By Precious Rasheeda Muhammad
By the time Old Lizzy Gray’s enslaver Dr. E. J. Mims buried her in a granite sarcophagus on his South Carolina plantation in 1860, she had 127 years’ worth of stories built up in her. Stories from lives lived on two different continents. One as a free Muslim in Africa. One as an enslaved person with a syncretic religious existence in America. But almost everything we know about Old Lizzy Gray’s story today, including her last words, didn’t come directly from her. What we know came from the hand of her obituarist Dr. Mims, the last person who held her as property. His amplification of her story, in less than five paragraphs on the front page of the September 12, 1860, issue of the Edgefield Advertiser, is the only reason we know anything of her existence beyond her being just another name with a price next to it in estate records.
I think often of Old Lizzy Gray.
I wonder what her original name was before being labeled with the surname of one of her earliest enslavers and a given name likely belonging to one of the women in his family.
I wonder how long she cried out for her four children whom she was ripped from in her homeland through the forced migration and forced dislocation trauma of the transatlantic slave trade.
I wonder where in Africa she came from and if it could have been Senegambia, given that a large portion of the Muslim-born captives arriving in America had come from there and had ended up in the Carolinas.
I wonder when she decided that she would begin to practice a mixture of Islam and Christianity—stating on many occasions “that Christ built the first Church in Mecca and his grave was da”—and if it started as a coping mechanism while she was imprisoned upon a British ship during the American Revolution, or after she had been sold on to her first, second, or third enslaver after that, no fixed address in sight, no real control over her own time and space.
I wonder who her American-born children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren were who took care of her in her final days and if, with all the new genealogical resources we have today, we can find their descendants.
And, I wonder why Dr. Mims, one of the most influential people in Edgefield County where they lived, the town of Johnston, which he founded, now built up over what was once much of his plantation, and probably up over Old Lizzy Gray too, wrote so passionately about the human he held as property, placing her obituary on the front page of the local paper and giving her a higher grade of burial than even those in his own family and, later, even himself.
In his own way, was Dr. Mims writing the community to effect change?
I know I am, in writing this, writing to effect change. And with hope of bringing the dignity and humanity back to a forgotten ancestor of the African diaspora who is only discussed in a negligible number of history books, and her name I’ve never heard rolling off the tongues of those in the greater community who could be inspired by her story of survival and resilience.
Old Lizzy Gray held on to faith and family to her last breath, calling out to her American-born daughter, “[L]et me see you once more,” and then, “Jesus has come!” The latter an utterance, no doubt, of deliverance from the enormity of her life struggles.
One cannot underestimate the value of finding, restoring, and amplifying marginalized voices that build community. That, in the case of Old Lizzy Gray, this service comes from an enslaver does not make it any less valuable.
There are many ways we experience community. For some, their first experience with community life begins in the home, amongst family. For others, it’s in their place of worship, or at school, in the barbershop, or the salon, in the neighborhood, or at places of work, and on and on.
Community connections can be local, national, or international. Community life is in every direction we turn. It is wherever we find humanity and engage with each other. And, in that every engagement, there are opportunities to write the community, and there are opportunities to effect change.
I invite you to take an online class with me on this very subject: Writing the Community: Write to Effect Change. With no grades to worry about, it is a relaxed and fun opportunity to be part of an intimate online writing environment, reading, reflecting, and writing about the community.
We will explore what it means to write the community as a means of effecting change. We will study successful authors’ stylistic approaches to writing for the community. We’ll examine how figures in our local communities have valuable stories that too often go untold, simply because they do not have national acclaim. And, we will learn creative approaches to documenting and sharing the stories of these people and how this is an effective means to “building community through history” across seemingly intractable divides.
Even with the tiniest nuggets of information, we will figure out a way to draw out the beauty of the story you want to amplify, just like how I just took a creative approach to building a whole narrative about Old Lizzy Gray around nuggets of findings in an 1860 obituary.
I welcome you to join me.
You’ll leave with nothing less than the reward of a new piece of writing that I am confident can start making an impact in your community right away.
Precious Rasheeda Muhammad received her MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California Riverside, Palm Desert in 2016. She received her Master of Theological Studies from Harvard University. She is an author, lecturer, and researcher on religion in America, among other topics, and is known by many as “The History Detective.” She lives in Virginia with her family but travels frequently for research projects and speaking engagements. Her motto: “building community through history.” Her favorite craft-related, self-motivational saying: “write mama write.”