CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. — For most people, an exploration of family history might center on old photographs, letters and newspaper clippings. For two men sitting on a couch together in an elegant Clarksville home in early May, the central document is a ledger.
Sandwiched between the day-to-day accounts of a farm family, between seed and equipment purchases and the yearly accounting of crop sales, there is a will from the year 1845 dividing the property of a deceased patriarch between two daughters. A neat, hand-drawn line splits the middle of the paper, and the divided assets are listed on either side.
The assets were slaves. They were the family of Jackie Collins. They were the property of the family of the man to his left, Lawson Mabry.
As the two sat together congenially discussing their shared history and an upcoming family reunion, the question occurred naturally: What did Jackie feel on the day he first saw the ledger with the names of his ancestors, the black Mabrys, split on either side of an accounting of property?
His eyes narrowed in thought. He is a gentle man with a soft voice and a brow unfurrowed by anger, making him look much younger than his 61 years.
"I wasn't hurt," he said. "I was glad to find them. They had a name. They were human. They were real."
For Lawson, an equally gentle and genial man, the memories enshrined in the ledger are painful, and the subjects they call forth are uncomfortable even a century and a half after they were recorded.
As the men talked, Jackie continually reminded Lawson, "It wasn't you. That was then, this is now."
With Jackie beside him, looking on with understanding for his difficulty, Lawson picked up the thread of the story of how they came to meet, and how, through them both, the lost history of a family was rediscovered, to be preserved for another generation.
"I'd been told over the years that our family had slaves," Lawson said. "I remember when I was a kid there was (another) Lawson Mabry in the phone book. And there was a Marast Mabry. All these same names.
"I asked my parents, and they said they were descendants of African-Americans that were enslaved by our family in the 19th century. Daddy (William Mabry) grew up with a lot of Jackie's family and knew them. But as the generations went on, that tradition went away."
Meanwhile, Jackie was also asking questions about his own family, wanting to know why so little was known beyond a generation or so.
Regarding his relatives, now numbered in the hundreds as a result of his research, Jackie said, "I went to school with some of them and didn't know we were kin. I was best friends with some of them, and I didn't know.
"That's what inspired me to do the tree, so they know who their family are."
The breaking of the dam came about as Jackie's mother, Virgie Collins, was looking over a copy of Cumberland Lore, the monthly Leaf-Chronicle insert detailing aspects of Montgomery County history.
She showed Jackie an article about the Mabrys and then wondered aloud if they might have any information for him. He said he would call them, and he did.
From William "Bill" Mabry, Jackie found out that Lawson had inherited some unusual books as a wedding present - the ledgers of the Mabry farm.
The intimacy of the white Jordan (pronounced "Jerdan") Springs Community and the black Boiling Springs Community, and the character and conduct of the Mabry family within that more intimate setting, may have much to do with the relative ease with which Jackie and Lawson can talk about the past today.
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