FINDING JOSEPHUS

By Storyteller LYN FORD

 

Story Summary:

When Lyn was young, “Finding Josephus” was a “legend” told by her father. But curiosity and research brought forth its reality, and a connection both to the lesser-known history of the Underground Railroad and the heart of her father’s story.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  Finding-Josephus

Discussion Questions:

  1.  What is your personal definition of a hero?
  2. What adjectives can describe Josephus’ actions?
  3. Compare those words to your definition of a hero.
  4. In tough and easy times, our choices define us. Yet we sometimes see ourselves only as the names others call us. Reflect on an action or inaction you’ve chosen to take on behalf of others, and yourself. Give that action or inaction a name. Is that who you are? Is that the person you want to be?

Resources:

  •  Still I Rise poem by Maya Angelou. From the collection AND STILL I RISE, originally published by Random House, Inc., 1978.
  • The Escape of Jane: A True Story of the Underground Railroad by Henry Burke and Dick Croy. Boson Books, 1998.
  • What is Your Life’s Blueprint? speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., October 26, 1967. Available to read at www.drmartinlutherkingjr.com/whatisyourlifesblueprint.htm.

Themes:

  • African American/Black History
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • Family and Childhood

Full Transcript:

My name is Lyn Ford and I wanted to share a story about my childhood with my father who was my favorite storyteller. His name was Edward M. Cooper, but his nickname was Jake and he would tell me stories.  Sometimes we would be riding to help someone with some chore, and sometimes we would be riding to do an errand for someone else, my father helped everybody. Sometimes he shared stories late at night with me that I wouldn’t have heard on those rides.  He was trying to help me, I know that now.

It would be after a hard day at school and everyone would be asleep except for my father who has just come in from work and he would hear me crying and I would be by myself and he would tell me a story, because he would know I had a hard time during the day, being the only child of any color in a classroom that was called the fast learners, what we call now call “gifted”. And being the only African American, child in those days what was called a colored child, I was teased and taunted both by African American children and European American children and called names that hurt and I didn’t understand.

My father would get me up and tell me a story. One of them I remember very well.  He would tell me these stories and he used to say you need to know these stories.  You won’t find them in the history books. They don’t put our stories in those history books; they might put Harriet Tubman, Fredrick Douglas, but not these kinds of stories.  You need to know them to know who you are.

One of them was about a young man called Josephus, who was a slave from the time he was born and for many many years and he remained enslaved, the so-called property of a ferry man on the Ohio River, so that he could help others to escape to freedom. Well, as my storytelling career progressed I wanted to share the stories of the underground railroad, not the big stories that everybody knew but those little stories that came from my father.

I was trying to research them and I couldn’t find anything about that story that I remembered so well and so I thought maybe my dad had made it up, that it was one of dad’s legends and I was going through the work of Mr. Henry Burke, who is an African American folklorist and historian in Marietta, Ohio. I was sitting in the library reading some of his work and there were a few sentences about someone called Josephus.

My heart just stopped and I felt goose bumps up and down my arms and I know that I started to cry, I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes as I saw that name and read that that was a code name for a slave on what was then the Virginia side of the Ohio River who helped folks to escape across the Ohio River for 50 years until Emancipation Proclamation came into place. That area is the mouth of Duck Creek, State Route 77, it goes from Ohio into West Virginia now across a bridge and in the history of Josephus it is said that he carried folks, two or three every month, across that river at the mouth of Duck Creek, so that they could be free before he was.

But my father’s story went a little differently.  He said that Josephus was purchased by a ferry man in that area when he was about 10 years old and the ferry man told him what he would do. “You help folks, get on the ferry.  You put their bags on the ferry, help them off on the other side, and put their bags off on the other side. You do what I tell you to do and don’t worry about anything else because you are too stupid to do anything else”.

And this went on and on and Josephus grew from a boy to an adolescent to a young man.  When he was grown and matured, an abolitionist from Marietta came across the waters at some other point in the Ohio River and said to Josephus, “Why don’t you take the ferry yourself and escape to the other side?  I could help you if you need, but why are you staying here? When, if you just take the ferry, you could be free?”

And my daddy said that Josephus said to that abolitionist, “Well, sir, I can’t. I am too stupid to know what to do. At least that’s what that man keeps telling me. But at night, when it gets dark, I must get a little smarter, because I have been helping folks run away across this part of the river for the past 20 years and that man ain’t caught me yet.  So he can call me what he wants to call me. I know who I am”.

And then my daddy would say words that helped me to remember this story even if I had lost many of his other tales.  “You got to know who you are, you got to remember that an adjective – like stupid – is not your name, you got to know these little stories to know who you are”.

FROM MOON COOKIES TO MARTIN AND ME

By Storyteller LYN FORD

 

Story Summary:

Empathy grows from sharing stories; this story was shared to encourage others to know, to understand, and to remember. This is a personal journey tale from Lyn’s childhood living next door to a Holocaust survivor and, then, her adolescent small but mature steps into the greater Civil Rights Movement.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: From-Moon-Cookies-to-Martin-and-Me

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Ignorance can lead to misinterpretation of a story. As a child, Lyn misunderstood the meaning of numbers printed on skin. Discuss how stereotypes are misinterpretations based on superficial concepts.
  2. Fences aren’t always made of wood; walls aren’t always made of brick or stone. What fences separate your community, your neighborhood, or your heart from others who, superficially, seem “different”? What’s the first step you can take to get beyond those fences?

