where it was, and I get a hit for this video. I click on it and as I watch I start shaking, vibrating. I’m thinking, ‘Oh, my God, I have to find this woman Bernadine.’
“At the very end of the video, thank the Lord, is her e-mail address.”
The 12-minute video on Roots Television Online describes the history of Linwood to the present. The house and more than 20 surrounding acres are for sale, with the hope that a future owner will use it as a historical site.
Anderson, prominently featured in the film, talks about what it meant to her and her late mother to visit the plantation where many of their relatives had labored as slaves. She discovered her family’s ties to Linwood soon after she began her research at the Family History Center in west Los Angeles.
Fortunately, Anderson had retained oral history information she had received as a child from relatives. The key that helped unlock the door to her past was the name of Edna Carter, who died in 1942. She had been the last living member of the Carter family who had been alive during slavery.
“This very nice lady at the center was showing me how to do research, and I told her about the information I already had,” said Anderson, who lives in Temecula, Calif., with her husband, Eric. “We knew the area of Louisiana where my family was from, but not the name of the plantation.
“We thought it was Asphodel Plantation, and we looked for that name in a plantation book they had at the center. Sure enough, there was Asphodel, and it had a telephone number that I called to ask if it was the Carter plantation.
“It wasn’t, but that person gave me the name and telephone number of the local historian, Virginia Jennings. I called her and asked if she knew where the Carter plantation was, and she said she did and that its formal name was Linwood.”
Jennings put Anderson in touch with the current owners of Linwood, Joann and Edwin Hackenberg. In October 1994, the mother and daughter made the pilgrimage to their past.
“I get goosebumps now just thinking of that first visit to Linwood,” Anderson said. “My mother grew up in that general area, and she remembered some of the signposts along the way, such as the family church.
“We turned a corner and suddenly we could see through the trees a tiny piece of the house itself. We made another turn and there it was — a white antebellum house with white columns.
“I started to shake, and both my mother and I started to talk faster. We walked up to the front door, and before Joann opened, it we noticed all these names of the Carter children written on the side panel of the door.”
What was particularly striking for the visitors was seeing that several of the first names were the same as members of their family.
As it turned out, Anderson’s great-grandfather had named his daughters after the slave owner’s daughters.
Fracher said the lore of the Carter family is that they had always been very good to their slaves. Anderson said the oral history she learned as a child confirmed this.
“To me, and I can only make an assumption, naming your daughters after the daughters of another person means that at the least you respect that person,” Anderson said. “So here’s the names Ethel, Minnie and Edna.
“Joann took us on a tour of the house, and when we were upstairs we were thinking that these could have been the rooms our ancestors cleaned. It was almost as if we could feel the people there.
“When we were leaving and walking back to the car, it was as if we could hear them. When we were in the car my mother said, ‘Did you hear your ancestors?’ I said I did, and it was as though they were saying, ‘Now that you have found us, tell our stories.’
“My mother said, ‘You know you’ve got to write about this.’ I made her a promise that I would.”
Anderson was as good as her word, and in 1996, at her family reunion held at Linwood, she gave copies of the family’s history to her mother and other relatives. She titled it “Stevenson Family of Louisiana: A History from Slavery to Owning the Land That Once Enslaved Them.”
Anderson continued to delve into her ancestry and also searched for a direct descendant of the Carter family. The latter effort had resulted in dead ends until she connected with Fracher last August.
“After watching the video, I immediately fired off an e-mail to Bernadine,” Fracher said. “The next day I got an e-mail back from her, and it was like the energy stretched from here to California.
“We’ve been exchanging documents and information ever since. What got me so excited about connecting with Bernadine is that I’ve had this forever guilt about my family being slaveholders.
“I had pride about my Southern heritage, but also this tremendous guilt about this legacy of slavery. I told Bernadine that our meeting represented a reconciliation for me.
“I asked her if she could absolve me from this guilt. She said I wasn’t responsible for what my ancestors did, and suggested we work together.”
After nearly a year of collaboration, Anderson decided it was time to meet Fracher in person.
Appropriately, the two spent Memorial Day together, and one of the things they did was visit Fracher’s 86-year-old mother in Waynesboro.
“My mother told us a story I had never heard before,” Fracher said. “Her grandfather, Howell Carter, and Calvin’s son were playing together as boys at Linwood.
“Howell was walking backward as he talked with his friend. Bernadine’s ancestor suddenly yelled for him to stop, because he was about to step on a snake in the road. It was a sweet story, and it gave me a sense that, notwithstanding the slavery component, these are human beings and they had formed relationships.
“They were friends, even though one was the descendant of a slave owner, and the other the descendant of a slave.”
Anderson said meeting Fracher has been like a dream, because she never thought such a thing could happen. After many years of fruitless searching, she thought all the Carter descendants were gone.
“Researching this whole thing has been a wonderful experience, and it has made me get in touch with my family other than as statistics,” Anderson said. “I can feel them, I know who they were.
“And I have a good idea of what they had been like. Now, after meeting Jeffrey, I know even more. This has taught me patience, and when you set your mind to something you can achieve it.”
When Fracher and Anderson met face-to-face for the first time, they embraced. Each says it was as if they had known each other all their lives.
Fracher said he has no words to describe how powerful and emotionally moving that moment was. He let words Anderson had conveyed to him sum up what this coming together of two families has meant.
“One of the most touching things Bernadine said to me was that knowing my family’s history helps her feel as if she has more of her own history,” Fracher said.
“Her giving me absolution, so to speak, has given me such relief from the burden that I had carried about this.
“It has helped me feel a greater sense of belonging to my own history, and further convinced me that we’re all brothers and sisters under the skin.”