Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Finding the Sterlings - A 51 Year Old Mystery Resolved

This story is a complex and emotional one involving many people and many events occurring over the course of twenty years.  It's a story I have yet to share without crying. It is my wish to journal it as accurately as possible and I pray I do justice to my family members, all of whom played significant roles in this story.

This story actually begins in 1991 when I was 19.  I interviewed my paternal great-grandmother, Essie Beatrice (Taylor) Mckinley, who was 84 at the time and asked her about her linage.  She relayed the following: 
  • Parents: George Taylor & Lizzie Williams
  • Children (in order of birth): 
    • Laura (aka “Auntie Cuzane" {COO-ZANE}), 
    • Nelson (aka “Uncle Butta”), 
    • Essie ("Auntie Essie B.")
    • Earnestine    
She also told me Lizzie had 3 more children prior to her marriage to George:

  • Susie Pickett
  • Johnny Pickett
  • Jeff Sterling*
She mentioned that Susie married George’s brother, Harris Taylor and they had 15 children.  These children were her nieces and nephews AND her first cousins.

My reply: “WHAT?????”  

She continued by naming George and Harris’ other siblings (at least the one’s she could remember): Eliza, Sarah, Phillip, Rosalie, Francis, Dink, Joe, Ida, Robert, & Carrie (Harris’ twin).  All of these children were born to Nelson Taylor, Jr. & his wife, Martha, residents of Wakefield Plantation in West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana

By this time, my head was spinning, but before I threw in the towel on this load she dumped on me, I stopped to ask a few questions about this brother I never heard of.  When I asked about Jeff Sterling, she just said that he was much older than her.  I ask who his father was and she said she didn't remember.  Her answers were very short when it came to her brother Jeff and at that time I couldn't understand why.  

Jeff Sterling's Louisiana State Death Record
Jeff Sterling's Louisiana State Death Record
In 2005, I found out why.

I discovered Jeff’s death record on Ancestry.com and ordered it from the Louisiana State Archives.  I took it to my grandmother’s house to discuss its contents (Essie passed away in 1992).  The document showed that Jeff died in an “accidental” fire, on January 30, 1948. He is listed as the son of “Vergin Stirling” and Lizzie Taylor and divorced from Ouslea Cage.  The informant for this information was his younger sister, Laura (Taylor) Hammond.  My grandmother, Ruby (Mckinley) Jenkins, confirmed these facts except for one: the accident.  She said to me “Baby, that wasn’t no accident.”  When I inquired for more detail, she said that a friend of the family witnessed his murder by white men and for that reason alone, she could not report it to authorities. She went on to tell me that after Ouslea divorced Jeff, she moved to Mississippi (the place of her birth) and took the children, but she did not know where or how many children were born to Jeff & Ouslea.

I asked my father if he had any recollection of the Sterlings and he said all he remembered was Jeff’s son, Jeff, Jr., who was blind and taught him how to use a typewriter.  My father wanted desperately to know if Jeff, Jr. was still alive.  He also said after Jeff, Sr. died, the family was very worried about the children, but did not know of their whereabouts.

For the next several years, I continued to investigate the whereabouts of Jeff Sterling’s descendants.  I asked several relatives, but no one had any information.  On August 30, 2010, I received an email on Ancestry.com from Vernadette Taylor, Great-granddaughter of “Virgil Sterling” and Kitty Reynolds of Wakefield, La.  Vernadette shared information about Virgil, his brother Voltaire Stirling and their mother, Cecille Bryant.  She told me "Virgil" had 21 children—one of them being Jeff and the other, his youngest child, Jeanette Sterling-Emery, who was still living at 100 years of age in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I wanted to know if she knew her half-brother Jeff so I asked Vernadette to contact her and confirm the relationship.  Vernadette did just that and Jeannette remembered her older brother!  Unfortunately, she too, did not know the whereabouts of her nieces and nephews.  She knew her sister-in-law took the kids and moved away, but that was all.

Again, I hit a brick wall. 

