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An illustration of Kylowna Moton overlayed on old photos of her family, a genealogy chart, and crystal shapes are in the background.
(Dan Carino)
‘The Silences Of My Forebears’: A Black Californian Traces Her Great Migration Roots
A quest to trace family roots reveals the stories of ancestors “who left the South and never looked back.”
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I hail from California. I’m a product of the cosmopolitan American West. When abroad, I answer questions about my origin with “Los Angeles” rather than “United States,” not because I eschew my Americanness, but because “Los Angeles” gives people something to hold on to that they think they know — and because “Los Angeles” gets closer to the heart of the ethos and influences that have shaped me.

Tell Us Your American Story
  • The definition of American is elusive. But in this city shaped by immigrants, we know that it does not refer to a race, an ethnicity, or a birthplace. So we’re reaching out again. We’d love to hear your stories as we continue the conversation about Americanness and who it belongs to.

Los Angeles roots me in place, but it also roots me in movement.

Some of my most indelible childhood memories are of traversing this city. We moved house often. I attended six elementary schools, from the San Fernando Valley to South Central to Compton. On weekends, we set out on long drives to visit family in Pacoima, Canoga Park, South Central, West Los Angeles, Culver City, Marina Del Rey.

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Sometimes we left town for Bakersfield, to visit my grandpa and others in my mom’s extended family. Taking these trips were foundational events in my life.

These early experiences made me a traveler; they fashioned in me a comfort with and craving for motion. Anytime a family member was going somewhere, I wanted to go too. My grandmother and my mother used to say I had GO-itis.

They were right, but I got it honest. And lately, I’ve come to understand why. Motion, it seems, is a family affair.

Building The Family Tree

It is difficult to tell a personal story that is both tidy and true. Truth is messy and requires digging into the complex layers of our lives — or in my case lately, the complex layers of my family.

A family group photo from the late 1970s. The author can be seen leaning her head on her hand at the bottom of the image.
A family photo from the late 1970s. The author can be seen leaning her head on her hand at the bottom of the image.
(Courtesy of Kylowna Moton)

For me, the thought of making a family tree was once fraught. It is difficult for African Americans to thoroughly trace their roots because the United States has such a short history of counting us as full human beings, with stories worthy of preserving. Records are scant.

I was afraid that going back in time would be painful. I was even more afraid of finding nothing. Blankness.

It was difficult to contend with the possibility that all information about my ancestors was already lost to time. I thought it would be safer, simpler, to stick to my individual story and my memories of the people I had seen and known.

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But playing it safe would not help me understand and record my family's story. So I created a profile on a genealogy site, and I started building, and then asking questions. And then the past began to reveal itself — in pieces.

The Stories I Knew

My maternal grandfather, Nathaniel, was the first of my direct ancestors born in California. Grandpa Nat, the third of eight children, was the second of his siblings to be born in this state.

The rest of my family is from somewhere else. Of course, I knew this.

My mother’s mother, Grandmother Ardell, was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She met Grandpa in Bakersfield, where my mother was born.

A photo of Donzell Moton, Paternal Grandfather in his US Navy uniform
Donzell Moton, Kylowna's paternal grandfather, who stayed behind in Missouri.
(Courtesy of Kylowna Moton)

My father and his six siblings were born in St. Louis, Missouri. His mother, Grandma Myrtle, brought them to California in 1960 as young children. Their father, Donzell, stayed behind.

Two Los Angeles transplants, my mother and father met in the San Fernando Valley, where I was born.

It wasn’t until I began building the family tree that I considered the meaning embedded in all this motion.

The Census records for Grandpa’s family trace a complicated journey toward the West: Texas, Arizona, the Imperial Valley, Kern County — a trajectory that tells the story of a growing family slowly making its way to central California in the thick of The Great Migration, when millions of Black families left the South hoping for relative safety in points north and west.

As my great grandparents moved west, a child was born in Arizona. Two — including Grandpa Nat — were born in the Imperial Valley; five more in Kern County.

None of these family members are officially recorded in California until the 1930 and 1940 censuses. It struck me that Grandpa was a migrant child. He was born in a place between places, on the road out west. In many ways, he never stopped roaming.

I thought about his mother, Lottie, who was born somewhere in Texas in the year 1902. She came to California with her husband, William Tucker, and with her father, Tom Hamel. Had she felt firmly rooted in Texas? What were her hopes for her growing family as they headed out west? Why did they decide to leave?

Deeper Into The South

I knew we had a family connection to Texas. Family lore tells of a forebear who managed to buy his own piece of Texas land long ago, only to be chased off of it on threat of death when oil was discovered in the area. As the story goes, local white people decided his land was too valuable for a Black man to own.

Was this my great-great grandfather, Tom Hamel? I can only wonder what experiences he was leaving behind as he traveled west, widowed, with his daughter’s family.

Or perhaps it happened to William Tucker, Grandpa’s father and Lottie’s husband, who’d moved to Texas from Alabama.

A black and white photo of  William and Lottie, the author's mother's grandparents. William is seen wearing a hat. They moved to California from Texas and had kids along the way.
William and Lottie, the author's maternal great grandparents, They moved to California from Texas.
(Courtesy of Kylowna Moton)

What had he hoped to find in Texas that he had not found in Alabama? And what drove him to keep moving west, on to California?

As I slowly find more names to put on the family tree, each one points deeper into the South: Alabama, yes, but also Arkansas, Virginia, Mississippi, Tennessee. Each new name makes me deeply curious about the personal stories I will probably never know.

“All Black people are from the South; they have roots in the South,” I once read somewhere. I remember nodding because I could see the logic of it. I know as well as anyone how Africans became African Americans — and how closely that history ties us to the South. Still, I never felt connected to the place.

