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I have recently realized I am utterly incapable of writing a short post. That said, I’d like to think I still have avid readers who value them and take the time to read them when they can. I thank you for that. I just had a wonderful Thanksgiving with my family & hope you all did too.

We have to continue pushing ourselves to learn more and better research methodologies. When we all start out, we’re basically doing name lookups in various record sets. What we found is what I refer to as the “low-hanging” fruit. It’s what the Genealogy Gods use to suck you into this hobby;) The tough stuff comes when the records relevant to your family/area/timeframe have been exhausted, AND, you only know how to look up names. If you don’t learn other ways of “connecting the dots” you’ll have trouble uncovering other relationships. Things will appear to be brick walls, that really aren’t. They may just require a research methodology that has not been learned. And I promise, you can learn them.

One of the critical skills to learn is how to analyze and correlate the information you have. Start spending more time practicing this. Lay out all the data you’ve gathered to answer a particular question such as: Who were Jane Smith’s parents? Who were her spouses? Having a specific question frames your research and allows you to work towards a conclusion. Learn the genealogical standards for evidence evaluation and learn how to pull out clues from each piece of evidence. There are excellent genealogy books and lectures for every conceivable type of record. Ask yourself the pertinent questions: Who said this? When did they say it? How did they know it? Who recorded it and why?  When evidence gives conflicting data (such as birthdates or death dates) learn how to address the conflict. Purchase one of the core genealogy reference books like “The Source” edited by Loretta Szucs or “The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy” by Val Greenwood (you can buy them used, but try to get a recent edition).

I often encounter people who have only researched in census records and maybe a few vital records. Think of census records as bookends on a shelf like this:
BookshelfIf you have discovered your ancestor in say, the 1900 and the 1910 census, that’s a great start. But the shelf itself is still empty –you still have a 10-year gap for which you don’t have any data. We must get in the habit of filling up that shelf—which represents our ancestor’s lives– with other information from other sources than just the census records. A lot can happen in 10 years.

Case in point: I have blogged before about my 4th great-grandmother Matilda and the years long odyssey to uncover her complicated roots. Her identity was hidden behind a veil of mis-transcribed records, moves between at least 4 counties and 2 states, and 4 marriages! Of the 4 men she married,  3 died within a few years of their marriage to her. The chart below illustrates her sojourn through the census  years, counties and states, with M1 through M4 representing her 4 marriages:

MatildaTimelineMatilda only appears as a married woman twice in the census (1900 and 1910 to her 2nd husband, Perry Davis). Each of her other husbands died before the other census years rolled around, so she was constantly showing up with a different name in those years as a widow. In fact, I thought there were 2 different women named Matilda.  Those other marriages were almost “hidden.” I gave more details about cracking this case in a previous post.

Had I only looked at census records, this case would never have been broken. There is just too much happening in 10 years time. I had to piece together the information I gathered from state censuses, city directories, vitals, oral history, cemetery records, deed records and more. That process allowed me see the errors in the evidence. It also led me to revisit my own assumptions. Matilda’s first marriage record –an original record—mistakenly recorded her name as “Matida Mealy”, not Matilda Nealy which was her name. The clerk probably heard it as “Mealy”. Simple enough right? But because both her first and last names were incorrect on the document, I could never find that marriage. Eventually, tracing all 4 of her marriages (not just the one to my direct ancestor) led me to the names of her parents, Charles and Lavinia Nealy in Hamilton County, FL. I added another branch to my tree.

I have never felt so proud about cracking a case as I did this one. It affirmed that I’m on the right track in terms of developing my skills.  I still have plenty more ahead of me, so right along with you, I continue to keep on learning.

DR_babes12 No, you’re not going crazy. This list started out as 5 Ways but has now grown to 7 Ways;)

I’ve been looking for an excuse to post this picture of myself with my older brother, so this is as good a time as any. It puts me in the Christmas spirit.

We’re headed into the holiday season and maybe you’ll have a week or so before the end of the year to do some last minute genealogy wrap-up. Here are some ideas to jumpstart your research and provide good ground to start with in 2014.