However, a year later, something very special happened.  My cousin, who I met on Ancestry.com in February of 2011, Shawn Taylor, great-granddaughter of Harris Taylor & Susie Picket and great-great granddaughter of Nelson Taylor, Jr. & Martha Morgan, called me one day and said “Michael, there is another tree on Ancestry.com that I think you ought to take a look at.  Jeff Sterling’s name, his wife and kids are present on the tree.”
Ouslea Cage (Sterling) Brackens 
(Picture Courtesy of Vickie Young-Walker)

I immediately logged in and was astonished to see Jeff, his wife Ouslea (and her picture), and a list of children: Margie, Jeff, Jr., Mary, Maxine & Oscar.  I contacted the owner of this tree, a woman by the name of Cassie Wilson, who is a descendant of Ouslea’s sister.  She explained that she met, Jeff & Ouslea's granddaughter, Vickie Young-Walker, daughter of Maxine Sterling and George Young, on another social network.  Vickie confirmed their relationship through a mutual relative, Jeannette Wilson Evans, niece of Ouslea Cage.

I said to Cassie: “I won’t ask you for Vickie’s number, since she did not give you permission to share it, so I will give you mine.  Will you please tell her that I am her cousin and I have been looking for her and the rest of the Sterling Family for the past 20 years?”  Cassie agreed and after speaking with Vickie, she gave me her email address.  Cassie’s kindness and willingness to honor my request, blessed more people and changed more lives than she will ever realize! 

On August 27, 2011, after 20 years of searching and 51 years of separation, the Sterling & Taylor families were reunited!  Vickie and I exchanged emails in which her response included the following excerpts:

…Jeff was my mother's dad and died before I was born…I do not recall visiting (Mama Lizzie), although mom said I did. But I do recall going to the Scotlandville funeral home to view her body… She was my great-grandmother.


My mother was basically cut away from her dad once my grandmother left him. To this day, my mom yearns for the thoughts of what life would have been like with him. Here are a few items that I documented in a self-published 1998 booklet.


Jeff's mother was Elizabeth Brown (unsure of last name) and her mother was named Mary (assumed Brown). Elizabeth was known as Mamma Lizzie by her grandchildren and was crippled in the knees. She lived in Wakefield until she moved to Baton Rouge with Jeff's sister Laura (her daughter).


After Jeff's father "Virgie" Sterling left his mother (Elizabeth) she married George Taylor. Jeff has some 22 brothers and sisters between Elizabeth, Virgie, his stepmother(s), and George Taylor. Some siblings included:
  • Laura who moved to Baton Rouge and was married to Hammond
  • Jeanette who married James Emery
  • Essiebee who moved to Baton Rouge
  • Emily who moved to New Orleans
  • Susie who had lots of children
  • Lebin Sterling
  • "Buddy" Taylor who moved to Baton rouge
  • Roosevelt who moved to New Orleans
  • Wilson who moved to New Orleans
  • Hunter, was killed in Louisiana over a horse settlement”
By this time, both my grandmother and great-grandmother had passed away.  This information corroborated details both of them & my father provided about Mama Lizzie being confined to a wheel chair for the latter part of her life.  My father never knew her to have the ability to walk.  It was also consistent with the story that Mama Lizzie was living with Aunt Laura at the time of her death in 1960.  My father also spoke of attending Mama Lizzie’s funeral so that meant my father and Vickie saw each other at least once 51 years ago, and did not know it!
 
Jeff Sterling
(Picture Courtesy of Vickie Young-Walker)
Vickie’s email also came attached with this picture of Jeff Sterling.

I cried my eye balls out.  

He was exactly as my grandmother described him.  I became very emotional at the time--in part, because I felt I was getting back a piece of my grandmother and great-grandmother.  Secondly, it felt as if it was their way of letting me know they are always with me and lastly, I felt that our family just completed a journey that took 51 years finish.

But it did not stop there…






Vickie asked me if I had a picture of “Mama Lizzie” so I sent her these pictures of Lizzie and Essie B. that I found in a cardboard box in my grandmother’s closet:

Essie Beatrice Taylor 
(Picture Courtesy of Sanders E. Willis)
This was Vickie’s response:

THANK YOU MICHAEL!!!

I have been in tears looking at these pictures. Must have talked to my mom for over an hour about our communications. She was telling me of the aunts/uncles she remembered. Said she attended funeral services for Aunt Laura and that Mama Lizzie lived with Uncle "Butta" for a while. My mom looks like her Aunt Essie. I forwarded the pictures to my siblings, mom, aunt, and Sterling cousins…I can see my grandfather's resemblance to his Mom.
I can't wait to print the picture and add it to my family tree wall display.

Thank you for making my day….

From that day forth, Vickie and I continued to email pictures of family members and then forward them to other family members.  Our family was in a complete uproar.  The excitement was unbelievable and the reunion sparked much dialog and emotion.  

