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Family People

Family People

Fri, 19 May 2023 10:00

In 2021, editor Alex Neason's grandfather passed away. On his funeral program, she learned the name of his father for the first time: Wilson Howard. Not Neason. Howard. And when she asked her family why his last name was different from everybody else's, nobody had an answer. In this episode, we tag along as Alex searches for answers through swampy cemeteries, libraries, and archives in the heart of south Louisiana: who was her great grandfather, really? Is she supposed to be a Neason? Where did the name Neason come from, anyways? And is a name something whose weight you have to shed, or is it the only path forward into the future?Special thanks to, Cheryl Neason-Isidore, Karen Neason Dykes, Johari Neason, Keaun Neason, Kevin Neason, Anthony Neason, the late Clarence Neason Sr. and Anthony Neason, Clarence Neason Jr., Olivia Neason, Tori Neason, Orelia Amelia Jackson, Russell Gragg, Victor Yvellez, Asher Griffith, Devan Schwartz, Myrriah Gossett, Sabrina Thomas, Nancy Richard, Katie Neason, Amanda Hayden, Gabriel Lee, Paul Brandenburg, Justin Flynn, Mark Miller, Kenny Bentley, Jason Issacs, Irene Trudel, Bill Hyland, the staff members at the Orleans Parish, East Feliciana Parish, and Plaquemines Parish Clerk of Court offices.

Episode Credits:Reported by - Alex Neasonwith help from - Nicka Sewell-SmithProduced by - Annie McEwenwith help from - Andrew ViñalesMusic performed by - Jason Isaacs, Paul Brandenburg, Justin Fynn, Mark Miller, and Kenny Bentleywith engineering and mixing help from - Arianne Wack and Irene TrudelFact-checking by - Emily KriegerEpisode Citations:Audio - You can listen to the episode of La Brega (, in English and in Spanish.Our newsletter comes out every Wednesday. It includes short essays, recommendations, and details about other ways to interact with the show. Sign up (!

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Wait, you're listening to radio lab from W and Y. Hello, I am Louisa Miller, though I go by the name Lulu. I'm Laptif Shira's Abdul Fazal Maser Ballu. Is that my full name? Is that true? That is my full name. It is stately and ringy and wonderful. Yeah, it's my dad's name, his dad's name, his dad's name, it's basically all the dad's name. Okay. Anyway, here at Radio Lab, we are talking about this because we kind of are a little obsessed with names. It turns out. Yeah, it just keeps coming up. So in addition to the O6 part series, you did lots of about sharing a name with the Guantanamo Detainee, we have done stories about names that make computers go haywire. Names that seem to influence a certain life path. Like a study that shows that if you're named Dennis, you're more likely to become a dentist. But today, we have a very different kind of name story because our editor, Alex Niesen, recently got some kind of confusing news about her name. You see these wasps? Be careful. And this news sent Alex on a kind of audacity. Oh, stepping in mud. Oh, it is squishy. Down to New Orleans where she sloshed and slogged through swampy cemeteries, sweaty basement archives. Yeah, nothing. Trying to pin down where her name came from. And not only did Alex take that search further than anyone thought possible, she ended up confronting a much deeper question. Is your name just an arbitrary string of letters pinned to you at birth? Or is it the thing that can help you see yourself and how to move forward in life? It's clearly. Hello, hello. Can you hear me? Why are you so blurry? I don't know the internet. Okay. And we're going to start off. I'm just going to have you introduce yourself with the person who gave Alex her name. Clarency St. Jr. I'm an army veteran. I'm a retired US Army colonel and your relationship to me. You're my daughter. My oldest daughter. So my name was this big character in my life as a kid. And one of the things I used to tell you in your sister, hey, that's my name. That's not your name. It's on lease. The thing you say, like, basically once a day. Yeah, yeah. Right. So I mean, because it is important, right? As you take it. I grew up in a military family. My dad was in the army. You know, 28 years of my life in the army. We moved down a lot. Didn't have like a traditional hometown. And I think I had a lot of anxieties as a kid about like not having roots. But a part of that sucks for like beating a military or everything is your last name. Your last name and your last four, right? So in the military, your name is sort of you. People are addressed by their last name living on base. Your name goes on the outside of your house on ours. It always said, team Nissen. I saw it every day on my dad's uniform when he would get up and go to work. Your identity comes completely absorbed into your last name. I make sure that my name has value to me. And then as you and your sister were growing up, transfer that to you so that you can understand that, hey, look, take care of this name. This is what I got. This is something that I own as my identity. And I just totally internalized that sense of connection to my name. And you know, I have a name plate ring. It says Nissen, I never take this thing off. Certain friends. I'm not known as Alex. I'm just known as Nissen. It's just a deep part of how I think about myself in the world. And then about a year and a half ago, all of that got blown up. In 2021, my grandfather, my dad's dad, Clarence Nissen senior, he passed away. And he lived in New Orleans, which is where my dad and his whole family are from. And this was, you know, peak COVID. So I wasn't able to go to the funeral, but my parents went. And they brought me back a program from the funeral that has like the obituary and everything. It's got my grandpa's name and his birthday. And it lists who his parents were. And so it says, I'm just going to read it to you. Our beloved Reverend Dr. Clarence Nissen senior, Sanco daddy, papa, uncle, Rev, doc, those are nicknames, entered this world as a gift to the late Edna Jackson and Wilson and Howard. Howard? Yeah, not Nissen, Howard. And I was just like Howard, Howard, who's Howard? What is a Howard? And also where did Nissen, this name that was such a big part of how I thought about myself, where did that even come from? Let me. Hello. Hey, hello. Can you hear me? Yeah. I'm John, some of my aunts, Karen, Cheryl, and also my dad, and started asking questions. Did you ever learn anything about who your paternal grandfather was? I mean, so they all knew that Edna Jackson was their dad's mom and Wilson Howard was their dad's dad. Oh, yes. I