1.  Order any original records that you don’t have. Organize all of the data you have gathered on each surname. If you have the date of a marriage from an online database, write and get a copy of the original marriage record. If you have a death date, write away for the original death certificate. Get a copy of the original deed or court record or anything else you’ve gathered. Most can be obtained for small fees. These records can be obtained from either the state archives, state vital records office or county courthouse and you can easily go online to find out where you need to write. We must base our research on analysis of original records, and too many people settle for just having the date they pulled from a database. We will miss critical clues if we do that. Instead of this image:

Familysearch indexed data

Familysearch indexed data

Have this original record of Beatrice’s death (below):

TennesseeDeathRecords1908-1958ForBeatriceHolt

Original death certificate

Some original records are available online, but this is why it’s helpful to go through your research and figure out which ones you don’t have.

2. Research the history of court records in one of your research states. You need to find out what the courts were called and what types of cases each one handled. For example, googling “north carolina court history” uncovered this PDF document. Other places to look are in Ancestry’s Red Book at the library, at state archives websites and several of the FamilySearch Wikis now have court histories included, like this one for South Carolina. Now that you have the names of the courts, you can make a plan to start researching each type of court in the new year. For example, in Tennessee (19th and 20th century) I researched the County Court records, the Chancery Court records, and the Circuit Court records for my counties. Court records contain amazing information not available anywhere else.

3. Identify the “cluster” of people associated with your families. I recently gave a lecture on cluster research and how it can be used to further our research. Humans live within social groups, and cluster research takes advantage of that principle. Pick a family or two and make a list of the people in their “cluster”, or as Elizabeth S. Mills says, their FAN Club (Family, Associates, Neighbors). A cluster should include all extended family members plus in-laws, neighbors, people living nearby with the same surname, witnesses and bondsmen on deeds and marriages and business associates, just to name a few. Researching the cluster will often lead to uncovering more information on your family/person/couple of interest and can often break through brick walls. It has worked for me. Now you’ll have a list of people to start researching in 2014; and remember you’ll never know where the road will lead until you try.

4. Make a list of microfilm you need to order and research from FamilySearch. Go to Familysearch.org, click Search, and then click Catalog. In the “Search by: Places” box type in your research state, then county. A list will pop up of types of records that Familysearch has microfilmed. For example, this is the list for Edgecombe County, North Carolina:

Records List

Records List

Clicking on any category will lead you to the exact microfilm titles and numbers. For example, I clicked on Court Records here under Edgecombe County, NC:

Court records

Court records

Clicking on Bastardy Bonds brought me to this list:

Bastardy bonds

Bastardy bonds

This is what you need: exact film titles and the film numbers on the far right. Write them down; you can start by searching probate, land, or court record indexes. Find a Family History Center near where you live, take that list, and ask the representative to guide you through setting up your online account and ordering the film. Unfortunately, the website is not very intuitive and you’ll really need someone to show you how to setup and order, but once you’ve done that, you can now order from home & research records from Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, or any other state without leaving your home state! If you have yet to do this, it will launch your research to new heights.

5. Redouble your efforts to find living descendants. If you can trace someone to the 1940 census, and they had children in that census, find those descendants. First focus on the males since they would not have undergone a name change; for females you’d first have to find out if they married (and remarried). Search the Social Security database at Ancestry to see if that person may have died (common names will be harder to find this way). If the person did die, especially in the late 1980s and beyond, you may find an obituary in a newspaper at Genealogybank.com, or better yet, try the local library. Many local libraries have obituary indexes for the more recent years. An obituary should list survivors. Try online sites like zabasearch and white pages to see if you can get mailing addresses. I frequently send out brief postcards explaining the connection and asking for a phone call. Even if you get the death certificate of someone who died in the 1980s and beyond, you can try to contact the Informant listed on that death certificate. Also, later burials are more likely to have headstones (search Find-a-grave) and these are sources of death dates as well. Needless to say, the benefits of connecting with living descendants are endless.

