Our Black History – Sylvia & Walter

My maternal grandomther’s grandfather was a preacher named George Dallas Finley. A few years ago I asked some of my relatives to tell me about him and I ended up with a lot of amazing stories about the whole family. As part of Our Black History Month, I’ll post a transcript of what they told me. My interviewees are: my cousin R. Carl Gayle and my great-aunt Peggy Harris. I typed up what they said almost exactly the way they said it and set it in a style reminiscent of poetry. The colors indicate who is speaking. I’m in black.

George Dallas Finley’s
father was named
Walter Finley.
And his mother was named
Sylvia,
actually Sylvia Hunter.
Because they were both born
during slavery.
And they really
never married,
but Sylvia had children for Walter.

They said Walter was
a giant of a man,
about 6’6”,
strong,
big,
humongous guy.
And Sylvia was the calming influence in his life.

Grampa Walter was calling himself
Walter Share
until he ran across his father,
and his name was Finley
so
he changed his name to Finley.

Was he the one who fathered 600 kids?

That’s what was said.
They said the white man
told him that he had
fathered over
six hundred children.
Now,
you know,
that might have been an exaggeration.
But if it was sixty
we still got a lot of relatives.

Sylvia was the calming influence in his life.
She was part Indian,
perhaps either Creek or Choctaw,
those were the prevalent tribes
in Alabama during that time.
In addition to that
Gramma Sylvia lived to be over
a hundred years of age.
She died in 1929
and so she was born
1829 or earlier
because you can never fix a
hard and fast birthday on it.

But she was a special type of person herself.
In fact
the day that she died
or the day before she died
she had walked to Bellamy
from Forth Creek
which was about four or five
miles of walking,
even at her advanced age,
and the day before she died
she went out into the woods
to find some herbs.
She wasn’t feelin’ well,
she said she wasn’t feelin’ well.
So she went to the woods
to get something to doctor herself with
and the next day she died.
But she had enjoyed good health
and an alert mind
up until her last day.

In those days
gypsies traveled all through town.
And mom told us this story
about how the gypsies came
knocking on the door
daily
and the white folks
and the gypsies
would call black women
“Mama”

“Mama, gimme some food.”
And Sylvia would say
“I ain’t ya mama!
Get on away from me!
You been free all yo’ life!
Free all yo’ life!
Get away from me!”
And wouldn’t give the gypsies
any food,
told them they’d been
free all their lives!

They said she was
very open
about what happened to her
in slavery.

Gramma Sylvia
would tell those stories.
She was very open about it.
And I guess surely
she would have some bitterness
about having been enslaved.
But she was also very forthcoming
about what happened to her
and how it happened to her.
And I always thought she was remarkable.

I didn’t live,
I mean I was not born
when she died
but I feel as if I know her
because everybody talked about her
and I was thrilled when
I finally found a picture of her.

Sylvia Hunter This is a picture of Sylvia taken in New York. I don’t know when this photo was taken (or by whom), but in the larger version she’s pictured with her son, his wife, some of their children and at least one grandchild of theirs. It must have been taken late in her life.


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4 Responses

  1. Thanks for posting that. I really liked the way you formatted the interview.

  2. That’s awesome.

  3. You are so fortunate to have this story. So many folks I know have no idea of any family history before the 1940’s or 50’s. I always tried to get my grandmother( born in 1906) to talk about her mother, grandmother anything, and she just would not talk about it. I can only imagine what stories we would all have if the opportunity presented itself.

  4. Why wouldn’t she talk about them? Too painful for some reason?

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