mean, we saw him whenever he was in town. And my aunt Cheryl, she had met him, but my aunt Karen and my dad, they didn't really remember him at all. It's a very sparse memory. I don't know. I don't know. Because like I say, we didn't spend much time with my father's people. Okay. And did you ever, and when I asked, do you know why we're called Nissen? Um, um, no. Nobody knew. Mm-hmm. I have no idea. Really? Nothing? My aunt Cheryl told me at one point, she actually asked her grandmother's sister the same question. I said, I don't know. And she said, and she said, that was adult business. And she said, that was adult business. And then I don't think my dad really knew either. Because every time he talked to him about it, it was like, well... situation. Oh my God, it's a situation. Well, you don't need to know that, but you are a niece. So nobody knew much about Wilson Howard and they had no idea where the name Neson came from. And the weird thing was, well, my dad and his sisters all feel very much like Neson's are proud of the name when it comes to where it actually came from. I haven't known this foreign life. So they just didn't seem to care. I just never had a desire or an intense interest in it. Really? Why not? I don't know. Maybe it was just like Neson. Like this is a variation of an Irish name. Like that doesn't make sense in my context. And so I always knew that like for black families, the whole idea of tracing your history through your name, it just doesn't take that long before you get to the generation where whatever name it is that your people were going by was imposed on them. So it's easy to look back and see all that mess and just decide not to step into it. But for me, I was like, this is my name. I write it down on everything. I wear it on my ring. It's how I think about myself. And I do care about where that name came from, about who it came from, about all of the people who have carried this name through time all the way up to me. So like I'm totally in my closet. Hi. I found a genealogist to help me out. Okay. Her name is Nika, Suel Smith, and the first thing she told me one of the sort of hallmarks of genealogies that you have to literally like go down a rabbit hole. This is not going to be easy. Genealogy keeps you in a perpetual state of being out. And particularly when you're focusing on African American people, people who descended from a formerly enslaved. Because government documents were records of these family histories. Sometimes they're messy, often incomplete. And a lot of times they were never even made at all. The archive and historical record has never really truly been kind to us. But I was just like, look, let me tell you what I do know. And this is my grandfather, Clarence Niesen Sr., October 13th. I know that's the day he was born. And I gave her the whole rundown. So like what's your great grandfather's name supposed to be Wilson Howard? But that's the Niesen comes from Jenow. Okay. I've never like there's no first name like no, the Niesen is basically a ghost. Okay. So and right off the bat, Nika was like, look, you just got to start by figuring out who were all the people that were around back then. My mother, she was born in the city. The parents, aunts, uncles, and my father was born in St. Bernard, Paris. Get more information, get all the little pieces. She got pregnant on her honeymoon. I lived with my grandparents. And pretty quickly, the people, the relationships, the names, everyone knew you by your mother's name, you know, my mother's name was, uh, was Marjorie. It all starts to get pretty confusing. No, you used to see that they had this lady that's our grandmother. And nobody really knew that much about that side of the family. I don't think the lady really was. Okay. Um, try to keep like paper and stuff away from your phone so it doesn't pick it up on the mic. Okay. So I went back to Nika and I was like, okay, the family tree, it has some holes, less of a tree, more of a branch. That's okay. Okay. We've got, hey, but she was like, look, let's just start looking for documents. This census, birth, marriage, and death certificates. Anything where a father's name could be captured. And so over the next seven months, Nika and I started checking in every week. The week felt really long. It did. We look over documents together. So go, um, go up to the top. Uh-huh. This document spans across two different days. And some days there wasn't that much to report. You ever sound like little old ladies. That's what happens to old people. All they do is call each other and talk about their ailments. Talked up. Right. The doctor said this was right. But girl, you know, he told me I had to get rid of my button. And then one day, um, so Nika's looking over this old newspaper clipping. Um, something about the draft and my grandpa being sent for a medical exam. Okay. So, and she zooms in on this and points to a little tiny J. R right next to my grandfather's name. It looks like your grandfather was a junior. But my dad is Clarence, junior. Based on what I'm seeing, it looks like your dad should be the third. That's very strange. So all of a sudden, it looked like there could be not just a person named Nison around, but a Clarence Nison. Clarence Nison, senior senior. Correct. So, you know, we started looking for a guy by that name around 1937, which is when Edna gave birth to my grandfather. And pretty quick, I have never seen this before. A possible candidate popped up. So for this, these are convict and conduct registers for the state of Texas. A forum that was filled in by hand dated 1942. They're noting that this man is 25 years of age, five, six and a half, 139 pounds. They know him as being black. Across at the time, he's a Baptist who wears a size nine shoe. Okay. And robbery. That's what they claim was robbery. Let's see, date of birth, 1917, birthplace in Louisiana. He's a resident of New Orleans. Okay. Here's another Clarence. He's old enough to be your great grandfather. Out here, Robin folks allegedly. For the record, he pled not guilty, but he was convicted and he did do jail time. The plot is. It is. Who is this Clarence Neson? But you know, now we had a guy and he had the right name. He was in the right place at the right time. And maybe he could possibly be my actual great grandfather. Or for some other reason, is just the guy whose name my grandfather got. So I went research him and have him in his own kind of like tree. So you have all his details together. That meant more research, more phone calls. I now had two possible family trees. A whole stinking Larry's. And then Nika finds a key detail in the El Paso Times. This is Thursday, August 27, 1942. Tucked into another article about this Clarence Neson's robbery. Says robbery charged New Orleans Negro. Like a specific brand of Negro, the New Orleans Negro. Like I'm watching a nature documentary. The article mentions that a few years earlier, this Clarence had married in Octavia Jackson in New Orleans in 1938. So we've got a marriage record, but let's because family. So we go looking for the marriage license. See, this is pulling up a million one things. Okay, see, here we go. Octavia. This is the right person. Oh, she was 17. Look if you wrap in the cradle. He was 21. Wow, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh. Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, no, oh, no. Listen, Howard, what? What? On the marriage certificate listed as one of the witnesses is Wilson Howard. What? Okay. Wait a minute. Wait, the Other great grandpa contender. Yeah, whoa. He would have been 20 years old at the time. What? No, oh, what? Okay, wait a minute. Wait a minute Wilson Howard witnesses. Oh, no, they were friends. Oh, no. Oh my freaking gosh. Okay. Who are they? Were they friends? We can't know for sure if they were friends or not, but on November 19th 1938, it was a Saturday. These two men stood in the same room in New Orleans. Maybe it was a church, maybe it was at City Hall. Probably they were both dressed to the nines and Wilson Howard watched Clarence Nieson get married. And this would have been just a year after my grandfather was born. Like I cannot grandma Edna like girl. Yikes. What is going on? I'm kind of paralyzed because I don't even know. Oh, was it like a was it like a was then an end to creeping on the low situation? Oh my goodness. Oh, it could be the other way around, right? I don't know. Okay, so what like at the what are you thinking Alex? Like what's what? So at this point, there's a bunch of stuff going on in my head. I wanted to know more about this Clarence Nieson senior senior guy who is maybe the reason my name is my name. But I also was like what's going on with Wilson Howard and Edna Jackson and Clarence Nieson senior senior and is there a way for me to figure out who actually is my great grandfather? You see these wasps? Be careful. And at that point, I decided we got to go to the place where it all happened. Do you think there are snakes in here? Oh, and so a few months later Nika and I plus whoa it is war producer Annie McEwen found ourselves in Louisiana. Because first of all there's only so much you can do online. A lot of things have not been digitized and we were going to have to go into the archives and dig them up. Snakes? I saw a few of them down there. And second of all, I just had this feeling that I wasn't going to truly understand these three people that I wouldn't really get it unless I went to the place where they had lived their lives. This looks like a decently old cemetery. First up, we knew that Clarence senior senior was buried in Texas so we weren't able to visit him. But we thought it only right while we were in the neighborhood. Oh Wilson Wilson, where art thou? To visit the resting place of the other man who might be my great grandpa Wilson Howard. Where are you Wilson? In a cemetery just south east of New Orleans. Kind of a squared field it's next to a baseball diamond. It's pretty crowded. All of the crypts are above ground and I am just walking kind of aisle by aisle. While we thought this was going to be a quick stop. Ooh I'm stepping in mud. It was the first clue we had that things down here were going to be. Ooh it is squishy. Way less straightforward than I thought. Because even though this is where his obituary said he was buried. Yeah, in term of the Marriott cemetery August 10th, 1988. And Frank Santiago. Thank you. Williams Nelson. Next to Liza Santiago right. Even though we combed through the entire graveyard. Where are you? We just couldn't find him. Yeah. In fact, all these people are supposed to be buried here. There were supposed to be a whole bunch of powers in that graveyard. And we can't find pretty much any of them. So let me thought wait could the obituary be wrong? Do y'all know where the howards are? Then we asked these guys where they're mowing the grass. We don't think they're any of them. And they tell her that guy is not buried here. Yeah, we know. He's buried at a different cemetery down the road. He said, you came missing. And this tip sent us on this frenzy goose chase. He said to go to the red light and turn right. Oh wait no, he said there's a fork and you go to the right. Into more and more graveyards. We're looking for some howards. Talk to that guy right there. Where we talk to more and more people. Oh, I mean they got some howards back there but um, Wilson. Yeah, howard. I got a leader right there on that too. I don't know no wails and howards. Okay. Yeah, the mosquitoes are mosquito-ing and encountered more and more. I can feel them biting me. It's crazy. Local wildlife. I don't feel any. Oh wow. There's a lizard. It's like lime green. Hey friend. Oh, after an entire day of grave hunting. Okay, so that that yeah, well that was not really sort of anti-climactic. Yeah, we never did find this grave. Oh, yeah, we can all hear. And as a fishing expedition for any sign of Wilson Howard or Clarence Neson Sr. Sr. and any clues at all, just anything on which one was my great grandfather or why my grandfather would have been named Neson continued into the archives and libraries and court houses of Louisiana here we go. We're trying to find who's he do who have been extremely elusive for us. Even though we were doing all the right things, casting a white net, looking for anything from property records to wills. It felt almost impossible. Like we were looking for a couple of teeny tiny needles in a gigantic haystack. Mama always said he'd start doing family history care. Chrono she went through shelf after shelf of these massive old leather bound books filled with transaction receipts. Neson is the last name. Okay, well we do it by bowels and here. What is it? What is it? Neson. Neson. And a lot of this stuff was organized in this bizarre system from the Civil War era that they're still using that is part of 75 you go into the NE section and that's very hard to follow. Eight through Z and then eight to through Z two and so on. You have to look line by line. Okay. Yeah. What are you doing? Oh recording audio. I don't have to approve that with my boss. Okay. What last time were we looking for? But every so often, what is this here? There were these little clues, little