On August 28th, I received the following email from Vickie’s brother, Kirk Young, with another amazing picture of Jeff Sterling attached to it:

Hello Michael,

Vickie is my sister and she shared the email and 4 photographs that you sent. I'm pretty sure my mom (Maxine) has never seen a photo of her grandmother, the odd thing is I can easily see my mom's face in Mama Lizzie's face. This is downright surreal. My mother's birthday is next week and what a treat for her to see this picture at this late stage of her life. Too bad a few of the Sterling siblings are no longer around to see as well…”

Jeff Sterling in his early 20's
(Picture Courtesy of Kirk Young)
On August 31, 2011, Maxine’s 79th birthday, Kirk and Vickie presented the picture of her grandmother and to my knowledge, she was overcome by emotion.

In addition, I contacted Vernadette and connected her with Vickie and Kirk.  I told them that Vernadette was “their cousin on Jeff’s father’s side of the family.  I’m related to you on his mother’s side.”  Vernadette told them that her Aunt Jeanette (Jeff’s baby sister), was having her 101nd birthday and that she would love for them to come.  Maxine met her Aunt Jeanette only one time in her life and now she was getting a second chance.  Maxine Sterling-Young, 79, reunited with her last living Aunt, Jeanette Sterling-Emery on October 22, 2011.






Two days later, Kirk emailed me about the event with photos attached:

Jeanette Sterling-Emery (L) & Maxine Sterling-Young
(Picture Courtesy of Vickie Young-Walker)
Michael,

I just wanted to thank you again for calling us all those weeks ago because THAT call was the catalyst that ultimately lead to my mom being reunited with the Sterling family this past Saturday after a lifetime of separation. We attended the birthday celebration of her Aunt Jeanette Sterling-Emery, the last living sibling of her father Jeff. It was an emotional event for my mom and she said its the best gift we could have possibly given her. Can't remember the last time I've seen her so happy. Thank God they both lived long enough for Saturday to be possible. The resemblance was immediately visible. Take a look at the attached photo. We're looking forward to visiting Aunt Jeanette soon in the retirement home. I can't wait to talk to her in a calm quiet environment.


Virgil Stirling (Center) with his children:
Front: Wilson Stirling & Jeanette Sterling-Emery
Rear: Roosevelt Stirling (and wife Anna Mae)  
(Picture Courtesy of Kirk Young)
Sons of Virgil Stirling - (From L-R):
Wilson, Roosevelt (rear), Jeff (seated) & John
(Picture Courtesy of Kirk Young)
 
The young lady holding the floral arrangement in the family picture with Virgil Sterling is her. To everyone's amazement when I showed her the photo and asked who the young lady was, she smiled and said "it's me". There's another old photo of all men, not sure if you've seen it so I attached it. The young man sitting in the middle is Jeff Sterling. When I showed it to her, she immediately said "that's Jeff". Many of them had seen that picture for years and never knew that he was their uncle until Saturday. Man what an awesome day!

Kirk 

My father also got the chance to speak with his cousin, Jeff Sterling, Jr., the man who taught him how to use a typewriter.  My father could not stop talking about that conversation and it made me feel good knowing I was able to make that reunion happen for him.


So in conclusion, this is a story of family torn apart by tragedy and misfortune, but comprised of descendants called by God for a specific purpose--working to complete the same mission; independently, but in synchronicity.  Yes, I connected with Vernadette Taylor on Ancestry.com, but Shawn Taylor's diligent & meticulous research discovered Cassie Wilson's tree and it was Cassie's beautiful, open heart that led to a reunion of families and a healing of hearts.  Many lives were blessed that week and continues to overflow!

Romans 8:28 says: And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.

His purpose was simple: To bring us together to complete a bigger mission and answer a prayer. It was not by chance we all reunited.  On January 4, 2012, two and a half months after Maxine and Jeanette’s meeting, Jeanette Sterling-Emery died at the age of 101.  When Vickie notified me of her passing, instantaneously I realized we were all playing a role for a bigger purpose and none of our lives would ever be the same. 

I’m proud to say I was apart of this amazing experience.

There is more on this story.  To be continued in the not so distant future...




*Note to Reader: The surname "Sterling" is displayed interchangeably with "Stirling" due to various spellings in discovered historical documents.

2 comments:

  1. Michael. This is Trina. What a fascinating journey you are on. Thank you for your chronicles and for allowing us to take the journey with you. Your discoveries are an inspiration and a reminder to NEVER give up on discovering your heritage. It is vital that we remember who we are and from where we came. May God continue to bless you and your family (Our family).

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    1. Thank you Auntie Trina! My sentiments exactly!

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