Rivers of Thought

Life, Leadership, Business & Technology

A Journey - Ton FamilyIn the twelve years, I’ve been writing this blog I’ve taken you on many journeys. This time it’s different. This time I don’t know where we are going. Join me as I explore. Together, we will explore the past, and maybe, just maybe, there will be some lessons for us today and in the future in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, and others. 

Our journey begins just a few short weeks ago. In the midst of the civil unrest in the wake of George Floyd’s death, a window to the past opened. Those of you who know me personally, know I love exploring the past. Carmen and I have followed the Lewis and Clark Trail from its beginnings in Monticello, Virginia, to the shores of the Pacific Coast near Astoria, Oregon, and back to St. Louis. 

Our love for that epic story unlocked our love for our family’s story. We have stood in the tiny abandoned farmhouse where my grandmother was born near Randolph, Nebraska. We have stood near countless graves of our ancestors. For us, history goes beyond the names and dates, it’s about people and their stories. What did they do and why? What were they thinking? What were they feeling? 

We have read pages and pages of journals to uncover the stories behind the names and dates. That is why my sister’s note surprised me. Her note included a link to an article she had stumbled across, a link that takes our exploration back further than a few short weeks ago. It uncovers a story. A story that involves a professor, an eagle scout, a retired Chicago police officer, and that is just going back 10 years. The story takes us back 171 years. It takes us back to 1849. It takes us to the story of Jan and Aagje Ton, my great, great grandparents. 

Life Magazine!

Despite all the journals, despite all the graveside visits, what I knew about Jan and Aagje was from a 1945 issue of Life Magazine. That issue ran the story of the fiftieth Ton family reunion held in West Pullman Park on the South Side of Chicago. Over 500 Tons were in attendance. Jan and Aagje were immigrants from De Zaan, Holland. They and eight of their nine children came to the U.S. in the 1840s to flee persecution and high taxes. 

Cool story, right? Life Magazine! As an aside, the cover of that issue was of one Jimmy Stewart, the actor, returning home after the war. The article even had a picture of the old farmhouse on the north side of the Little Calumet River.  A lifetime of trips to and through Chicago not once were we inspired to track down the story, to visit the graves, or to find the location of the farm. The Life Magazine article is framed and hanging on the stairs in our home. I pass it a dozen times a day. 

Surprising news!

And then I received the link from my sister. What I learned floored me, blew me away. Jan and Aagje did more than farm on the banks of the Little Calumet River. You see, their farm was a stop along what is now known as the Underground Railroad. Freedom seekers would arrive at the farm on foot, in wagons (hidden under hay or sacks of corn), and sometimes by train. All of them traveling hundreds of miles to find their freedom. Jan would assist by taking them by wagon halfway across Indiana toward Detroit and the Canadian border. 

I learned the farm was located at what is today “Chicago’s Finest Marina”. It is is a historically black-owned marina. Ronald Gaines, a retired Chicago police officer now owns the marina. 

I learned there is a memorial to honor my great, great grandparents near the church they helped found when they immigrated to the area. The memorial was an Eagle Scout project of LeRone Branch. LeRone is now a tax accountant for Deloitte. 

Where do we go from here?

I’m hungry to learn more. My curiosity is aroused. Why didn’t we know? How was the story lost to our branch of the family? There isn’t anyone left to ask. My grandparents never spoke of it that any of us remember. My grandfather died in the mid-60s. My grandmother was fiercely proud of being a Ton. Though she married into the family, she was first and foremost a Ton. In all her journals, not one word of this appears. In the countless stories, she told in the years before her death, not even a whisper. I suppose the easy answer is she didn’t know. My grandfather was born nine years after Jan died. He never knew his grandfather. It’s true my branch of the Ton family tree scattered throughout the country in the early to mid-1900s. Perhaps that explains it. 

Perhaps the answer is darker. 

Come with me on this journey. As I learn more, you will learn more. 

#AmplifyYourLeadership #BlackLivesMatterLast week’s Leadership Thought “I Have No Words” sparked a lot of email, texts and comments. Many of you, like me, are struggling to find the words, to know how to react to the unrest around us, and to know what actions to take. Many of the messages contained an explicit or implicit question: But, what about the violence and the looting? 

Let me respond, first by saying, I am a self-proclaimed pacifist. I abhor violence and destruction of any kind. I wish we all could just get along (you know, hold hands and sing “Kumbaya”). I wish that for the neighbors in a dispute, our political parties, the countries of the world, and certainly the races of the world. Like John Lennon I “Imagine all the people living life in peace”. 

However, I am also a realist. There are wars (and, yes, I wholeheartedly support our troops, I come from a long line of those who have served our country), there is conflict, and yes, there are riots, violence and looting. History is filled with examples of rioting and looting going back thousands of years. 