breadcrumbs about these two men and who they were to my grandfather. Succession of Wilson J. Howard. Yes. Like we eventually found Wilson Howard's succession for instance. The succession is super important because that tells you who the airs are. I see Geraldine who is his wife and then Darleen Howard and also Felma Howard Jones. Hereby recognizes the only lawful airs. So she's played him in here by place. On this document, Wilson's two daughters are mentioned but not my grandfather. They did not include him. So what does that mean? And we were like, okay, maybe that means even though we have all these other documents where he is listed as my grandfather's dad that Howard secretly knew he wasn't. But also there was just no way to know if his name was left off that page for some other reason or if it was just a mistake or a mishearing or a clerical error. And sitting there in that archive. I just thought that there would be some kind of trail through the documents. I was realizing that we'd come all the way down here for some hard, simple facts. But honestly, I feel like we're still, we've still wound up back in the speculating about a dead man's feelings. Maybe it was impossible in 2020 something to just swoop in, scan a document, and understand the world, even just a few generations back. You know, right, right. But there was one person who had touched that world and moved through it. My dad has a cousin named Orelia. Someone who is still alive lives near New Orleans and who I'd heard about for my aunt, Johari Niesen. She knows all the business. And they would have actually known Edna. Does that person go by like, Raya or Ria? Yeah, Ria. Ria Jackson. Yeah, I know Ria. Ria could tell you more. Yeah, Ria. She grew up in a parish and she stayed in a parish and she's still in a parish, still is deep. That's how she knows a whole lot. If anyone could tell me what was going on between Edna and Wilson and Clarence in your senior year, it was her. And I've been calling her for months, leaving messages on her phone saying, I'm coming to New Orleans. I'd love to see you. Never heard back from her until five few days into my trip. I'll find a meteor. I know. I finally heard back from her. My name is Orelia. I'm Orelia Jackson. I am in the Jackson. Nits. Edna had been Ria's aunt. She'd actually known her. And so right away, even before we got settled for the interview, actually, I asked her the big question. Well, who was Clarence's, my grandfather? Who was his father? Was she answers immediately? So I'm like, all right, Wilson Howard. But then that time, she started saying things about Howard being the real father, but his job took him away to see a lot. So some other man stepped in to help raise my grandfather. I had to be some of my own of families. I think there'd be family people because I'd adopt a lot of kids to say I was family people. Okay. I guess what I'm trying to understand is why she wouldn't have given him the last name Howard. She probably was in the relationship with somebody and he just named the son out there. So it's possible then that Edna might have been like dating someone whose name was Nisen. And I don't think so. So isn't or just so talking to Ria started to realize that we were both speaking English, but we weren't really speaking the same language when it came to family. Okay. So for instance, I give you the fall right now and I come and I pick you up and bring you by my house. I didn't put you there because I put you there because I love you. She would use terms like family people. And I think her idea of what a relationship is was more expansive than mine. But you're going to remember what I did when I picked you up. So that's the way it was of Clarice Nisen. So do you know that there was somebody named Nisen who did all those things? Like do like it had to be where else why would she give him the name? Thank you, Mel. You know, nobody going to just give you your name just like that. I'd be somebody that's really knew you and cared for you. When we take each other in a family, don't put it that way too you know because we family that take care each other. Yeah, that's all I know is we know what that's all I know that that's the real thing. Even though after talking to Ria, I was still kind of confused. Headhurt. Are you ready? Yeah, we're ready. It felt like Howard and Clarence Sr. Sr. they were who Ria called family people. Howard was at Clarence Sr. wedding. It sounded like maybe they both taken care of my grandfather at different points and they both clearly had some kind of connection with the woman at the center of this story. Edna. We're at Ellen's cemetery. And the gate's open who was buried at this grassy little courtyard cemetery surrounded by industrial buildings across the street from some houses. We're here to look for my great grandma Edna and I'm hoping we can find her so much of this. We just didn't have a whole lot to go on and we're like grasping at straws so much of the time it has felt like sincerely hope there's not poison I've been here. Because that would bring in suck. Oh, here she is. You found? Yep. Is Edna? Yes, Edna. Let's see. Edna Jackson January 4th, 1904, to October 1st, 1991, forever in our hearts. And there's an angel. Here she is. I have a lot of questions that more and more I suspect only she can answer. She had a son and gave him a name. Standing at Edna's grave, I felt like it was clear that when Edna gave birth to my grandfather and named him, it wasn't a ploy or a cover-up or a random name lifted out of a baby book. It had meaning. It said something about the community of people she came from. Like, my name came out of this mix of family people but that still leaves me at a crossroads basically where it's like, okay, if there's two paths, I can only walk one at a time. So which one is it? Wait, hold, what'd you got? Wait a minute, wait a minute. And then through the slow but eventual good grace of the state of Louisiana, I got my hands on a very precious document. Okay. Drum roll. We've got all the anticipation. My grandfather's birth certificate. We're hoping that this envelope is given us something. If anything is going to tell us who his actual parents are. Okay, here we go. It's going to be this piece of paper. Okay, so on the 13th of October this year, 1937 at Charity Hospital was born a male child named Clarence Niesin colored. That's my grandpa illegitimate issue of Clarence Niesin and Edna Jackson. I knew it! So it says Clarence Niesin. So Clarence Niesin, so Clarence Niesin senior senior was your great-grandfather and so you really truly are a Niesin. Yeah, I