6. Find special collections and manuscripts relevant to your research area. There are hidden gems in these collections just waiting to be discovered, but we often bypass these for more common records. These collections can contain those all-important slaveowner records, particularly for large slaveowners, but records of the local doctor and store merchant are also valuable as they can contain interactions with enslaved people. To get started, make a list of 4 or 5 major and regional universities in your research state, and then add state and county historical societies and the state archives to that list. Many of these repositories have descriptions of their special collections/manuscripts online. For example, for TN, I might examine collections at the University of TN, Tennessee State University, Vanderbilt University, and because I do black history research, Fisk University. I would include in that list the Tennessee Historical Society, the Tennessee Genealogical Society & the one for my county, the Hardin County Historical Society. The state archives is the Tennessee State Library & Archives. With this list of institutions, go to each website and search for description of their manuscript/special collections. Look not just for your surname or slaveowner’s surname, but search for anything from people who lived in your county. For example, this is Fisk University’s Special Collections page:

Fisk SC

Fisk SC

In 2014, with your list of institutions, and specific collections of interest, you can begin to order microfilm from the institution or plan a research trip to the facility. (Note: Colleges and Universities from other states may also hold collections relevant to your research, for example, University of North Carolina holds many records from all southern states.)

7. Make a chart to see what record groups you are missing. I have discussed before the benefit of using charts for your genealogy research. Staying organized and focused becomes harder and harder the more information we accumulate. Try this: in Microsoft Word or Excel (or just draw it by hand) list parents, one on each line, followed down the list by each child.  Then across the top, create columns with these titles: Censuses, Land Records, Birth, Marriage, Death, Divorce, Probate Records, Tax Records, Court Records, etc. (there are many types you can use). For each person, assess whether you have searched for their names in that record type. This is a simple exercise, but you may be surprised at the results. Here is a simple chart I did for my Simpson line:

simple chart

simple chart

Of course, I have a separate census chart where I break it out by year & make sure I have searched for each person in every relevant census year.

I hope everyone has a wonderful Thanksgiving & I hope these ideas gets you excited about your research & reignited for 2014.

I ran across a startling deed recently. In the record, Monroe and Robert B. Warren, of Washington, DC, were selling land to Harry E. Mockbee in May 1927. After the typical legal language came this ominous phrase (click to enlarge):

1927 deed

1927 deed

“…Subject to the further covenant that said land and premises shall never be rented, leased, sold, transferred or conveyed unto or in trust for or occupied by any negro or colored person or any person of negro extraction.”

This is the first time I’ve actually come across a racially restrictive covenant while doing deed research. They are defined as “a legally enforceable contract imposed in a deed upon the buyer of the property.” I knew a little about the history, primarily from a few books I’ve read: “Not in My Neighborhood,” by Antero Pietila (focusing on Baltimore) and “Family Properties,” by Beryl Satter (focusing on Chicago). Although frequently used against African-Americans, they were also used to keep Jewish people from certain areas in cities like Baltimore.

We’ve all seen  “A Raisin in the Sun” which portrays a black family attempting to move into a white neighborhood. But, an even better introduction to the topic can be found in the 2004 National Book Award Winner, “Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age,” by Kevin Boyle. The book tells the riveting true story of Dr. Ossian Sweet, whose purchase of a home in Detroit in 1925 resulted in attack by a white mob and the death of a white man. If you read any book on this subject, read this one first. You will not put it down, especially since the author does such a beautiful job with Ossian’s history.

Initially, covenants became popular in response to the large migration of Southern blacks to Northern cities, essentially forcing racial segregation. On May, 1926, in a case called Corrigan and Buckley, the U.S. Supreme Court, by its refusal to hear the case, tacitly affirmed the legality of these covenants. Their use skyrocketed, and particularly in large cities, the result was that blacks were forced into certain “black” areas, whether they could afford to live elsewhere or not. The Federal Housing Authority institutionalized this racism with their Underwriting Manual which denied mortgages based upon race and by practicing “redlining”: deciding which neighborhoods to approve mortgages in.

In 1930, J.D. Shelly, a black man, bought property in St. Louis in a neighborhood covered by a racial covenant. He convinced a white owner to sell to him anyway. A neighbor sued, and the case wound its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. The resultant ruling, Shelley vs. Kraemer, held that the covenants could not be enforced without violating the 14th Amendment. However, it only meant that states could not enforce the covenants; people could and did privately continue to make them and voluntarily follow them.

Still the 1948 Shelly ruling put racial covenants on Death Row. NAACP lawyers Thurgood Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston put together a legal strategy to fight these cases all over the country. Still, it wasn’t until The 1968 Fair Housing Act that their use was deemed illegal.

