Archive for the ‘Book and Movie Recommendations’ Category

This is one of my favorite all-time family history related movies. It’s called “Down in the Delta” and was released in 1998 and directed by Maya Angelou. It’s about a woman named Rosa Lynn, living in Chicago, who sends her troubled daughter Loretta and her grandchildren down to her family home in rural Mississippi. What follows is the best of family movies, a tender tale showing how the love of family can heal the deepest of wounds. There’s a terrific segment about the family’s enslaved roots and I found as a genealogist that this film particularly touched me. Please rent it if you haven’t yet. And tell me what you thought!

more about “Down in The Delta“, posted with vodpod

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I have been intrigued lately with the topic of runaway slaves. I research the Prather family in Montgomery County, Maryland and recently discovered that one of the Prathers I am tracking ran away and was picked up in DC in 1858. I guess that started it all. I pulled out my copy of “Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation” by John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger, which is probably the most complete study to date. I also purchased a book recently called “Blacks Who Stole Themselves” (what a great title, right?) that I first saw at the Library of Congress. This book features advertisements from the Pennsylvania Gazette for runaways from 1728-1790. Many of the runaways are from Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey & Virginia. I have a good friend who has a doctorate in African-American History and we talk alot about this. He opened my eyes one day–we were talking about Lincoln “freeing” the slaves. And he said to me, “NO, the slaves freed themselves. They ran away in such large numbers during the Civil War that they forced the issue to be confronted.” I was (and still am) fascinated by this perspective.

I keep thinking about what it must have been like to run away and have no concept of where to go. No maps. To risk your life over and over again (many of the runaways have a history of running away). To go into the woods with your baby. To leave your children. To not be able to read or write, or have anything else  than the knowledge that you were born free and have a right to freedom, and will do anything to attain it. I wonder constantly if I could have done that. I think about how awful it must have been.  I don’t know how they survived. Nothing but the grace of God.

As I read over these runaway ads (which are a terrific source for finding slaveholders) I want to share some of the things that stood out to me. In general, in each ad,  there is a listing of where, when and who they ran away from,the slave’s age and name, a detailed description of their clothing, usually comments about their personality, physical looks and perhaps occupation. The ads are very telling on several levels, especially the view of the slaveholder or white majority society’s impression of blacks/slaves. Here’s a list of things and specific ads that resonated with me:

  • the large number of runaways who are described as having what are likely African  or African-inspired markings: holes in their ears and noses, scars on their faces and foreheads
  • the description of many that are “new to this country”, “country-born”, “lately arrived from Barbados”(or Angola, or Guinea, or Dominica) and many who  ” do not speak English”
  • many are described as “Spanish negroes” or “Spanish mulattoes”
  • the description of their personalities as: cunning, sly, complaisant, sour, impudent, bold, artful, smooth-tongued, surly, sour, sensible, talkative, shy, well-spoken, lusty (what in the world does that mean?)
  • many are described as having “been much cut” on their backs, by “often whipping”
  • some ran away in groups of 2-5 people, comprised of women and men, sometimes even with white indentured servants
  • several ads discuss the runaway having Indian blood, one even saying “he can talk Indian very well”.
  • many of the ads mention the slaves having brass or pewter buckles on their shoes, which I assume would have stood out because that was a rare commodity
  • several of the slaves could read and write, and the ads talked about how they are “pretending to be free” ,”will pretend to be searching for a master”,  “is almost white”, and could easily “write themselves a pass”
  • the fear of freed blacks (particularly in Philadelphia) is evident in that many ads purport that the runaway is “being hidden by freed blacks
  • “’tis’ supposed he is being harbored by some base white woman, as he has contracted intimacies with several of that sort”
  • “the said negroe is named Jupiter, but it is thought he may likely call himself by his negroe name, which is Mueyon, or Omtee”
  • “he is a short, thick fellow, limps with his right knee, and one of his buttocks is bigger than the other” (I’m just trying to picture that;))

There are a few websites which have undertaken the goal of documenting runaway slave ads. There’s Maryland’s Underground Railroad website, which includes runaway ads, and the University of Virginia’s project. There’s also a site for Baltimore County, MD and The Geography of Virginia website. Check them out if you get a chance. My friend Michael Hait did a good article on the genealogical value of runaway slave ads awhile ago.  I love this short article at Yale University about analyzing runaway slave ads, which was really interesting.

