London Day 3 and 4

Wednesday March 4

Today the National Archives- a long haul.  First, a walk to the Russell Square Underground, taking the Piccadilly Line changing at Hammersmith to the District Line and 40 minutes later arriving at Kew Gardens.  Luckily, there were signs directing me to the National Archives and to a street of interesting terraced houses.


In order to view documents, I was obliged to get a reader’s ticket which took some time.  Then, I worked with a librarian to navigate the databases.  My “French” grandmother whose family had lived in Martinique and Saint Lucia since 1690 had actually been a British citizen.  In the early 1900’s, she attended school in England with several of her sisters.  I was looking for the name of the school and evidence of her citizenship.

The librarian told me those papers if they existed would be in Saint Lucia not in the National Archives.  He suggested I go through Saint Lucian slave records since my relatives, who had been military officers, lawyers, and judges, most likely had slaves.  A bitter pill to swallow.  I spent the afternoon sadly perusing the available information and came across an 1822 protocol for selling slaves:

The slaves attached to any plantation are always to be sold together.  Personal slaves, unattached to plantations are always to be sold in such a manner as that the same person must become the purchaser of all such of the said personal slaves as bear to each of any of the following relations that is to say husbands and wives, parents and children.

Slavery was abolished in England in 1833 but some scholars believe it continued in Saint Lucia, then a part of Britain, until 1838.

There was no mention of the name de Jorna.  Are they innocent?  I don’t think so.  The 1709 Martinque Recensement (Census) lists slaves held at a fort overseen by one of my relatives.  At the Quartier of Saint Pierre under the de Jorna regiment were 1864 enslaved negresses (Female) and 1649 negres (Males).   These terms were used from the colonial period until WWII after which they became racially charged.


And so the prejudice, the belief that skin color determines value passes down from generation to generation- a diseased legacy.  My father listened to his Aunt Yia deride his darker skinned relatives and assumed the mantle- identification with the colonizers, slave holders, ennobled ancestors while denigrating his other birth right- skin color.  Yet, he was the dark face amongst a sea of white at Saint John’s Grammar School.

IMG_7819My father, Louis Zinis, 3rd row from the bottom, 4th from the left                            Saint John’s Grammar School, Orange. New Jersey, 1919       

My grandmother, his mother, must have been worried when she sent him off to first grade.

He’s in for a hard time even though I dress him better than all the other children in this backwater, cette ville de remous.  He is so charmant in his sailor shirt.  My sister Yia worries.  Sometimes when she looks at him, she shakes her head muttering, comme un negre.   He is the darkest of my children although in summer it’s hard to tell.  The girls could pass the other way, noires pas blanches.  But he must endure all those pasty Irish faces, hear their taunts- darky, jigaboo.  He’s a gentle boy but they will change him.

She was right.  Reinforced by his prep school, Saint Benedict’s in Newark, New Jersey, then a bastion of white males, he took on their racism, perhaps, hoping to distinguish himself from his grandmother, Noel de Jorna, listed as “colored” on her death certificate.  Or did he want to align himself with his Greek father who described his wife to Greek relatives as ” ma femme francaise noire,”  my black French wife?  But like most people of color, there is no real escape.  Years later my five year old son called to me excitedly: his grandfather, Papa Lou, was on television.   But it wasn’t my father: it was Louis Armstrong.

 Thursday March 5

The good weather didn’t hold: a rainy cold day.   Nevertheless, I was determined to walk to Poetry, a clothing store not far from Regents Park.  My umbrella spent more time inside out than it did protecting me from the rain.  After an hour or so, I made it to the Marylebone High Street, a surprising enclave of small winding streets with upscale stores.  As for purchases, no joy.

UnknownMarylebone High Street

Given the weather, I took a bus back to Bloomsbury intending to do some research at the British Library.  After getting a library card, I spent the day in one of the reading rooms looking for information on my Irish grandmother whose family were also British citizens during the 19th century.  I went through ancient (17th and 18th century) records of Roscommon County where my grandmother had lived looking for a familiar name.  Compiled by the British, they listed names as British or Irish.  No luck.


The librarian directed me to another database where I found a last name I recognized: Beirne.  A Bridget Beirne was my great-great grandmother.   Down the rabbit hole I went.  In 1923, this Beirne had been a doctor in the village of Kilnamanagh where my great grandmother and great uncles had lived.  His correspondence was part of a large collection of Marie Stopes’ letters, the founder of the first birth control clinic in Britain.

He wrote of a client with an intact hymen who had managed to get pregnant.  Is this just a “condition” of rural Catholic Ireland?  But no, it’s possible.  There were other letters asking about a cervical cap she had recommended.  What did Dr. Beirne risk making such an inquiry while practicing in a country that prohibited birth control: to disobey was a mortal sin- and the consequence eternal hell.

Now I have library cards to all the public libraries in Paris, to the British Library, and to the British National Archives.  Overwhelming.  Where to concentrate my efforts?  Nana Daly from Ireland, Grand-mere de Jorna from Saint Lucia?  Pappous Zinis from Greece?





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