There is so much important black history that is left out of the “official” story of America. Huge obstacles awaited black people every step of the way it seems –in education, labor, and housing were just a few. I am amazed that we made it through, and know the resilience and strength that must have taken. A generation of people are coming of age who have no knowledge of these obstacles. How would others have fared if after enslavement and Jim Crow, they were prevented from equal education, prevented from certain jobs, prevented from equal pay at the jobs they did hold, prevented from living where they wanted, prevented from marrying who they wanted and preventing from partaking in the fruits of society that depended on that labor? These people who placed their lives at risk by challenging the system and buying homes in “white” areas should absolutely be regarded as civil rights heroes.

What I find interesting is that some communities in the deep South, especially in rural areas, blacks lived alongside whites. My grandmother did in Tennessee. You can see it in the census records.

One of the beauties of genealogy is the history you learn. Let’s keep getting educated and telling others the real story of America.

Andrew Johnson

Andrew Johnson

The image on left is a famous Thomas Nast drawing illustrating Andrew Johnson’s veto of the Freedmens Bureau in 1866. It shows him kicking the “Bureau” and has little black people falling out. The drawing may be a funny caricature, but what black people were experiencing was no laughing matter.

One of the things sometimes overlooked is the absolute terror of the Reconstruction period for our ancestors. Although they were no longer enslaved, the vast majority of former slaves were still in the South and living amidst a very angry populace that had lost the War. White Southerners lost a war that eventually added the destruction of slavery as a war objective, much to their disgust. Most whites (North and South) did not consider black people worthy of anything close to equal treatment. Even minor displays of independence by blacks could and did invite deadly responses. It is no coincidence that the Ku Klux Klan was founded during this period and that Confederate soldiers were often guilty of much of the violence.

Many Freedmens Bureau offices kept records of crimes that were committed in their districts, what they termed murders or “outrages.” Most take the form of registers or logs or were written as summaries in letters of the reporting officers. Although these records usually captured crimes against everyone, black and white, a quick read show the vast majority of crimes were committed against the newly freed black population. The Freedmens Bureau in many places replaced the law enforcement of the local area and had the power to arrest and charge individuals, and to hold trials.

I still remember the first time I read one of these documents, shortly after I started doing genealogy. The records show freedmen and their families working under labor contracts, then being beaten or otherwise forced off the farm without any pay when the crops came in. There were also lots of cases of black men and women being randomly beaten, whipped or raped. Many of the perpetrators in the documents are listed as “parties unknown,” which would become a familiar refrain used during the era of lynchings.

These poor people just went from terror to terror. Even filing a charge with the Bureau could expose one to more retribution, so I’m sure many more crimes probably happened than were reported to the Bureau. Union soldiers, teachers, preachers, landowners and those attempting to vote were especially targeted. Most Southern whites were intent upon keeping blacks in their socially inferior and economically dependent status.

When you read these outrages, what comes across is the widespread level of violence and the terror that the newly freed lived under. Surely, some areas were worse than others. But when I think about the joy that freedom bought, I also remember it must have been stunted by the violence and terror that was to come. So many of the people weren’t even named, just “colored man” or “colored woman.” I wonder how many are our ancestors that seem to “disappear” after the 1870 census? I just don’t know how they made it through.

Freedmens Bureau.com has some transcriptions of Outrages. Here are some selections from Alabama in the year 1866:

District of Alabama, 1866

March – Bradley killed freedwoman with an axe. Montgomery.

April 3 – Woman taken by three men out of her house in middle of night to swamp & badly whipped – beaten on head with pistol &c.

April 27 – Freedman shot by Confed. Soldier wantonly [killed] near Livingston, Sumter Co.

May 30 – Mulatto hung by grapevine near roadside between Tuscaloosa & Greensboro.

May 29 – Richard Dick’s wife beaten with club by her employer. Richard remonstrated – in the night was taken from his house and whipped nearly to death with a buggy trace by son of the employer & two others.

June 16 – Mr. Alexander, colored preacher, brutally beaten & forced to leave his house at Auburn, Ala.

July – Band of armed men came to house of Eliz. Adams, threatened to kill her & her sister if they did not leave the county, abused & beat them. (illegible) Franklin & (illegible) started to report outrage, not heard from afterward.

Sept. 14 – Black man picking fodder in a field shot dead — & another who had difficulty with a white man abducted & supposed to have been murdered near Tuscaloosa.