mean, well, so first this is just a document. It's a piece of paper like an obituary or a succession like all the others. But it just felt like as soon as I got in this affirmation, another question popped into my head. Who was the Niesin before senior senior and who was the Niesin before that? Actually, who's the first black person to get this European name? Who gave it to them? What did it mean to them? And why did they hang on to it? After the break? Alex catches a break and stumbles on the person who is going to lead her like a straight path through the woods all the way back to the beginning of her name. Lulu, Latif, Radio Lab, Crab, Crumps, Back from Break, and then I'm like, oh, this is the best cookie. Yeah. Okay, quick refresher. I've always felt very attached to my last name, Niesin, and despite the fact that there's sometimes scant documentation about black people living in New Orleans between emancipation and World War II, I had decided to try to figure out where my name actually came from. And after a detour into trying to figure out whether I was biologically related to Wilson Howard or Clarence Niesin senior senior, I'd come across my grandfather's birth certificate, which said his father was, in fact, Clarence senior senior. And it could be wrong, I guess, but it gave me the permission I needed to finally go hard at the name Niesin. I'm ready. Let's do it. Next step was finding out where this name was from. So Reverend Clarence, Grandpa, and we thought the simple thing to do is to just follow the family tree as far back as it goes. His father. And then push from there. Is Clarence Niesin. So we traced a line from me, to my dad, to my grandpa, to his dad. Clarence Niesin senior senior. Yes, let's go. And then we got his dad. Israel Niesin. And Israel Niesin's father is Levi Niesin. My great, great, great grandfather, Levi. And then after Levi, the Niesin trail seems to dry up. Dang it. Which means next, we need to find out as much as we can about who this Levi guy was. Okay over here. Right. And so Levi, we learned he was born as best we can tell in the 1840s pre-civil war, which means he could have been enslaved. But as we begin to gather documents on Levi, we start to notice misspellings. Lisa. We find his last name spelled Lisa. Also, Niesin. Also. Hold on. Niesin. Niesin. With an M. They're just all over the place with this name. I've really got to say. So wait, I mean, is there a chance these could all this could be a different person entirely? Yeah, because Lisa, it feels like so different from your name now. Right. But whenever we came across him as spelling, Nika would always say number one, spelling doesn't count. We're looking for fanatics because these forms are often filled out by white clerks who may or may not have heard right or even cared to pay attention to how the person in front of them was pronouncing their name. So what do you do? You collect all these different names and then we need them to be at the same place at the same time. Match up other life details. Got it. And so now we knew we needed to widen our search to include a whole bunch of different spellings of Levi's last name. Let me see. And where did the wait when we did wait wait wait wait wait wait what okay Nika gets really like yeah she's excited she's pumped wait this is the best news of the freaking wait dude. And I was like why tell me what is happening. Look at this black man who was in the civil war and we got like she found documents that said that Levi had fought in the civil war. Oh my gosh okay this like this opens up I'm telling you oh you don't even understand. Wait why is she so excited? Why why is this such a big deal because while documents specifically for black people in this era of history were quite scarce. If there's one thing that the United States does well the document it's military obsessively. And so all this is crazy we needed this break. After six months of exhaustive digging oh my gosh I might actually do a cartwheel. And just basically picking up crumbs all of a sudden there's a ton of information on this car. We learned that when he was 20 years old black hair black eyes black complexion five seven he found his way to an enlistment office. A listed in New Orleans November 4th 1864 he joined the union army 11 days later he was mustard in. Look bounty paid a hundred dollars which is almost two thousand dollars today so he's ballin. He is out someplace. Give his life. We learned he joined as a private in the 92nd United States color troops infantry. There were random details of things he did in the army. Repairing roads from Baton Rouge to Clinton. We learned he died in 1921 and email the bot he was one of the early black people that had a mortuary in New Orleans. We even learned the name of his mortician like where else are we getting this information about black people. We never like this era we're never getting it. We find out where he's buried veteran cemetery. Oh my freaking god. We find a picture of his headstone. Wow and finally we learned two super important facts about Levi. We learned his mom's name Viny which pushes us a little further down the Nison family tree and we learned the name of the parish where he was born. East Feliziana Parish which is a little over a hundred miles northwest of New Orleans. It's like 8 a.m. the sun is like peeking through the forest that's lining the highway. It's foggy lots of crows everywhere and a lot of roadkill. So finding the general area where Levi was born is such a big deal because if Levi was enslaved he probably was born on his enslavers land. It feels colder here too. And one possible reason that all these black people including me are named Nison is because there were white people named Nison who owned black people. I mean it's kind of beautiful but it's also a little ominous. So Nika goes into the archive. Let me just see if I can find any black or white Nison Nison anything close in East Feliziana Parish and she finds them. Nison's with an M on the end. This was a white family with the last name Nison N-E-S-O-M. The same spelling that's in a lot of Levi's documents and the Patriarch was a man named Abraham. He was a veteran. He had served in the war of 1812 and after the war as part of an act that created West Florida the government gave him a plot of land. The sun is up so it should be starting to warm up. 600 acres just outside of Clinton Louisiana. I actually feel the closer that we get to the coordinates that we're going to the colder it gets and the darker it gets. He spent 27 years on this land raising a family growing his business and then