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Family Pride

Nessa Johnson wants to bring blacks and whites together. She hopes her Confederate roots will help her do it.

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What everybody wants to know is why Johnson — whose ancestors were slaves — wants to join a women's organization that honors the Confederacy.



For Johnson the answer is simple: pride.



It has taken her a lifetime to come to this conclusion.



In order to become a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a woman must be a descendant of a Confederate veteran or someone who supported the Confederacy. When Johnson was 12, her aunt told her that her great-great-great grandfather, Dr. Turner Shell of Lunenburg County, was white. He had two white sons who fought in the Civil War as Confederates. He also had a daughter, Eliza, who was a mulatto, born to one of Shell's slaves. Shell provided in his will for Eliza to be sent north and freed. Nothing was mentioned, however, of her husband and two children, all slaves. When Shell died, Eliza went to court and had the will changed so she could stay — enslaved — in Virginia with her family. Eventually they all were freed.



Johnson became immersed in her family's genealogy in the 1970s and spent countless hours at the state library researching it. Seeing the records, having her white history confirmed, she says, was strangely cathartic: "It was like now I know it's so." Until she came across a copy of her ancestor Shell's will.



"I was so angry at first," Johnson recalls. "It took me a while to reconcile why he didn't free the whole family." But then, she says, she came to learn a powerful lesson about history. It doesn't have to be divisive, she says. "It's just the way it was."



Johnson, who will turn 64 next week, knows what it means to want to ease the pain of personal pasts. She's learned the hard way how to reconcile her own and move on. When Johnson was in her 40s, she struggled with a drug and alcohol addiction. Today, she credits her survival and happiness to a 12-step program and an abiding faith in scripture.



It is the experience of recovery, more than her family tree, that made her a storyteller. "I learned to tell a story about my life that gave me a power to stop being a victim and be victorious and jubilant about myself," she explains in a kind of hushed excitement.



Her whisper is to be expected, because Johnson is in a library. She volunteers 10 hours a week as the librarian for the William Byrd Community House in Oregon Hill. The bright, book-lined room is empty of children on this quiet afternoon, so Johnson's only audience is a reporter. But there are the calls. Her invitation to join the Daughters of the Confederacy has created a stir that began in the city's black-oriented weekly, the Richmond Free Press. Days later, she's asked to be on the WRVA 1140-AM morning show. Then WWBT-TV 12 features Johnson on its news at 11 and again the next morning. Now, of course, she's in Style.



Sitting in a kid-sized chair in the library and dressed plainly in brown pants and a sweater, she removes her watch, glasses and rings, and places them on the table.



Johnson recalls buying a blue-and-white, polka-dot dress at an expensive boutique to wear to a reception that many high-society white women were attending. "One lady said to me, `Nessa, you look so smart,'" she says, amusedly. "I knew she was going to say that. It's why I bought the dress."



Today, Johnson seems to realize her confidence has little to with appearances or what people perceive about her. She reflects on her recent attention.



"I don't think it's so much about me joining the Daughters as it is me having a platform to say, look y'all, let's stop this blamin' and complainin'," Johnson confesses. She's worked much of her life to promote harmony between blacks and whites, and to expand the history of African-Americans in Richmond. She's written books, run political campaigns, served as president of the Black Catholic Caucus, conducted workshops for tour guides, worked on the city's Human Relations Committee and served as spokeswoman for the Maggie Walker Foundation. "I feel like I'm living and breathing history," she says.



Last June her entire family, including distant white cousins from Dinwiddie County and Petersburg, attended an African-American festival where Johnson was performing some of her storytelling. Looking out into the crowd and seeing them there was an awakening, she says, the kind that connects things. "Not only did some of my family come with chains, some of them stood with guns," she remembers telling her audience that day.



Now Johnson's learning another part of history. In January she attended her first meeting of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The ladies' club was formed in 1844, when most of Johnson's ancestors were owned by whites. Today the Stonewall Jackson Chapter numbers 118.



"Our objectives are to be historical, educational, benevolent, memorial and patriotic," says Sylvia Richards, 73, the chapter's president. "The cause might seem wrong to some, but it's not. There were lots of reasons to secede that had nothing to do with slavery."



The Daughters issued Johnson an invitation, Richards says, because the group's bylaws have nothing to do with race. "She's got the lineage and she can prove it," she says. "And I've met Nessa. She's an asset to any organization."



Johnson didn't think twice about attending the meeting and filling out the application to join.



"There was nothing unusual about it at all," she says about her first meeting. "What do people do at clubs? You know — drink coffee, eat cookies," she says. "There was no password."



The Daughters, wittingly or not, have extended another potential platform for Johnson. And chances are, she'll find plenty of opportunities to use it. "I always thought one day when I retire and I have nothing else to do, I'll join them Daughters," she remarks. She's asked her aunt and sister if they'd like to join, too, but for now they've declined.



"I don't know that it's a voice, but I've always had an inkling that I would tell history, that I would be some kind of key in people understanding one another," she says. And she'll keep telling her story until her message gets through. Life's about recovery and discovery, she says, and ultimately moving on. "I'm not changing myself," she insists. "I'm a Richmond Negro, and usually just a human being."



But her new status makes her smile, too.



"They say that the prettiest pearls are made from irritants," Johnson says coyly. "And I'm the prettiest pearl I know."

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