Stories of generations told through family trees

By Gus Bode

All Marlene Rivero knows of her ancestors comes from the anecdotes that have trickled down the trunk of her family tree. They are random stories that, when she is lucky, come together to paint a larger picture.

She knows her grandmother, Emma, was the daughter of a full-blooded Cherokee woman who had been taken as a slave in Mississippi. In 1864, when Emma was 13, her mother planned an escape for her, her brother James and the rest of the children. They fled on an ironclad heading north and settled in Southern Illinois, where three years later Emma married a black soldier she met on the boat.

This is where Rivero comes from. And as for her family tree, it’s more vivid to her than any chart she could hang on the wall.


She can still remember the three gouges on Emma’s back, carved deep enough by a slave driver’s whip to bury your fingers in.

“Is it no less true, or is it totally fake?” Rivero asked of the credibility of her family’s history, which has come to her through stories passed down the generations. “I don’t exist? Does it have validity? It’s worthy of being told. It’s worthy of being remembered.”

Rivero told her story Sunday afternoon to almost 50 members of the Genealogy Society of Southern Illinois, who gathered in the library of John A. Logan College for a chance to hear about black Native Americans in Southern Illinois.

Drawing on collected pictures, spoken word and music, Rivero painted a vivid picture of the circumstances that weighed down on her ancestors and how they fit into the larger picture of the nation’s history.

“She’s an excellent speaker,” said Darrel Dexter, a society member since early 1980s. “We are lucky to have her.”

The Genealogy Society of Southern Illinois was formed in 1974 as a way of facilitating local residents with research into their families’ histories. Now encompassing a nation-wide network of about 700 members, the group meets regularly and has guest speakers about once a month, Dexter said.

Rivero, this month’s speaker and a native of Grand Chain, has made a career for herself out of giving presentations of the sort.


A graduate in forest ecology from SIUC, Rivero works as an interpreter for the U.S. Forest Service and has been a keynote speaker for the Carbondale African American Museum. The character she most often plays, Harriet Tubman, is part of a program called “Bound For Glory:Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad,” which plays to about 4,000 students and adults each year.

To Rivero, it’s her family history that stays closest to her heart. She said unlike many others interested in their ancestors, she is unable to consult a book in the library or skim through old newspapers. Blacks held in slavery often went unrecorded, she said, and Native American genealogy can be just as difficult to trace.

Although some will question her credibility, Rivero said just because her family’s history was handed down to her does not make it false. She ended her presentation by saying that people all over the country could benefit by becoming more receptive and respectful of their neighbors’ cultures and the diverse histories that come along with them.

“I am proud to be African-American, but I am also proud to be Native American,” Rivero said. “To be a better people, we have to allow people to have a little dignity. I was raised black, but I have a right to claim all that I am, and I can only go from conjecture and family stories.”