Don’t believe me? Google “riots throughout history”. There are so many of them, they had to divide them up by century. There were riots in Rome when Julius Caesar was assassinated.There were riots in Canada after a loss in the Stanley Cup. There were riots in the U.S. over a tax on…whiskey. 

The Boston Massacre occurred because colonists were frustrated with the presence of British Soldiers in their neighborhoods and threw snowballs at Soldiers. The soldiers responded and killed five colonists. 

The Boston Tea Party was a result of growing resentment between the colonies and British taxation. 342 chests of tea were dumped into Boston Harbor. It started a revolution. 

As my wife and I watched Ken Burns’ Civil War this week, I was reminded of the riots that took place in the North in response to the draft of Union soldiers. 

As I researched this post, I learned of “Red Summer”, a series of riots and looting in over three dozen cities that took place 100 years ago at the end of World War I. Whites were fearful the black soldiers returning from the war would take their already scarce jobs. (Interesting that was at the same time in history as the Spanish Flu pandemic…history repeats?) 

Riots and looting have occurred because of political differences, because of hatred of another people, because of team affiliations (football, soccer, basketball, hockey), and yes, because of race. Sometimes, the oppressed have rioted, and sometimes the aggressors have rioted. 

I have to ask the question, what would have happened if the armed protesters who protested in state houses recently against “stay-at-home” orders were met with aggression instead of silence? 

Would I ever feel anger or hopelessness, or feel passionately enough about a cause to resort to violence? I’d like to say “no”, but what I can say is “never say never”. 

I, for one, have felt anger. However, I can’t imagine what it feels like to be oppressed. Oppressed for hundreds or even thousands of years. I have felt hopelessness. However, I can’t imagine the hopelessness of generation after generation who are suffering and yet, are unheard. 

What I can do is listen with empathy and compassion to the voices of generations. 

#AmplifyYourVoiceI have no words. Perhaps a funny thing to say, coming from a writer. I have no words…I don’t know what to say. Even now I struggle to find the words.

Our nation, in the midst of perhaps the biggest crisis in the last 100 years, certainly in the last 50, has exploded. When news of George Floyd’s murder came across my television, just weeks after the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, I did what I always do. I showed my support, first by liking others’ posts on Facebook, then by sharing a post. I’ve done it for years…

The murderous attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris? Changed my profile picture to “Je suis Charlie” in support. 

The confrontation at Standing Rock that escalated into violence? Joined others who checked-in at Standing Rock to show support. 

I could list dozens of others. Doing my part to show support. But cautiously. Wouldn’t want to draw furor. Wouldn’t want to upset my “friends”. Afterall I have a business to run and many of those “friends” are my readers. 

Doing my part. Cautiously. Rarely, if ever, on LinkedIn. That’s for business. Can’t get personal, can’t get political, can’t take a stand. Would not want to alienate anyone, they might buy my books, they might hire me for a keynote, they might…

This time was no different. Until it wasn’t. 

I shared a “Black Lives Matter” gif on Facebook. A bit later a “friend” commented “All Lives Matter”. I did not know what to say in response. I use quotes around “friend” because I haven’t seen this person in 50 years and just recently reconnected on Facebook. I really didn’t know him. I was at a loss for words. On one level, yes, all lives matter. But that was not the point. The point is right now an entire race of people are hurting. Saying “all lives matter” diminishes their pain. I was frozen. 

And then, my son spoke up and commented on the post. A discussion of sorts started, then someone else chimed in. His tone was decidedly sharper. This back and forth went on for a couple of days…and I remained silent. 

Over the last week I have watched my son find his voice…on Facebook, and yes, on LinkedIn. I have seen countless others raise their voices. What I have seen, what I have heard, tells me there ARE words. I was just stuck waiting for the RIGHT words. 

As leaders, we have to lead…even when we don’t know the RIGHT words. 

To those of you who were like me…waiting. STOP. Add your voice to the conversation! 

To my friends of Color. I am sorry. I have no concept of what it is like to walk in your shoes. I know you are hurting. I know you are afraid. I know you are angry. I want to learn. I am committed to learning, so that I might lend my voice and my support to make this a world that recognizes all people have been created equal! 

I will speak by listening! I WILL find my voice. I WILL listen. 

Other resources to read:

Masking language and “keeping it professional”

Leadership Reflections on George Floyd and the Minneapolis Riots

I am one person. What can I do? 

TIME for Kids Age-Appropriate Resources

“We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.” We don’t, but we can.

Women & Hi Tech’s Commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in light of the Recent Events in Our City and Nation

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INSIGHTS

Insights is the weekly, thought-provoking newsletter from Jeffrey S. Ton.
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Leadership Thought – A lesson-learned, an insight shared
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