Resources:

Themes:

  • African American/Black History
  • Civil Rights Movement
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • Family and Childhood
  • Interfaith
  • Jewish Americans/Jews
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

My name is Lyn Ford.  And when I was a little girl, we lived with my Grandma Cooper in Sharon, Pennsylvania on Mercer Avenue. In those days Grandma Cooper didn’t watch TV because there wasn’t one.  And she didn’t always listen to the radio.  But she spent a lot of time on either side of her yard, gossiping at the fence with her neighbors. One of the neighbors was a little woman, no taller than my Grandma Cooper, who always had a kerchief wrapped around her head, sometimes tied under her chin, and she wore long dark sleeves, which would kind of showed when she leaned on the fence. My grandma Cooper leaned on the fence beside her, she kept those sleeves pulled down. But sometimes in the warm weather she would slide them up.  And her name was Mrs. Rosenberg.

Mrs. Rosenberg would use words that Grandma never used and they sounded like music to me. She would add exclamations to what she was saying, Oy, gevalt!  or Oy, ve is mir! !  She would say things about someone else who is a bit narish, bit narish, and it sounded like music to me. So I would say things to my cousins “Stop being so narish. Oy, gevalt!.”  Sounded kind of funny, I am sure coming from a little African American child and I didn’t even know what it meant. But it seemed to work and I was impressed with that language. Mrs. Rosenberg also made these wonderful crescent shaped cookies that were filled with nuts and sometimes with golden raisins instead of brown ones and sweetness …  and I loved those. Every now and then she would call me to the fence “Darling, come here. I have something for you.” She would hold out her hand and I would get that moon cookie. I loved those moon cookies.

And I know that I got into trouble for something when I was that age, because I always did, and I had to stay in the house and I pouted and I wanted something to make me feel better. And I thought about those moon cookies. So, I thought I would call Mrs. Rosenberg and I picked up that big black receiver on that big black phone and started to dial on that circular dial. And all I got was an operator, a real person compared to what you get these days. He told me that I needed to try again or to hang up the receiver.

Well I know I was permitted to escape from the house the next day and I did something I hadn’t done. I went to Mrs. Rosenberg’s door and I knocked on it and she came to the door and I can’t remember exactly what she said but I told her that I had tried to call her. I wanted more of the moon cookies. I wanted to see if she would give me a moon cookie, but the number didn’t work.

And Mrs. Rosenberg said something like, “You know my number? You called my number? What number did you call?” Then I said, “Well, I dialed the numbers on your arm, but it didn’t work.” I thought the numbers on Mrs. Rosenberg’s arm, the arm that I seldom saw, except when she pushed up the sleeves on her long dark shirts, was her phone number. I thought she’d written it there, maybe she couldn’t remember it. Written it there the way some of the older girls in my family and in the neighborhood would write things on their hands, like boyfriend’s phone numbers, the answers of the questions for a test.

Mrs. Rosenberg became very solemn. She didn’t fuss, she didn’t yell.  She just quietly said, “Those are not my number, that’s not my number.”

I honestly don’t remember if she gave me a moon cookie I just remember going home. And after that she didn’t come to the fence and grandma didn’t talk to her and I didn’t see her in her garden. A garden where I heard her sing many, many times, a song that she would explain to me – [she sings a Hebrew Song].

I didn’t hear her singing and I didn’t see her; and the only way I knew what had happened was that I overheard Grandma Cooper telling someone over the phone, that some of Mrs. Rosenberg’s family had found her.  And then I felt bad because I had never known that Mrs. Rosenberg was lost.

APRIL 4, 1968 Memphis, TN.  Assassination of Civil Rights Leader Martin Luther King Jr

Well, time passed and I grew and Mrs. Rosenberg was practically forgotten.  And April 4th, 1968 came along.  I was a junior in high school and that Thursday was devastating and we thought that we wouldn’t have school the next day. We thought that schools would be closed and flags would fly at half mast, the way they had for John. F. Kennedy.

But we heard on the news the next morning that we had to go to school. Some of the other schools in other communities were closed, but we had to go to school there in Sharon, Pennsylvania. And our parents sent us off and when we got to school, some of us decided that we were walking out at lunch time. We couldn’t stay.

Everything felt wrong and so we got up our courage and gathered together and started to walk toward the doors where the Principal stood in front of the doors, and he looked at our faces and then he stood near the doors and he said that we, “should be ashamed of ourselves for being so disruptive” and I remember he said specifically to me, “Your mother and father would never do anything like this. I know your family.”  And I said “I’m not my mother or my father,” and the doors were opened by my friends and outdoors we went and a couple of people put the flag at half mast, which I am sure made the maintenance men very angry, and if I had not been on the strong arms of two of my bigger friends, I might not have made it down the stairs because I was shaking so badly.

As we made our way down the street called State Street, heading toward the church that most of us attended, some of us glared at the few African American students who were too afraid to leave. And we ignored those European American students who were jeering and taunting and calling us names and we ignored some of our European American friends who wanted to walk with us to the church and we told them no.

We sang “We Shall Overcome” as we made our way down that street.

Some cars passed with students from another school and they jeered and taunted us and then we heard the sounds of our friends running down the hill behind us, crying red-faced, those European American friends linking arms with us and singing “We Shall Overcome”.

And we marched down that hill, black children, white children, and as we sang, to my left somewhere on a low hill, I heard a song [she sings that same Hebrew Song] and I tried to turn, but I was propelled, held by my friends and moving forward with that song and all of our energies and emotions.

And I knew that Mrs. Rosenberg had been an old woman when I was very small, but there was that song of hers and I couldn’t see who was singing it. When we got to the church… we had not vandalized, we had not fought, we had not cursed, we had not jeered or taunted…and we walked in to the church together black children and white children and sat and cried and prayed and talked and that song kept going through my head blending with the song “We Shall Overcome”.

And I remembered Mrs. Rosenberg’s explanation of her song’s meaning …

“Oh! How wonderful it is, when we can walk together …  come together in unity and peace.”