in 1857 he died. All right here we go. And when he died his entire estate was auctioned off. Excession of A and L Nison. And in a small courthouse in Clinton we found the papers for that auction. Light blue delicate paper found with like a little rope. The auctioneer had kept this incredibly detailed diary. Being known to remember that on this 25th day of June in the year of our Lord 1,857 at the hour of 11 o'clock a.m. at the last place of residents of said deceased Abraham Nison. Where he carefully wrote down. This is where you get the bedsteads and tables and safe. Every single piece of property that was being auctioned. Looking glass. Axes, wagon. Farm stuff. Quilts. Hurt. All the stuff that you have in a house. Closing. And also documented in this auctioneer's diary. Each one of these is a different person. We're 33 enslaved people. Negro woman Amy age 60 years old. Margaret. Dick. Hillary. Spencer. Got Sam. Negro Robin. And this is how we learned that the Nesums were slave owners. Hannah and her four children. Sophia. Negro girl Mary. Negro boy Alfred. Negro boy Lewis age 7. And this whole time we're reading we're also scanning to see if we can find the names Viny and Levi. Sarah. H 21. And Negro boy. Because if we can then we'll know that this is where my name comes from. Yeah. Some Viny. Okay. And we do find a woman named Viny. Nelson. Nisa. Being the last and highest bitter. bought by one of Abraham's sons. The said Negro woman Viny aged 59 years and her child girl Sophia aged 11 years. But this Viny was being sold with a daughter named Sophia. By the sum and price of $1,720. There's no sign of Levi. So we were like wait. It's possible that this is not the right Viny and these are not the right Nesums. I'm fast approaching Delirium. Alex is almost nearing her end. She's getting delirious. I'm going to close it for third. I'm not. The archive was closing soon and we'd gone through the entire auction without finding Levi. But we had about 30 minutes. So we pulled these giant old leather bound books off the shelves that were filled with hundreds of handwritten transaction records and just sort of manically flipped through scanning the pages for the name Nisa. We're of here by a foreman chit like what? Which was a wild and nauseating experience because while a lot of these transactions were about land. One spotted horse. For animals or farm equipment. Doth by who I loved off amongst all this stuff. We would periodically stumble upon 153 inside people. These giant lists of people. Little William 11, 11 years old. Humphrey, Peggy. There's a two-year-old. There's an Alzy and an Ibi who were two. Age nine, age eight, age five, age 11. Yeah, these are all kids up here. And even though we were short on time, it felt like we couldn't not read these people's names. One of the lists continues on the next page. Because we knew that for some of these cases, this was probably one of the only official records that these people had ever existed. William five, Anthony eight, little P eight, Henry 11, Cornelius three. It looks like Hamilton three. And then the next page would be. Corn and fodder back to farm stuff. Seven head of horses and mules land. After scanning as fast as we could through as many of these pages as we could and just as they're about to kick us out of the archives. 1851, October 10th 1851. We find a transaction dated six years earlier than the auction when Viny was sold. Abraham, Nesum and William Franklin, Nesum. Abraham, the patriarch, is selling to his youngest son six certain Negroes of the names six enslaved people. Harriet valued at $650. A woman named Harriet and her four kids. Tilda, a Negro girl aged about six valued at $250. And tacked onto the end of this group. We find this small barely legible, so tiny we almost missed it. Very, very precious name. Levi. Levi. A Negro boy raised by hand and sickly about seven years at $250. Which said, okay, wait a minute. We learned here that Levi had probably had a wet nurse. That's what raised by hand means. Rather than being breastfed by his own mother who probably had to work. We learned that he had been owned by Abraham and we learned that this is why he wasn't in the auction papers six years later with his mom and his sister. A Negro boy raised by hand because when he was a sick little boy, he was sold away from her. Finding Levi here was like finding the last link in the Nesan chain. Interesting to have that ring right next to this sale here. Yeah. Yeah. This is where my name comes from. From Abraham Nesam from this family. Yeah. Growing up, one of the big reasons why my last name was so important to me was because even though we had moved around so much, I felt like the name Nesan anchored me to a real place. Somewhere where my family was from, where I was from. It's from like a gravel road. And that place had always been New Orleans. But now that I learned where this name had really come from and where we had really come from, down to the actual coordinates that we found in Abraham's government land grant. I had to go there. We should be pulling up. And after driving about two hours north west of New Orleans, this is a big open field to the right. We arrive at this meadow, sort of on the edge of the forest and park in front of the short bit of fence and this massive real estate sign. We're two smiling white ladies. Both named Becky were selling this meadow in plots of land. And it's going to be a housing development eventually. Oh wow. I know. But for now, if you hop the ditch, step around the fence and kind of climb through the weeds, the field just opens up in front of you. It was filled with tall grasses, wildflowers. You could imagine cows or sheep grazing peacefully on it under this big blue sky. It was beautiful. This was the land where Levi was born. And it was here that as a little boy, he was sick and was sold away from his mother. And now here I was, his great, great, great granddaughter. And what I wanted to do was think of something important to say, something worthy of these people. But instead, I just wandered around feeling extremely overwhelmed. And not able to articulate why. I was an orange butterfly just passed. I just landed near me. I just feel uneasy here. And the longer I was there, the more and more aware I became of the ring on my finger. I'm walking around with this name on my hand, on every paper I sign, on every credit card I have. And the name part of it represents a horror. And this is where it starts. And like, especially being on that land, the name, it does start to feel gross. Should we have expectations of feeling whole when