On today’s holiday celebrating equality for all, Sydney Shavers will be thinking back to a time when her ancestors lived in slavery.
Elvira Sophia Abernathy, her great-great-great-grandmother, was the inspiration for a documentary, “Elvira’s Eyes,” that Sydney began as a sophomore high school project. Now a senior in the International Baccalaureate program at Henrico High School, Sydney, 17, will show the documentary at 2 p.m. today at the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site, where she also works as a volunteer.
“Through her eyes, I was able to see a lot more about the importance of history,” Sydney said. “If Elvira were alive right now, her eyes would be smiling. I think she would be proud of the research I have done and sharing that with the public.”
Sydney’s journey into the past began with a 1939 article from the Hickory (N.C.) Daily Record, titled “Ex-slave said to be County’s Oldest Person.” Abernathy, born into slavery in 1833 in Burke County, N.C., was 106 years old.
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In her 28 years before the Civil War began in 1861, Abernathy had belonged to three different owners, Sydney said. At the war’s end, she and her husband, a mulatto named Henry, took the last name of their final owner, John Abernathy, and remained on the farm as sharecroppers.
Sydney said she admires them for their resiliency to make it through slavery and their legacy of educational achievement. Elvira Abernathy could read and made sure that she taught her children to read, too. One of her daughters married a teacher, and the family has continued to be involved in education.
“In my family, we have lawyers and doctors and college professors,” Sydney said. “We have always been set on providing a good education.”
To find out more about Elvira’s life, Sydney went to Catawba County, N.C., to search for her grave. She found Elvira’s daughter and husband.
“So many graves were worn down, and you couldn’t read the names,” she said. “Maybe hers is like that. It’s really sad. Nobody will be able to know these people lived.”
That’s one reason Sydney has been involved in cleanup efforts at Evergreen Cemetery, where Maggie L. Walker is buried.
“I went with some friends this past spring and cleaned up a few graves,” Sydney said. “Hers (Walker’s) is nice now. It’s those around her (that need attention). I did it with Liza Mickens, great-great-granddaughter” of Maggie Walker.
Sydney’s family went with her to North Carolina for research and also attended a family reunion on the other side of the family
“I was able to talk about the meaning of family and knowing who your family is. I was able to meet them and share stories,” she said. “I got that on video. One of the people passed away a year after I taped it. Another one passed away last year. It’s kind of scary but also kind of cool to know I got that information from them.”
When Sydney shows the documentary, which she donated to the Black History Museum and Cultural Center, people often ask how they can do the same thing in their own family.
“Some of my mom’s friends tell me that they’ve done research on their own,” she said. “I’m proud of how it’s taken off.”