Michael Nolden Henderson’s Genealogical Journey
By Keith Weldon medley
As a young boy, Michael Nolden Henderson set out to document the history of his family. He accomplished so much more. His incredible journey led him from his Algiers neighborhood to becoming the first African-American in Georgia to be inducted into the National Society, Sons of the American Revolution (SAR). His groundbreaking research has been featured on the PBS History Detectives show in a segment entitled The Galvez Papers. He went on to rewrite the traditional narrative of people of color and their relationship to legacy societies that were overwhelmingly White in the south.
Henderson was born in the midst of segregation during the modern civil rights movement of the 1950s. He grew up in old Algiers which is a 10-minute ferry ride across the Mississippi River from New Orleans. He was the first in his family to graduate from Xavier University in New Orleans. He also was the family’s first naval officer. For many, genealogy is a curiosity. For Henderson, it became an obsession inspired in part by Alex Haley’s Roots. In his book entitled Got Proof!, Henderson outlined the arduous but gratifying process of finding documents of relatives from centuries past. In doing so, he also paid homage to the vibrant historic community of old Algiers. His 30-year odyssey led him to an emancipated slave relative named Agnes who provided the missing link to his family’s role in the American Revolution.
Henderson’s book recounts his boyhood fascination of family stories. He held dear the anecdotes, records, testimonies and conversations passed on by relatives. He became the family historian and its genealogist. The book’s title underscores the reality for budding genealogists that without paperwork and documentation, a search for ancestors can be a forlorn and lonely journey. Natural forces, lost documents, yellowing and crumbling newspapers, time and money can take their toll.
Despite his worldwide travels, New Orleans was his home. On one of his Navy excursions, a shipmate shared a genealogy chart which had pictures, names, and dates of a family tree. Henderson felt compelled to create a similar tree for his family. His mother helped by sharing her recollections. Each morsel of information prompted more and more questions. He found himself at the gravestones of the Henderson, Phillips, Bruce, and Mathieu families.
While his family recounted oral histories, Michael’s plan was to couple family lore with unquestionable ironclad documentation. His mission sought to put together the pieces of a puzzle that would give a fuller picture of his family in the context of Louisiana. His book provided visuals by way of family portraits, charts, obituaries and baptismal certificates. Other keepsakes in Got Proof! include photographs of soldiers at war, newspaper clippings, slave successions, manumission documents, militia censuses and last wills and testaments. He had given 30 years of his life to this mission that began with family curiosity.
A high point in his sojourn came from a trip to a relative named Leonor Douroux Lombard. She produced a trove of four generations of photographs and documents that led to Agnes Mathieu and Mathew Devaux. His cousin Leonor explained, “There was this free woman of color who had a relationship with a Frenchman named Mathew Devaux. She used to be a slave, but she bought her freedom.”
Agnes Mathieu became the link that connected Henderson’s genealogy with Mathew Devaux who fought in the American Revolution.
As it turned out, Agnes Mathieu was also one of the first three free women of color to buy lots in what is now the Faubourg Treme in the 1790s. Homer Plessy who fought segregation in the 1890s was also in the bloodline of Agnes Mathieu. Agnes and Mathew turned out to be Michael’s fourth-generation great-grandparents and a giant leap forward in his quest.
Katrina struck in 2005 and washed away the records that Leonor had collected throughout her life. Now, it was up to Michael and the notes he made to continue the journey.
“It seemed as if the more I recalled and recorded, the more I wanted to find,” he wrote in Got Proof!
With encouragement from Henry Louis Gates and documentation in hand, Henderson applied to the Sons of the American Revolution for inclusion. In 2010, he became the first African-American in Georgia to be inducted into the National Society, Sons of the American Revolution.
Keith Weldon Medley: What an amazing journey! Looking back on your odyssey, what kind of sacrifices did you have to make? How did involving yourself in this crusade change the direction of your life? What do you think your life would have been like without the burdens and the joys of your discoveries?