My family didn’t talk about the South. Unlike some other Black families in the West, there were no Southern reunions or annual pilgrimages to foster a sense of home outside of California. As I’ve grown older, I’ve wondered why.

I grew up thinking I knew a lot of my family story, on my mother’s side at least, because I knew so many generations of her family members.

A group photo of Moton's great-grandmother, Big Mama (center, seated), and her three youngest daughters.
Moton's great grandmother, Big Mama (center, seated), with her three youngest daughters (left to right) Dorothy, Ardell (standing), and Betty.
(Courtesy of Kylowna Moton)

One of the benefits of descending from a line of very young mothers is that I got to spend a lot of time with my maternal grandmother, along with her mother, Big Mama, and her grandmother, my great-great Grandma Shaver.

A black and white photo of the author's mother's great-grandmother.
Grandma Shaver, Moton's great-great-grandmother, who lived until the author was about 13 years old.
(Courtesy of Kylowna Moton)

But over time, I’ve realized that the details of their early lives — and especially their inner lives — are almost as mysterious to me as the people from the deep South whose names I’m trying to find and add to the tree.

Grandmother Ardell died in 2016. Grandma Myrtle died in early 2021. As I process the loss, I feel a keen and growing interest in telling the stories that give context to their lives. I do not want to let them vanish into oblivion. But I cannot rely on memory alone. I need more information.

When I was young and they were alive, I did not ask nearly enough questions.

‘I Have Not Been Back. What For?’

Researching the family history is an exercise in wonder and extrapolation. A small detail derived from official records can be evocative. For example, when she was 6 years old, Ardell was listed on the census in Tulsa — as a boy. This discovery brought back the concern I had for what kind of records I would find, how carefully they would be preserved.

I found other discrepancies. Both my grandfathers’ names were spelled two or three different ways on the official records they were listed in. It makes me wonder: Did the Census takers find their work unimportant? Were they sloppy in general, or only with colored families?

Definitive family events tell me that by the time Ardell was 16, her whole family — her mother and four sisters — had left Oklahoma for California.

 Moton's maternal grandmother, Ardell (center) in an integrated black and white class photo in Oklahoma sometime in the 1940s.
Moton's maternal grandmother, Ardell (center, in striped dress) in a class photo in Oklahoma sometime in the 1940s.
(Courtesy of Kylowna Moton)

In the last weeks of her life, as she declined, she assured us that she’d had a good life. “I was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma,” she declared with seeming pride.

But what was she proud of? That she was from the South or that she got out? The stories Grandmother Ardell told of her youth were about people she had known, but there was nothing I can remember that conveyed a sense of the place or her life in Oklahoma. If my mother knows of stories, she hasn’t told them.

My paternal grandmother, Myrtle, hinted at just a little bit more.

The author and her grandmother on boat, an orange life ring labeled Victoria Clipper can be seen behind them.
Moton with her paternal grandmother, Myrtle, in 2014.
(Courtesy of Kylowna Moton)

Of Missouri, Grandma Myrtle told me, “I looked around and saw that there was nothing going on. Nobody was doing anything worthwhile. There was nothing happening there for me or my kids, so I said ‘Umph! I’ve got to get up outta here,’ and I packed up your daddy and all the rest of my kids and left.”

“Did you ever go back?” I wanted to know.

“Child, no. I have not been back. What for?”

I wish I knew much more about what my grandmothers’ early lives were like, more about why Ardell left Oklahoma and Myrtle left Missouri — and more about what they’d hoped for when they came west.

The Courage To Start From Scratch

My mind sometimes organizes information on separate linear streams, like railroad tracks, and then I fail to remember the cross ties that run perpendicular underneath to connect the streams. This is how I have thought about the story of myself, my family.

Between 1910 and 1970, around 6 million Black people from the South moved north and west (then farther west) in search of opportunities — to advance economically, to live safely, to be free of Jim Crow laws.

In my lifetime of identifying as a Californian and an Angeleno, why had I never thought of my family in the context of The Great Migration? It took data, the writing down of actual birth dates, moving dates, census dates — and the places associated with these events — to clearly see how U.S. history in general, and The Great Migration in particular, is a personal story, a family story.

Moton’s grandmother with three of her sisters and her parents
From left to right: the author's Aunt Betty, Great Grandpa Tom, Aunt Dorothy, Grandmother Ardell, Big Mama, and Aunt Johnnie.
(Courtesy of Kylowna Moton)

As I build my family tree, what I am able to discover reveals the faint outlines of what has been passed down to me in both the stories and the silences of my forebears.

I have to fill in the blanks with deductions and guesses based on what I remember of family stories and what I know of my country’s history. In the experiences suggested by the data and that logic, I find my inheritance.

I come from the people who left the South and never looked back. They bequeathed to me a custom of motion and change, the courage to start from scratch, a propensity for future focus, for hope — all the things I’ve long admired about migrants and immigrants. As it turns out, my people were migrants too.

I see the men and women of my family in a new light. From Oklahoma, Missouri, Texas, Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Virginia, they gave me California. They made me an Angeleno.

I have, at various moments in my life, sensed there was something different about being Black in California. I felt disassociated from something rich and communal growing out of the soil in the South, from roots I would never be nourished by. But like anything uprooted yet still alive, my people put down roots elsewhere.

They must have believed they could. It had happened before.

About This Series
  • This story is part of a new LAist series called Being American. It’s inspired by the success of our year-long Race In LA series, in which Angelenos shared personal stories about how our race and/or ethnicity shapes our lived experience.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
  • Kylowna Moton is exactly what she wanted to be when she was growing up: a world traveler. She has visited 23 countries plus 26 of the U.S states — so far. She is a proud UCLA alumna and enjoys reading, writing, and learning, which is a good thing because she works as an Associate Professor of English at Los Angeles City College.