I wrote this memoir because I had an incredible childhood and my parents inculcated values in me that I felt were worth sharing. From the time I was arrested at the age of four months, along with my mother as she sat-in at a lunch counter, until the first time I entered a voting booth at age 18 and pulled the lever beside my own name, my life was shaped by the activism of my parents.
Dad put his heart, soul, and most of his money into his causes. He was a dentist by profession but agitation was his true calling. He founded a black-led third party in Alabama during the height of George Wallace's hegemony and succeeded in transforming "white supremacy" politics in the keystone state of massive resistance.
But his activism had consequences. By the time I was 18, Dad was broke and I had to figure out how to pay for college on my own. As a teenager, I seethed with anger about his priorities. As I approached middle age and Dad journeyed into oldness, I simply wanted to understand the origins of his altruism and share my journey in a book that might motivate others.
Fortunately my employer gave me a sabbatical and respected my proposal to write a book that situated my family's individual story in the arc of American race relations as worthy “scholarship,” even though I also wanted to write for a non-academic audience.
I researched and wrote the book while I was suffering through the indignities of fertility treatments. I was as committed to the book as I was to getting pregnant and fortunately I succeeded at both. I forced myself to write every day, even after my twin boys were born, even when I was "bone tired," even if I could only grab thirty minutes. Once I got started, my ancestors began to speak to me and reveal their stories.
I started with the family lore about my great-grandfather – Herschel V. Cashin, a radical Republican legislator in Alabama during Reconstruction. I grew up hearing a mythology about him. He was born in antebellum Georgia, the child of a white Irishman and a free-mulatto woman, the story went. He was sent north to be educated and avoid the possibility of enslavement. During Reconstruction he returned south and became the architect of that effort in Alabama, according to the embellishments of subsequent generations.
I set out to find out as much as I could about "Grandpa Herschel." I waded through the rat feces in my parents’ attic to find the treasure among the stuff they and their ancestors never threw away. I exhausted the tools available on the Internet, and combed through the census records, slave tables, and Freedman’s Bureau documents that the Mormon church has made available to the masses. And I spent many hours interviewing my father and other living elders. Then I hired two professional genealogists to inspect archives in Alabama, Georgia and the City of Philadelphia. Ultimately a DNA test confirmed my 19th century heritage and there were some surprises.
The family lore conveniently had it that the Cashin line was untainted by slavery. The truth was that I descended not from black slaves but from white slave owners (and their apparently free colored offspring). That was quite a revelation that I had to come to terms with.
I took comfort in the fact that my great-grandfather, an educated mulatto, decided to return south and work to uplift his formerly bonded brethren. He was a "race man" in the 19th century long before that term was popularized in 20th century. He devoted his life to black political enfranchisement and my father did his best to follow that tradition.
In my parents' house, political activism was what mattered most. Until our family endured a dramatic reversal of economic fortune, we lived in affluence - the only black family in a tony neighborhood and a father who piloted his own private plane. As the only black dentist in my hometown, my father easily could have focused on living in comfort and accumulating wealth.
Instead he put everything he had into bringing about a second Reconstruction in Alabama. Although my passion is not as blind as my father's, I did inherit his belief about the importance of political engagement, and living a life that helps others. I also inherited a confidence in my own abilities, surely a result of the daily affirmations I received from a father who believed I could do anything. I gave Dad a copy of the book on Father’s Day, 2008 and was most grateful that he was still here, at 80, to receive it.
Visit Sheryll Cashin's website to learn more about her work and life.