Michael Nolden Henderson: Indeed, it has been an amazing journey filled with lots of discoveries. I would say the biggest sacrifice I’ve had to make is time. I’ve been researching my family’s history for nearly 30 years. And while doing so, I’ve learned so much about the history of Louisiana as far back as the French and Spanish colonial periods, as well as the founding of America. It took a lot of time. It’s been like having to go back to school to learn history all over again.
All my years, in school I only learned a fraction of what I’ve learned through my own self-study of my hometown. There is something special about knowing where you come from, those who came before you, and their accomplishments and contributions. Knowing all of this about my ancestors has provided me with great satisfaction.
KWM: It must have been heartbreaking for your cousin Leonor to see her precious keepsakes washed away during Katrina. What would you recommend to people who have historic documents? What is the best way for collectors and family to keep their legacy secure?
MNH: Yes, Leonor Douroux Lombard was a distant cousin on my mother’s side of our family who was instrumental in providing me with key information that helped form the foundation for my ancestral research. When Katrina hit, she lost practically everything—all of her photos and notes and documents. Thankfully, I had visited her on several occasions when she shared some of those family nuggets, most importantly, a family pedigree chart, a photo of my great-grandparents (which my mother nor I had ever seen), and a bit of family lore that had become a mystery over several generations. I mention each of these clues in my book and how they shaped my journey to discover my ancestors.
For those who are charged with maintaining precious family photos and documents, I suggest first scanning everything into a computer and then saving those files onto an (external) drive or in an electronic document storage service. The originals should be stored in a secure place, preferably climate controlled. Artifacts should be protected and also stored securely. There is really no way to prepare for a disaster like Katrina, so the best advice is to keep items in one place and be sure several people know where to find them in case of emergency.
KWM: When you first started your quest, did you ever dream it would be 30 years and still counting? How did you get through all of the ups and downs? How would you counsel people who get discouraged?
MNH: You know, even when I say it’s been nearly 30 years, I can barely believe it myself. The time has gone by so quickly, and the journey has been nothing short of exciting and all encompassing. When I speak to groups, I use my own experiences of these last 30 years as an example of what is possible and to what extent one can take their research. Sure, I’ve run into the proverbial “brick walls,” when I felt as if there were no conclusive answers to be found on a particular quest. However, I’ve learned to view these road blocks as a challenge, an opportunity to learn something more. For those having similar challenges, I suggest they broaden their search horizon, view their family’s history in the context of national and world history. What else was happening during the time your ancestors lived? What laws and rules and customs existed that they ascribed to? View the research as an opportunity to learn about history and mine the story, not just the facts. But most importantly, don’t give up. Your ancestors want you to find them, and once that passion is ignited in you, you won’t be satisfied until you get results.
KWM: How did your views on slavery, caste, color and race change during discoveries about Agnes and Mathew?
MNH: My fourth generation great-grandparents, Agnes and Mathew, presented me with an interesting research challenge, one brought on by a piece of oral history passed on to me by Cousin Leonor. This oral history was something of a family secret, a badge of shame in the family, as she explained: “They wouldn’t allow us to use daddy’s last name.”
Naturally, when I first heard this, I had a lot of questions, which caused me to have to first learn as much as I could about Agnes and Mathew, individually and as a couple.
Slavery, caste, color, and race played a significant part in my research findings. Agnes was an enslaved woman who sought and gained her freedom in 1779. She was able to do this because of the laws in place during the Spanish colonial period. As it turned out, Mathieu helped her plead her case in court, he put up the money to purchase her freedom, and they later engaged in a relationship that lasted 31 years and produced seven children.
I used these laws to help understand the caste structure in Louisiana and how different people—enslaved, free people of color and Europeans—interacted with each other. I wouldn’t say this information changed my view of race and color, but it certainly enlightened me about the intricate social structure that was in place during French and Spanish colonial Louisiana. I will say that knowing this history has caused me to reassess how the lives of my mixed-race ancestors were adversely affected over time. I’m still coming to terms with this understanding. Of course, this could become a theme for my next book. We’ll see.