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A Family's Legacy: CWU professor uncovers mysterious lineage behind Ashley's Sack

ELLENSBURG, Wash.--A Central Washington University (CWU) professor is being recognized for solving the mystery of a slavery-era artifact that's puzzled historians for years.

After uncovering the identity of Ashley's Sack, CWU anthropology professor Mark Auslander is sharing its ties to that time in history and how we can learn from it.

"No one had any historical records of it but the embroidery on it told an absolute breathtaking story," said Auslander.

Auslander knew Ashley's Sack had more meaning than just words on a cloth.

It stumped others who're trying to figure out exactly who Ashley was.

"Every other second as my students and wife can attest went into doing research, trying to track this down," he said.

For over a year, he dug through records in the south and eastern parts of the country until he identified Ashley and her lineage.

A woman named Ruth Middleton embroidered the sack in 1921 as a way to remember her grandmother, Ashley, who was born a slave. Ashley was given the sack by her mother as a family keepsake.

Ashley was nine-years-old at the time and was sold to a different owner and would never see her mother again.

Ruth would then use it as a way to show her daughter the legacy of their family during the slave era.

"At that point probably decided to make the sack a gift to her little girl and at that point decided to embroider it so that the little girl would have this story not only in the oral form but in the written form," Auslander said.

Ashley's Sack is currently on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C.

A replica hangs on the walls of the CWU Museum of Culture and Environment in it's "Things We Carry" exhibit.

In the museum, the "Things We Carry" exhibit features many similar artifacts like Ashley's Sack. Physical mementos that people can hold onto and share so that their story's don't disappear.

Students say the Sack helps them understand the struggles enslaved families went through to keep their family origins alive.

"In the time that it was in none of it was documented but it was such a common story that lot of people can relate to it and realize that happened in my family," said junior anthropology student Mackenzie Stinson.

The collection at CWU comes from locals who perhaps feel the same way Ruth did.

Words can only do so much, but the power of physical objects can only enhance the way we share our own family legacies.

"Reminds us that we are more than just our individual lives. That we are tied to the stories of people who may never have met physically but somehow made us who we are," said Auslander.

Auslander adds he's now working towards getting family members of Ashley together to visit the sack at the Smithsonian.

To see more on his findings of this historical piece, click here.

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