Let me know your thoughts, family, if you found any relatives you are researching in runaway ads, or if you just found something interesting worth sharing.

I am so proud of the fact that slaves constantly resisted the system of slavery, with dedication and perseverance. I dedicate this post to a slave who ran away in 1759: “…a negro man named Caesar, he has both his legs cutoff and walks on his knees.”

Can you imagine? That one took my breath away. Caesar demanded his freedom so badly he would run way with no legs. Simply astounding.

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One of the best books I’ve read this year was called “Slavery By Any Other Name: The Re-Enslavement of Blacks in America from the Civil War through World War II” by Douglas Blackmon. The book focuses on the convict labor system that developed in the South and the author brilliantly crafts the book around specific examples. It’s a part of history I knew little, if anything about. It will enlighten you on the times our ancestors in 1900, 1910, 1920, etc. suffered under especially if they were indigent. It’s good background for writing your family history especially if your family lived in one of the areas where this ran rampant (Alabama was one). I found a terrific 2-part DemocracyNow! interview with the author that I am posting below. His discussions about the Chattahootchie(sp?) Brick Yard outside Atlanta, the banking system’s complicity, and World War II putting an end to most of it are intriguing. (There’s about a 1:15 minute photo/song montage at the beginning, then the interview will start.)

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Everyone knows how much I love Annette Gordon-Reed and her award winning book on the Hemingses. I recently found a video of her speech at Monticello about the book, and it was incredible. It’s lengthy–there are 7 segments, but I watched every one. Although I had previously posted a link to the videos, the owner has decided to disable the embedment option. I do hope you will go to YouTube, put in “Annette Gordon-Reed” and take a look anyway.

Postscript: I was thrilled and excited to recently to meet and get to hear Mrs. Gordon-Reed talk about her book in D.C. at the Politics and Prose bookstore.

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Tonight, I watched two episodes of “We Shall Remain”–PBS’s latest documentary on Native American History. It was both tragic and beautiful at the same time–it bought tears to my eyes hearing the story of Tecumseh and his valiant effort to form a Pan-Indian resistance movement. There is something about the human spirit and its will to survive against even impossible odds. This struggle ties into a similar struggle for African-Americans, and indeed all oppressed people all over the world. I hope you’ll go to the PBS website…you can watch all the episodes online.

more about “We Shall Remain | American Experience…“, posted with vodpod

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hem2I have to tell you all about this book that I am reading and finding positively mesmerizing. There’s no other word for it. Now, I read alot of books on slavery. Alot. I was already a voracious reader before the genealogy bug hit, so now it’s just insane. There are many that stand out in my mind, but I was just sitting down reading this and I felt compelled to tell you all about it. Literally, to get out of bed and come tell you about it.

I  read Annette Gordon-Reed worked on it for 10 years. It shows. She’s now won the National Book Award, the Pulitzer, and another big award a few weeks ago I can’t remember. That’s something. She has a terrific interview up on Amazon.com that you can read.

This is what strikes me about the book: Her depiction of the system of slavery, as it was lived, day by day. The intricate laws and customs that developed around it. The family dynamics it created. How 17th and 18th century Virginia society was irrevocably shaped because of it. I think as a genealogist I tend to think about individual slaves and their stories, but the pictures Gordon-Reed paints and the narratives she weaves often make me just stop in mid-sentence. She makes me think about aspects of slavery I have never thought about before. I didn’t think that was possible.

I want to quote  a passage from her chapter called “The Children of No One”, a tour-de-force of a chapter about interracial mixing between slaves and slavemaster:

The fictions and presumptions about bastardy and marriage served definite purposes in a legal system seeking easy ways to determine who was eligible to inherit property, who had the right to a child’s labor and who could be liable for support of a child. …why would slaves have known who their fathers were when those men were black, but not know when the man was white?…When demonstrably mixed-race people speak of their white father or forefather, at most the white man is portrayed as the “alleged” father or the “said to be” father, as if there had been some white “Mr. Nobody” out there impregnating all the enslaved women in America.

I love that! There is something about her analysis of the entire Hemings family, going through several generations that paints a more complete picture–a more complex picture of the diabolical nature of it all.

This is a great book and I hope you’ll run out and get it. (I’m enjoying reading her footnotes too, like any good genealogist I am interested in her sources;))

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