Sept. 3 – Murderous assault upon returned black Union soldier in Blount Co.

Dec. 17 – Enoch Hicks & party burned school house in Greenville in Sumner – assaulted Union soldier &c. Judge Bragg & son mercilessly beat wife & daughter of James, freedman & drew pistol on James. Kell Forrest beat wife of colored man George.

July 16 – Mrs. Prus beat Eve & her children. Henry Calloway beat freedwoman Nancy with buck, wounding her severely in the head. J. Howard & nephew beat & shot at Frank. Jno. Black attempted to kill Jim Sneethen with an axe. Jack McLeonard whipped his freedwoman mercilessly. Lee Davidson tied freedwoman up by wrists & beat her severely. Frank Pinkston cutting freedman Alfred with knife. Louisa’s husband murdered by unknown white man.

July 18 – One Yerby set fire to colored [church] Near Tuscaloosa, threatened to kill black man who saw him do it.

August – Gang of ruffians in Clarke Co. set fire to house & fired on family as they ran from it – one killed, two wounded.

February 1866 – Freedwoman beaten with club by her employer near Selma, head cut in most shocking manner.

June 1866 – Freedman shot while at his usual work by his employer for threatening to report his abusive conduct to the authorities of the Bureau – Mobile.

December 1866 – Freedman killed by parties unknown, brought to hospital in dying condition, shot through brain.

Here are a few reported from Murfreesboro, TN in 1866:

July 28th 1865 – Ben (col’d) Plaintiff vs. Beverly Randolph. Ben says ” on the 29th of June Randolph beat my wife with his fists then caught her by the chin threw back her head pulled out his knife swore he would cut her throat—His brother-in-law stopped him, he then went to his house got his pistol and swore he would kill some dam nigger—-fired of his pistol and went to Mr. Harris’s (the woman was large with child at the time).” Defendant admitted the charge—-was fined 50 Dolls. Which was paid to plaintiff.

Aug. 1st. Egbert (col’d) vs. J. Irvin. Egbert says “Irvin returned from the Reb. Army & found I had a crop growing (I staid on the place and took care of his family house and stock ever since the war begun). When I began to gather the crop (I was to have the 1/3) he drove me and my family off and would not give us a bit of anything to eat and said he did not care a dam for the Bureau.” Got 3 mounted men sent for & brought Irvin who was very penitent under bayonet force and secured by bond. The crop to plaintiff. Since, all paid.

Aug. 2nd. Sam Neal (col’d) vs. Andrew B. Payne. Sam says “Payne hired myself and family 10 altogether to work for the season, he has made several base attempts on my daughter, has ordered me off without pay or share of the crop & because I did not go he got his pistol & threatened to shoot me—-he got Miles Ferguson to beat me & the both together beat me badly.” Payne came by a summons & on proof of guilt offered to let them go back gather the crop & have their share & I fined him for beating and ordering Ferguson to beat him 25 Dolls. Paid to Sam—-

Aug. 4th. Anthony (col’d) vs. Bill Murray. Anthony says “Mr. Murray did on the 1st severely beat my wife and daughter with a stick because we were singing a union song.” Send an order to Murray to appear at this office but was taken with the appoplexy & it is said died from mortal fear of the being put in the Bureau.

These are a sad but informative set of records that paint a picture of what our ancestors endured. Of course, 99.9% of these records are not online, but they can be located by referring to the Freedmens Bureau pamphlets on the National Archives website.

Historic Brooke Grove, now Agape AME

Historic Brooke Grove, now Agape AME

Well, last week I tried to make the best of being furloughed (fortunately I’m back at work) by doing some genealogy. I’d been wanting to re-visit one of my Prather family’s historic cemeteries in Montgomery County, MD, not far from where I live. The church was historically called Brooke Grove Methodist Church, and is on Maryland’s Inventory of Historic Properties. I discussed how useful these types of databases can be in a previous post.

Brooke Grove was started after the Civil War by a group of former slaves, several of whom had been enslaved together. Some were my Prather ancestors. Generations of the black community in this area are buried at this church. It’s a beautiful, peaceful place, with large oak trees, only interrupted by modern development. I can only imagine what it was like then.