we go back to these, these forced work spaces? Were you seeking wholeness by going to Abraham's land grant spot plantation? Or was it just to see what happened? I don't think I've thought about wholeness because I haven't. I feel very overwhelmed. And like, I can't. Like, it's hard to process everything this whole week right away. I try to think like, how do I feel? A lot of the times the answer is I don't know. So I don't. And I feel a lot of pressure to have a feeling. But a lot of the time the answer is just like, it's just soup in my head. My brain feels like it's reaching its CPU capacity. All of the fans are spinning. It's getting hot. It's hot. Like, you can't put it on your leg. Keep it on your lap anymore. How do you move on from this land and from Abraham? How do you keep being a niece and after you know where the name came from? When Levi left this land, when Vinnie left this land, what did they do? Well, for Levi, after he sold as a seven-year-old sickly boy, the next time we find evidence on paper that he ever existed is when he pops up in New Orleans as a 20-year-old runaway in listening in the Union Army. And as for Vinnie, four years after she was sold with her daughter, Sophia, to Abraham's son, the Civil War begins. There's no trace of Sophia, but as we move forward in time from there on the 1870 and 1880s, censuses, you can see a couple of Vinnie's living in East Felicia and a parish. There's a Vinnie Rogers. There's a Vinnie Doherty. And there's also a Melvina Banks, who sometimes goes by Vinnie. And he could think that any one of these women, maybe even more than one of them, could be our Vinnie. These people are walking into their lives, choosing how they want to be referred to. So Vinnie could have used one last name for a while and then just changed your mind. Yeah. Anyway, maybe the bigger clue that one of these is our Vinnie. Going through all of the enslaved people one by one. Is that that list of people who were sold in the same day she was? Some of those people are in the same community as these Vinnie's that I found. Offer for sale, Negro woman, Amy age 60 years old. Like one of these Vinnie's has a neighbor named Amy, who's the right age to be the same one from the auction. And I'm completely positive that it's her because her name is listed as Amy Nisa. There's also a Susan and a Louisa and a Millie living nearby. And all three of these people were sold in the same auction that Vinnie was. It's still the same community of people. And it's in this community that Vinnie made a home and grew old. And actually for a long time we could find almost nothing about her. Until in 1890, Melvina or Vinnie Banks submit a pension application for Levi Nisa. So this is the thing that I want to show you. So if you just click this link, it's an image. Okay, I see that. Looks like an index card. Yeah. This is from a collection of military documents that we found online. Vinnie hasn't seen her son Levi since he was a little boy. But 25 years after the end of the Civil War, as a very old, very poor woman, she must have somehow heard that Levi had served as a soldier in the Union Army and thought, if he died in the war, then let's apply for his pension. And the kind of small but incredible thing here is that since she's been free, there's been no documentation that Vinnie's ever used the name Nisa. But here in this form says name of dependent mother, Nisa Vinnie. She uses this old name, the name of her in Slaver. Why would she do that? Oh, that's a great question. So one of the things that we see with enslaved people is the name that their in Slavers had is often an identifier for their relatives that were sold away from them, or separated from them to find them. This is historian, Diner Raimi Barry. And I called her up because this is the kind of question she thinks about every single day. People ask, well, why did people keep their quote-unquote slave name? You hear that in contemporary conversations. But often enslaved people until they could reconnect with their biological family or the family that had become a biological family for them. Sometimes they chose to keep that name. Or in Vinnie's case, use the name as a marker in space. And sometimes the only way they could trace after being sold or separated across county lines, across state lines was a name. One name. So Vinnie puts down this name. The last name she ever knew her son to have. And she files this application and she waits for a reply from the government. But... There wasn't a certificate granted. Her application was declined because it had already been granted to someone else. To Levi. Because he wasn't dead. What? And here's what we could find out about him. He's kept the name Nisam. He's now a man in his 40s living in a cabin on a plantation just outside New Orleans in St. Bernard Parish, where he rents an acre of land and plants vegetables. He's got some health problems, chronic rheumatism, complications from a really bad bout of smallpox. And about two or three days a week, when he can, he works for an Italian family on their vegetable farm. We also know that living in the cabin with him was his wife, a woman named Celia Hall. We know that they ended up ultimately having six kids named Levi, Mamie, Elizabeth, my great-grandfather Israel, Harry, and John, all Nisams. And we can't know because, of course, there are no documents on this. But it's possible. And I hope that because Levi kept the name Nisam and Viny used the name Nisam, that they were able to find each other. Wow. Wow. I hope they traveled a hundred and some miles that separated them. I hope that Viny got to visit Levi's cabin. Maybe they went outside in the late summer sun and picked vegetables out of his garden, tomatoes, or cucumbers, or zucchini, and made dinner together. And most of all, I hope that at the age of 97, Viny finally got to meet her grandkids. It's an anchor. Like the name has anchored your family. Even if there's been some detours along the way, it still connects you to family. Again, Dine and Remy Berry. And the quest for family genealogy, as you have even experienced yourself, that's exactly what enslaved people were doing live during slavery and in the immediate aftermath and trying to connect with family. You know, your name has been important to multiple generations of your relatives. Whoa, where are we? One last stop. One last cemetery. This one for veterans. The grass is green and cut and trim. I don't fear mud on my shoes. No love here. I've come to say goodbye to Levi. 12, 7, 9, 6, 12, 7, 9, 7. Levi, Lisa. Just a very simple headstone, very clean USCT in United