Those People on the Wall

I know what my ancestors looked like because their portraits hung on the wall. This is something I’ve always taken for granted. The portraits hang at what we call “505” (the house has a real name under the National Register of Historic Places—the Joseph Henry Morris House—but no one calls it anything but 505.)

This man, the first Morris to live in Mississippi, was also the first Morris to live on the 505 site.

Who started the trend of hiding one’s hand in one’s coat when sitting for a portrait?

He died suddenly. His wife saved the house from greedy creditors (f you’ve been reading Claim the Disappearing, you might recognize this storyline.) She had her own portrait painted. It hangs next to her husband’s.

The matriarch of the Morris clan who kept her house even after her husband died and left her with 5 young children

Her son—my great-grandfather—tore the house down and built the current house. Construction took two years, from 1891-1893. To me, he doesn’t look much like his dad. Or his mother.

My great-grandfather. I always thought this dude was the handsomest of my ancestors

My grandfather grew up in the house, but he died when I was young, and I knew the house mostly as my grandmother’s house. Some might say I’m probably seeing the idealized version of my ancestors. But I knew my Bigmama. She lived to be 102. I was a grown woman when she left this earth. Bigmama’s portrait perfectly captures the grandmother I knew. So I’m betting the other portraits are pretty accurate too.

My Bigmama, who I’m gonna say started the family’s love affair with white candles

What does it matter that my genealogical research hangs on the walls of the house? I think it matters in ways I never considered before my recent stay at the house.

I have always known where I came from. I could literally look up and see the line of people on the wall, these people who dressed in black and had their portraits painted (I guess Bigmama didn’t get the “wear black” memo.) I never had to wonder where I fit in the universe. Knowing who I came after meant I had a background against which I could be whatever I wanted to be. A stage upon which I could twirl into my very own self. The line had already been established. I had no duty or responsibility in that regard.

This might strike you as a weird take. More usual would be a burden to be the same type of person—or better—that those people had been. I guess no one ever suggested such a thing to me. I figure this was because, until about 18 months ago when my uncle began researching, the family history had only been told from the viewpoint of the men, and thus for the men. For example, when I was going to law school, no one told me I had a great-grandfather who graduated #1 in his law school class. Us female children had no shoes to fill, no expectations to meet (other than knowing how to curtsey). Sometimes I wonder if I would have excelled more if a few burdens had been laid on me.

More likely, I got the best of both worlds. I had a sense of people coming before me, but they didn’t crimp who I might turn out to be. Of course, I only received this Goldilocks gift because I was part of a family that could—for generations—afford to hire portrait painters.

That’s the thing about coming from privilege. You can be totally blind to it. For some of us, life is forever defined by undeserved, unearned gifts, for which we need to be aware enough to give thanks.

Comments (4)

  • “For some of us, life is forever defined by undeserved, unearned gifts, for which we need to be aware enough to give thanks.” Not coming from privilege, your comment still resonates with me. I come from rural working class in the north so I’m keenly aware of class distinctions. I’m female and always had, at a minimum, the example of being treated (and trusted) differently from my older brother. But I’m white and I know that I’ve had the benefit of opportunities that I wouldn’t have had if my skin had been other than white. My husband as well keeps in mind the advantages he has had simply because he is male and white, even though he too didn’t come from privilege.

    This is a lovely post (perhaps I should have said that first). I believe we travel in the same social media circles and I’m glad I’m (finally) getting around to reading your work.

    • Ellen Morris Prewitt

      Yes, it takes a bit for someone to break into your consciousness on social media, or at least it does for me. 🙂 I did love your short story—very elegant. And thank you for reading and commenting on this post. I agree about the balancing of different privileges. Like you, from an early age I was aware of the inequities of being female—children can easily tell when they are being unfairly slighted. Also, my privilege of race (I don’t understand how anyone could you grow up in Mississippi and not know the unfairness of it.) But on money, this side of my family was historically well-off, the other side more country. I think, in my mind, I used the struggles we went through to downplay the advantages we had. But this visit, it was hard to ignore all those folks staring down at me. 🙂
      Hope to read more of your work soon.

  • I, also, really appreciated the final paragraph. Because my extended family is multi-racial and multi-ethnic with some who are immigrants or children of immigrants, there is often a break in family history between the people who stayed in the “old country” and those who came to the “new.”

    We often watch “Finding Your Roots” on PBS. It always amazes me what they can find about the participants’ family tree. For some, though, especially African-Americans, it is difficult to find much of a historical record. It must be so cool to have portraits of your ancestors, although it was a shame that, as a woman, you were not even told of your legal heritage.

    • Ellen Morris Prewitt

      How interesting about the break that happened in your family between the “old” and “new” country. It helps puts my ancestry into better perspective for me (both sides of my family came to the South and pretty much stayed put—in the case of the Morris family, in one state in one city on one lot, but even my mother’s family was in one county until her parents moved to Jackson.) I often think we don’t really understand our own stories until we know others as well. And, while I regret not knowing about the women in my family growing up, it’s been a hoot learning about them!

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