View 1

View 1

View 2

View 2

Heritage Montgomery published a wonderful PDF brochure recently on the African-American churches of Montgomery County; Brooke Grove is described on page 23.

I hadn’t been to the cemetery since about 2009. It was a gorgeous sunny day when I went last week, and I knew so much more now about the community and the people. I could search with brand new eyes and I saw connections everywhere. Years ago when I visited, the headstone for my ggrandparents Levi Prather and Martha Simpson had broken apart:

Old Headstone

Old Headstone

At our family reunion later that year, I suggested we collect donations for a new headstone. I finally got to see it and it looks great!

New Headstone

New Headstone

Part of the purpose of my visit is that I wanted to put into practice some of Elizabeth Shown Mills’ guidance in her quicksheet, “The Historical Researchers Guide to Cluster Research.” I have used the clustering technique many times in my research successfully, but Ms. Mills gave many more examples of its use that I’ll probably spend a lifetime trying to do. Her quicksheet suggests using it at cemeteries. It’s the technique of noticing who is buried near your ancestor, especially those with different surnames. They probably are relatives.

Martha Simpson , from the headstone above, had several siblings buried nearby. The surname “Simpson” made them easy to notice:

Simpson Sibs

Simpson Sibs

Right behind these Simpsons headstones, were the headstones of Nicholas McAbee and his wife “H.Leannah”:

McAbee Headstone

McAbee Headstone

At the time I didn’t know it, but “H. Leannah” was Harriet Leannah Simpson, the sister of my ancestor Martha and wife of Nicholas. It makes sense that they were buried right behind the other Simpsons; the cluster was here at work. There were several McAbee women buried near Nicholas and likely related to him:

Other McAbees

Other McAbees

Here are Howard Prather and his wife Rosie’s headstones:

Howard and Rosie

Howard and Rosie

Right next to Rosie’s headstone is that of Elijah Lancaster:

Elijah Lancaster

Elijah Lancaster

Elijah was Rosie’s father; if you didn’t know her maiden name, the cemetery held a big clue.

I began to map out the cemetery on a few sheets of paper and I got about halfway through before I ran out of energy. There are clearly hundreds more buried at the cemetery than have surviving headstones today.

What adventures have you had at the cemetery lately? The next time you go, study the “cluster”; write down the names of those buried nearest your ancestors. Those individuals could very easily be the parents or family of the wife, or sisters hidden under their married names.

The 1880 Donut Hole

Two Doughnuts on a Plate

Mmmmm..yummy

This is a phrase I’ve been using to refer to that Bermuda Triangle between 1880 and 1900…the Donut Hole. Now I like donuts just as much as the next person. But I’m not the first and sure won’t be the last to lose relatives on either side of it. We all know about how the aftermath of the fire that destroyed a large percentage of the 1890 census. First, you’ll want to be sure to check that your research area is not one that has a surviving 1890 census fragment. After that, you’ll want to use all your genealogical sleuthing skills to ensure that the person “on the inside” of the 1880 donut is the same person you find “on the outside.” Minus the frosting.

One of the things I’ve encountered is the fact that a couple can have a child right after 1880 that is grown and gone by 1900. If this is a family whose makeup you’ve built by using only the census, you can easily miss a person. For example, according to her death certificate Julia Adams of Montgomery County, TN was born in 1881:

Julia Adams

Julia Adams

However, if you look at her father Lucas Walker’s household in 1900, she is not there:

1900 Lucas Walker

1900 Lucas Walker

And that’s because she married James Adams in 1897:

Marriage Record

Marriage Record

If you didn’t find out about Julia from some other record or source (like this death certificate), you would have missed her completely.

Zeffie Whitaker was born in 1883. Her father Sam Whitaker’s household in 1900, likewise, does not include her:

1900 Whitaker

1900 Whitaker

She had married the neighbor’s son Robert Allison in 1899:

Marriage Record

Marriage Record

She was living next door to her dad in 1900.

These examples were meant to illustrate the point: they were easy to show because the parent was listed on the death certificate. But how many death certificates do we see that have no parents listed? Also, you would have never found the death certificate if you had known this child existed AND their married name. In those cases, you’ll miss an ancestor. I know I have.