States colored troops. Here he is. He's right underneath a big tree. Even though he'd been lying here all along to find him, I had to wait the horror of one of the worst things that has ever happened in our history. And I keep thinking about, to yesterday, held a piece of paper that documented his sale as a seven-year-old boy referred to him as sickly. And then today, to make it here, yesterday enslaved him today free. And through that whole journey, he held on to our name, carrying it from enslavement to freedom and onwards. And I keep thinking about the moment that I asked my dad why he didn't seem as hung up on the question of, are we supposed to be niecens? And if we are, where did it come from? And if we're not, then who are we supposed to be? Then whose name are we supposed to be carrying with us forever? Into the future. And my dad's attitude about it was... Hey. This name? This is what I got. Here's what it is now. And I'm going to make sure that I honor and develop and move the ball with it. Maybe similar to dad, leave I thought. You know, I'm right here. Here's my starting point. I'm moving forward. Looking back, I found a lot of people, my people, holding on to this name like a bright line through history. Each of us for a different reason, as it shifted and changed, connecting us all together. Proof that we were here. That we still are here. All of us. Looking forwards. You still wearing that ring? Definitely. Never taking this thing off. This episode was reported by Alex Niesen with editorial and research support from the patient yet excitable Nika Suelsmith. It was produced by Annie McEwen. And Andrew Vinyalis with Dialog Mix from Arianne Wack. Most of the music we used in this episode came from an amazing group of musicians we gathered here in the WNYC studios. Paul Brandenburg on trumpet. Justin Flynn on sax. Mark Miller on trombone. Kenny Bentley on Natuba. And Jason Isaacs on the drums. All recorded by Irene Trudeau. Special thanks, Alex. You want to take those family thanks? Yeah, family thanks. None of the story could have been possible without help from my aunt. Cheryl Niesen, Isidore. Karen Niesen, Dykes. Jahari Niesen. Keon Niesen. My uncles Kevin Niesen. And Anthony Niesen, who actually recently passed away. My mom. Olivia Niesen. My grandfather. The late Clarence Niesen senior. Or so we thought. And of course my dad. The person who started this all. Clarence Niesen junior. Or so we thought. And I also want to thank. I guess she's my cousin. Aurelia Amelia Jackson. Also known as Ria. Thanks also to Russell Greg. Victory Vela's. Asher Griffith Sabrina Thomas. Nancy Rechard. Katie Niesen. Amanda Hayden. Gabriel Lee. And Devon Chfort. And before we let you go, we wanted to tell you about a show that exists in the same orbit or realm of the story you just heard. It's from our colleagues at WNYC Studios over at the show La Brega. A show about the Puerto Rican experience. They've just released a whole second season. Each episode is about a different song from the island. I loved one that's about this unlikely salsa hit about a father rejecting his own kid. El Gran Verón. In the Salad de Un Hospital. A las 9.43 Naseosimón. That episode ends up becoming this really tear-jerkery story about a father and daughter. But the story that feels like it is truly in conversation with the one you just heard is called The Moon's Distance. And while in our story, you heard Alex clawing into the past to discover that distance can create a closeness that we usually assume can't be had over space and time. This episode claws its way into the future to imagine a kind of connection between a cast away of sorts and their homeland. If that sounds a little confusing, let me just play a brief excerpt from the episode, The Tippy Top, where host Alana Casanova Burgess sets up the mischievous thing that they decide to do. There's a poem, Boricuan La Luna, that became a song. It was written by Juan Antonio Cora-Hir from Sialis, like my mother, and it was put to music and sung for the first time by Roy Brown. A woman from Guadilla, vino a New York a cantar. It's a song about not being in Puerto Rico, as so many Puerto Rican anthems are. But the message isn't only about yearning. It's about defiance, about holding on to your Puerto Ricanness wherever you are. It's the ultimate diaspora song, and it gets me every time. The narrator is born in New York of parents who left the island and who dreamed of one day returning, and it's a dream he shares as well. There's a line. He lives with the hope that one day he can reclaim what he has lost. A Puerto Rico in sueño, a Puerto Rico of dreams. And then the most famous lines, the last two. I would be Puerto Rican, even if I were born on the moon. That line, it says so much about what it means to be from this place. And to hold on to that no matter what, nobody can take it away from us. It's such a profound and relatable feeling. We wanted to push it as far as it could go. And so, for this episode, we asked the renowned Puerto Rican writer Sergio Gutiérrez Negron to imagine a new universe for Bori Guanlaluña. The story he created is as rich and surprising as the song and poem at its heart, and I'm so excited to share it with you. And so, this is The Moon's Distance. Hi, Calvin. This is the next episode. It is such a great episode. I love that they thought to do this and that they did it and executed it so well. So go check out La Brega. The Moon's Distance or any of all the other episodes they have there. Thanks so much for listening. We'll be back next time. Catch you soon. Hi, I'm Tori Nisen, and I'm calling from Augusta May. Radio Lab was created by Chad Alvin Rad and is edited by Sworn Wheeler, Lulu Miller and Lottifnosser, are co-hosts. Dylan Keith is our director of sound design. Our staff includes Simon Adler, Jeremy Bloom, Becca Bressler, Rachel Cusick, Aketty Foster Keys, W. Harry Fortuna, David Gabel, Maria Paz Gutierrez, Sindhu Nyanan Samba Dunn, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Alex Nisen, Sara Carrey, Anna Rosquit Paz, Sarah Sandbach, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters, and Molly Webster, with help from Andrew Vinyalis. Our fact checkers are Diane Kelly, Emily Krieger, and Natalie Middleton. Hi, my name is Teresa. I'm calling from Coachester in Essex, UK. Leadership support for Radio Lab Science programming is provided by the Gordon and Betsy Moore Foundation, Science Sandbach, the same on Foundation Initiative, and the John Tampotan Foundation. Foundation of support for Radio Lab was provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.