MADISON (WKOW) — With stories dating back to the 1690s, few families have a history as well-documented as Gennie Bostian. It all ties back to Maple Hill, North Carolina, a small farming community where Bostian was born.
Now, despite living hundreds of miles from where it all began, she said she finds a way home through that history. Her walls are covered in art and photographs from the Sycamore Springs Plantation where her family, the Jameses, lived for generations, though one childhood photograph sits as the centerpiece.
“This is a picture of me being held by Aunt Nurse on my first birthday,” Bostian said pointing to a photo on the wall next to her entrance.
Too young to know her, Bostian said all of her memories are based on childhood stories.
“She had been associated with the family since she was born in 1842,” she said.
A former slave, Nursey James stayed in Maple Hill after the Civil War, raising her own family and farm, though she maintained a relationship with Bostian’s family for the rest of her life.
“When I was 5 or 6 my mother would dress me up in the summertime and we went to visit this very old black woman in bed, in this very dark room,” she said. “I could only have been Aunt Nurse because nobody else was so important that we would have gone to see her. But there’s no one living that can confirm my memories of that visit.”
She moved away from Maple Hill when she was 11 and moved to Madison after college when her husband, Llyod Bostian got a job teaching at UW-Madison.
Still, decades later, that history remains a centerpiece of Bostian’s life and in the past year, she and Llyod wrote a new chapter.
A long-time professor of Life Sciences Communications, Llyod Bostian created a scholarship endowment in the couple’s name after retirement.
This year’s recipient was Jocelyn Lewis. The Maryland native met the Bostians in April at the award’s reception.
“Gennie walked in first,” she said remembering the meeting. “I was like ‘Wow, this is actually really reminding me of being in North Carolina with my grandmother.'”
Bostian replied, letting her know that’s where grew up.
“She mentioned that I probably wouldn’t know where she was from, and I was like, if it’s North Carolina, I might know because I’ve got a lot of family in North Carolina,” Lewis said. “My grandma is from Maple Hill.”
That’s when Bostian got excited.
“That was just so wonderful!” she said.
The two spent the night scribbling down family names on the program trying to find a connection, but Lewis said it took a phone call to her mother to truly understand what was happening.
“I thought she was just going to be like that’s cool that’s nice and just kind of brush it off but that definitely did not happen,” Lewis said. “She dived right in and she said, ‘This is really cool. I’m going to get a family tree together.'”
That’s how Lewis and her mother discovered they were Jameses as well, descended from Aunt Nurse.
“That was my great great grandma,” Lewis said. “It just makes the world feel a lot smaller.”
From there the families began a friendship, meeting in late August to work out more details in their family trees.
“I think it’s important for everybody to know as much as they can about their family background and their history and I don’t think you learn it in school these days,” Bostian said.
Still, despite the connection, both families acknowledge their history was at times, a painful one. While Nursey James died a family friend to Bostian’s ancestors, she was born a slave.
“I mean there’s clearly a lot of open dialogue,” Lewis said. “My family’s always fine with talking about these things.”
Nearly a century later, she said they’re focusing on what brings them together.
“I never thought I’d find a familial connection in Wisconsin,” Lewis said.
Meanwhile Bostian hopes that through their history they could find their futures intertwined.
“We’re proud to have met her and we’ll continue to be proud to know her,” she said.
The families plan to stay in touch throughout Lewis’s time at UW and beyond. Both plan to return to Maple Hill, perhaps, someday together.