Backroads

Lichens have eaten into the grave marker of Ead White (1830-1910) in the Stockton Cemetery near Bartlett, but her epitaph can still be read: “Colored. Slave. Nurse.” Epoxy has yellowed the marble where it split in half, probably because of the fragile stone and the weather.

Lichens are gradually dissolving the pitted four-foot-tall marble column marking the grave of Ead White (1830-1910).

She lays in repose in the Stockton Cemetery, a well-kept cemetery four miles west of Bartlett in Bell County, near the Williamson County line. Next to her is a sprawling pecan tree and headstones of other Stockton family members.

Her life is summed up on her epitaph: “Colored. Slave. Nurse.”

Her burial place is unusual for a formerly enslaved woman: Inside the fence, next to 12 of the 14 white Stockton children she nursed and nurtured to adulthood, several while she was enslaved. Several of their Stockton descendants and their offspring are buried near her.

As with all the other burials in the Stockton Cemetery, Ead’s gravesite is well cared for; the grass is mowed; the bushes are trimmed. The modest one-acre graveyard with more than 80 burials continues to be a final resting place for recent deaths.

African-American servants were rarely given the honor of being buried “inside the fence” with their white employers. Also unusual are her stately monument and epitaph.

Ead’s life pivots around the Stockton family beginning in December 1859, when Douglas Haden Stockton (1836-1920) married Mary Elizabeth White (1842-1916) in Washington County.

At the time, Douglas’ widowed mother, Emily Bumpas Stockton (1802–1882), farmed in Washington County. According to the 1860 slave schedules, in Emily’s household were six enslaved persons: a man, age 50; a woman, age 28; two girls, ages 8 and 13; and two boys, ages 4 and 6. As was the custom, names and other pertinent information about the slaves were not listed. The 28-year-old woman is probably Ead.

What is certain from family records, Ead went to live with the newlywed Douglas Stockton family shortly after his marriage.

The growing Stockton family moved to Bell County, four miles west of Bartlett by 1870, where they cultivated more than 1,200 acres.

Mary Elizabeth, Douglas’ wife, gave birth to 14 children in quick succession. All of the children grew up beyond childhood, a rarity in the 19th century frontier. A daughter was the first to die at age 15.

Ead was brought to the Stockton family as a household servant and to be a wet nurse to all the Stockton progeny, which she did faithfully until the last baby was weaned. By that time, Ead was in her late 50s. Then, she stayed on with the family as a household servant until her death. Like so many other black wet nurses and nannies, Ead could neither read nor write. Her job was tending to the children.

“Black nursemaids weren’t the first nursemaids. It was not a new phenomenon. As far back as Biblical times, breastfeeding by another woman was common. Wealthy ancient Greek women saw nursemaids as a status symbol,” said historian Marissa Johnson, author of “Black Wet Nurses and the Negative Connotations That Surrounds Them.”

Johnson researched the lives of these black women who, even after emancipation, nursed white women’s babies. Her research is found in “Documenting the American South,” an ongoing black history project produced by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“She was free, technically, and paid a wage of about $10 dollars a month. However, she was basically enslaved,” said Johnson. “She saw her own children once every two weeks, meaning she couldn’t use her own body to provide nourishment for her own children. To feed white children when you are racially oppressed by the white race was traumatizing to say the least. This Negro nurse worked 14-16 hour days. She had to be at the child’s beck and call to feed and bathe this baby and take care of the older children in the household. It was dehumanizing and robbed her of her dignity.

“To make matters worse, these young children did not even call her ‘Miss.’ In those days, a black woman working for a white person was called ‘Betty Sue,’ ‘Mammy’ or ‘Cook.’”

The legacy of enslaved wet nurses left deep scars in the African-American community, even today. Breastfeeding advocate Kimberly Seals Allers, writing in the August 2012 issue of Ebony Magazine, said historical memories of wet nursing left black women with “a stunted and complex mothering experience.”

Allers implored black parents to rethink their prejudices against breastfeeding.

“August is Breastfeeding Awareness Month, and I am imploring all black women and men to rethink our ideas about our newborn’s first food. I want black women to feel empowered by their partners, family and community that the baby that you wonderfully made in your belly for nine months, can also be fed by your body and given the best preventative medicine for a healthy start to life.”

No other records indicate what happened to the others in Ead White’s family or whether those four children listed in Emily Stockton’s slave schedule belong to Ead. If Ead was lactating, she obviously bore children. Did she ever reconnect with her children? Who was the children’s father? What happened to him?

The fact that the Stockton children lived beyond childhood is testament to many factors: genetics, nutrition and Ead White’s remarkable care.

Ead’s stone is visible evidence of her sacrifice to the family she served, even as she was denied access to her own children. She died 45 years after emancipation; the Stockton family chose to honor her in stone as “Colored. Slave. Nurse.”