So beware and be extra vigilant of those people born in the early 1880s “inside the donut.” Tell me in the comments if any of you have “lost” an ancestor in the gap? If you found them, how did you verify that it was the correct person?

Slavery Studies

As I have researched more and more enslaved ancestors, I have become more immersed in researching slavery itself. I have a friend who is a Ph.D. and professor of African-American studies and he has really helped me understand the history in a different way. We’ve clocked tens of hours of conversation about the institution of slavery.

Although what genealogists do is similar, it’s also quite different from what professional historians do. We are more interested in the individuals and the specific while they tend to focus more on trends among larger groups of people. The difference in those perspectives fascinate me.

I wanted to present a short overview of some of the most famous works in the evolution of slavery studies and I highly encourage anyone researching enslaved people to read some (at least one) of these works. I haven’t gotten through them all but I’m working on it!

“American Negro Slavery” by Ulrich Phillips, 1918

Typical of the times, Ulrich’s racism was front and center. He believed in the inferiority of blacks and the fantasy of the “Old South.” He wrote that slavery was not a financially profitable institution and that it was done mainly to benefit blacks and maintain white supremacy. He wrote that slaveowners treated, fed and clothed their slaves well. Amazingly, this was the prevailing view of slavery for almost 30 years although W.E.B. DuBois vocally challenged his findings.

“The Peculiar Institution” by Kenneth M. Stampp, 1956

Stampp, in this groundbreaking work, was the first to counter Ulrich Phillips’ school of thought in several areas. He showed that slavery was not benign but a cruel and brutal system of labor exploitation and control. He argued that slavery was indeed a profitable system. He illustrated the extreme suffering of slaves and he also discussed the many methods of slave resistance. Stampp also discussed how becoming a slave owner was a part of a social system which allowed whites to enter the upper class and gain status in the community.

“Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life” by Stanley Elkins, 1959

Elkins was the first historian to look at the psychological impact of slavery rather than just the economics of it. He compared southern slave plantations to Nazi concentration camps and argued that slavery was so brutal and inhumane that it stripped slaves of their African heritage (i.e., they had a “social death”) and transformed them into docile, submissive figures. His most famous thesis was his conclusion that the system of slavery had infantilized slaves, making them “Sambos”—reduced them by brutality to a dependant, child-like status. Although many of his arguments have now been rejected, this single book caused a firestorm and a huge outpouring of responses by other historians.

“The Slave Community” by John Blassingame, 1972

Blassingame presented one of the first slave studies to be presented from the perspective of the enslaved and contradicted historians like Elkins and his “Sambo” thesis.  Through the lens of psychology, Blassingame used 19th century fugitive slave narratives as sources to determine that in fact, a rich and unique culture developed among American slaves, with plenty of evidence that African practices survived. Historians criticized Blassingame’s use of slave narratives (which are considered biased) and questioned his neglect of the WPA slave interviews but the book remains an important contribution.

“Roll Jordan Roll: The World the Slaves Made,” by Eugene Genovese 1974

Eugene D. Genovese was a Marxist and this book attempts to decipher, from a Marxist perspective, the world of antebellum slavery. Genovese’s thesis is that slaves created a rich culture, at once both African-American and uniquely southern. He raised some new arguments and presented a truly dizzying array of footnotes and examples. Sometimes he can lose the reader with his ruminations on social theory, but this is an engaging read nevertheless, from one of the most enigmatic and controversial American historians.

“The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925” by Herbert Gutman, 1976

In this classic text on black family life, Gutman argues that slavery did not break up the black family, which had become a familiar refrain as a result of the 1970s “Moynihan Report.”  Gutman was a labor historian who studied workers and social history. Gutman illustrates that that most black families largely remained intact despite slavery and remained that way during the first wave of migration to the North after the Civil War (although he remained open to arguments about black family collapse in the 1930s and 1940s). Gutman’s work was widely praised.

I could go on and on, and mention works by Deborah Gray White on enslaved women (“Ar’n’t I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South”) works by Ira Berlin (“Many Thousands Gone”) and John Hope Franklin (“Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation”). There are more than I could ever review here, but I hope if you have not yet thought about reading one of these works you will.

The stories of the people we uncover need to be woven with social history, and perhaps nothing looms larger and more complex than slavery. Pick up some of these at the local library or used book store and shoot me an email and let me know what you’re reading.

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