OK, I confess that blog title is a little sensationalized. Truth be told, much of this information becomes well-known to researchers within a few years of their African-American genealogical journey. Family research turns many of us into walking, talking, beacons of black history. It certainly turned my life around; probably 90% of what I read now is non-fiction and slave/slavery/black history related. It is an endlessly fascinating subject, epic, tragic and but often inspiring.
Nevertheless, here are a few tidbits to keep in mind as you do your research.
1. Slavery was vastly different at different times, in different places. A slave’s life in 1780 in Virginia would likely not look much like a Georgia slave’s life in 1850. A city slave’s experience was vastly different than a rural or country slave’s experience. Different crops had different labor demands (cotton, rice, tobacco, indigo, sugar). Learn what crop your ancestor worked.
2. South America (mainly Brazil) and the West Indian Caribbean islands took in the lion’s share of slaves from Africa. Of those who came to the North American colonies, most were imported here by 1795. That means many of us have very long histories in this country.
3. Most slaves had surnames that were known amongst themselves, even though the white planters did not record those surnames. Check out the WPA narratives, civil war pensions, and freedman’s bank as three types of records where you’ll find slaves mentioning their parent’s entire names.
4. There will be many instances where the enslaved father is owned by someone other than the owner of his wife and child. Don’t expect to always find entire family units owned by one owner. Check those neighbors; many slaves found mates on neighboring farms. Young children (under 10), however, were often allowed to stay with their mothers.
5. Slaves were employed in every conceivable occupation: they worked in shipyards and wharves, railroads and steamboats, coal mines, iron works, gristmills and sawmills; as maids, seamstresses, tailors, masons, butchers, barbers, and so on. Especially for urban slaves, think of all the ways other than farming they worked.
6. Understand the dynamics of the interstate slave trade. The rise of cotton in the early 1800’s and waning need for year-round slaves in the North caused hundreds of thousands of slaves to be sold into the deep south and expanding southwest. This had a devastating impact on black families. Note the prevalence of the birthplace of “Virginia” or “Maryland” in the 1870 southern states. Consider that your southern slave ancestor may have been sold south at some point.
7. Slaves were often sold or bought through slave traders or others who had businesses in slaves. Many of these auction –style purchases will not have any existing records or receipts, as these were private organizations. There are a few localities, however, which have records of former slave traders.
8. Researching slavery will expand your vision of what it meant to be a slave. Many slaves in cities were allowed to live as virtual freedmen, work for pay and give their owners a monthly fee; others were allowed to earn wages to buy themselves or family members. Some planters worked their slaves on the “task” system, which meant they were responsible for a certain amount of work every day & when they finished they were free to do other things, like work their own garden plot or hunt for more food.
9. Looking at original sources will broaden your mind as to how the local whites interacted with their enslaved population. Criminal court records are replete with people being charged with playing cards with slaves and selling them things. This really surprised me. Slaves were plied with liquor by their masters and others. I have a court record detailing the local practice of allowing the slaves to work for pay on their holiday off-days. All these things expanded my view of slave life.
10. It took me awhile to agree with this idea, but slavery was still a negotiated relationship. Yes, the masters had the final and violent upper hand, but you’ll be amazed at how many times the master’s actions were altered by a slave’s threatening to run away, refusing to do work, refusing to be sold to someone, etc. These are shown in numerous entries in planter’s diaries and other documents:
“Salley won’t go without her husband so I’ll have to sell him too.”
“Joe if you come back home, you may have your choice of master.”
“I had to whip Bill today because he would not go with me.”
Our ancestors used every tool at their disposal and sometimes were able to influence the master’s decisions.
Tell me, what things have you learned during your research about slavery that surprised you?