Archive for the ‘Book and Movie Recommendations’ Category

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.


Read Full Post »

November 2012

November 2012

It’s that time again! I will be teaching my “Advanced African-American Genealogy Class” at Howard Community College in Columbia, MD. The class is 4 weeks, one night a week (Tuesday) May 21-June 11 from 7-9pm, and I hope those in the local DC/MD Metro area will consider coming.

The class is geared for those who have gone past census and vital records, and perhaps are at a stalemate in their research. In the class I cover:

Evidence Analysis
Source Citation
Land and Probate Records
Slave Research
Inferential and Cluster Research

The class is $79 and you can register online here under the Non-Credit link. The class code is XE-131-6655. Directiosn to the Gateway Campus building can also be found on the HCC website. Please register soon–they cancel the class if they don’t get enough students before the class is scheduled. We have a great time in the class and I enjoy teaching it.

On another exciting note, I recently got to meet the wonderful Isabel Wilkerson, author of one of my favorite books, The Warmth of Other Suns. I told her–and this is true–I am her NUMBER ONE fan! She gave a lively talk to a room of about 400 people, and I stood in line until 10pm to get my books signed! She was gracious and kind and took her time to speak with everyone. If you still haven’t read the book that everyone is raving about, RUN and get it. Both the story and her writing of the story combine for a glorious read. I’m trying to learn how to write like that!

With Isabel Wilkerson

With Isabel Wilkerson

The Warmth of Other Suns

The Warmth of Other Suns

Read Full Post »

I read an article a few weeks ago that I think every single genealogist should read, and I was excited about sharing it with you all. It is a special issue of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly from September 2001 (Volume 89, No.3). This issue was completely devoted to discussion of the Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings affair that I’m sure everyone has already heard about. If you are a member of NGS (which I highly recommend) you can log in to their website and download this article from their NGS Quarterly archives immediately.

The esteemed Helen Leary, who is an extraordinary genealogist, tackles the subject in an article entitled,Sally Heming’s Children: A Genealogical Analysis of the Evidence,” which starts on page 165.  It is a 40-plus page article, long, but well-worth taking the time to print out and read. Helen illustrates use of the Genealogical Proof Standard to one of this country’s most enduring mysteries: Was Thomas Jefferson the father of Sally Heming’s children?

In Helen’s gifted hands, the evidence is laid out (truly massive amounts of evidence), every hypothesis tested, each conflict addressed and a clearer conclusion you won’t find anywhere. Helen is a masterful teacher, and a thorough researcher. I feel like I grew as a researcher just seeing how she approached the topic and addressed each and every concern. I will continue to apply these methods to my own research.

DNA testing performed in 1998 matched Sally Hemings youngest son Eston’s DNA to that of a Jefferson male. Along with the other evidence, I particularly enjoyed how Helen illustrated handling of bias on the part of researchers, and how that bias can negatively affect results. This article also showed how you can’t the play the game of “XYZ coulda happened” with research. Genealogy is not about coulda, woulda, shoulda.

I’ll leave you with a clip from the 1870 census that this article discusses that just blew my mind. In 1870, a census taker in Ross County, Ohio, enumerated Sally’s son Madison (most of whom went on to live as white people) and wrote the following notation into the census next to his name:

“This man is the son of Thomas Jefferson!”

1870 census

Now, that has got to make you say Wow. I’ve never seen anything like that before. I hope you’ll go read this article, come back here and let me know what you thought. I encourage you to read the entire issue: an article by Thomas Jones dissects the “official” report done by the Thomas Jefferson Scholars Commission (who continue to deny the pairing), and there is an excellent article by Gary B. Mills about proving children of master-slave relationships.

Read Full Post »

My good friend Marion has completed her book about the segregated Union High School of Caroline County, VA. I was lucky enough to share in many of the ups and downs of her two-plus year research journey, and I know what a labor of love this book is. As soon as I got my copy, I read it from cover to cover. It is a wonderful, wonderful book. Marion’s enslaved ancestors were from Caroline County and it was during her genealogy research that she became enamored of the story of this high school and its central role in the lives of African-Americans.

This book captures the essence of genealogy: it is not about a single family or lineage, but rather about a community and a snapshot of a certain time and place. While we uncover dates and names to add to our family trees, it is this kind of work that puts substance and meaning into those names. Although my family is not from Caroline County, I can’t help but to know that many of their experiences were the experiences of most African-Americans in the early 20th century. The memories she recorded: walking miles to get to schools that were sometimes dilapidated but filled with passionate instructors, working on the family farm every day, leaving school to continue work or get married, respecting teachers and administrators at school because they knew your parents—all of these recollections could be my ancestors in Tennessee, Maryland or Florida during that timeframe. I am awed by the sacrifices that were made in the name of education. I so wish the students of today could have a better understanding of these realities, and perhaps a better appreciation for it.

Marion interviewed dozens of former Union High students and visited numerous libraries & research facilities during her research. She collected pictures and digitized yearbooks, and found the original deeds for the land, and gathered pamphlets and albums of the school band and traced many students through their college years at Virginia State University.

I am envious of the work Marion has done with such passion, tenacity and resilience. Recording the history of the communities we research is such important work. If we don’t do it, who will? Please rush and pick up a copy of this book (and be sure to follow her blog on preserving local history as well!) I promise it is well worth the cost.

Read Full Post »

I just finished reading a wonderful article on slave housing in Montgomery County, Maryland, where one of my branches is from. A small part of the article is posted here.

Boone Cty, SC

Boone Cty, SC

I’ve been pondering alot lately how we need to reconsider how our enslaved ancestors lived; the physical dimensions of that space and what it said about their lives. Not long ago I posted a recommendation for a book called “Back of the Big House”, and that book got me thinking about the topic much more deeply. It pains me that so many slave houses are no longer standing.

My mind, like so many others, had been imprinted with the more common images attached to the slave experience: large plantations, fields of slaves, whippings and slave cabins. My genealogy research has shown me that slavery was a dynamic institution, ever-changing, and different from farm to master to crop. There were enslaved people doing mining, and barbering, working on ships, in factories, and in stores. There were slaves hiring themselves out, and making their own money. The nature of rice farming was very different from tobacco which was different than cotton. Though whipping was common, there were other forms of punishment. We have to challenge all our assumptions about the institution. I know I did.

The slave’s physical housing could speak to how much privacy (or lack thereof) they were allowed. Were 2 large families sharing a space or given separate ones? It could speak to the largess of the owner; was the housing minimal but not decrepit? How far were they spaced from the overseer’s house? Many small farms housed slaves in the master’s same house, in the loft space above the kitchen or other outbuildings. What did that mean for how much control the master had over their lives? Was the master boastful, setting out rows of slave cabins out front for all to see, or hiding them in back, out of immediate view of visitors?

Mt. Vernon I remember taking this picture of a slave “dormitory” at Mt. Vernon (George Washington’s plantation). It had never occurred to me that slaves ever lived in anything like this.

I was equally surprised when I found pictures of stone and brick housing, duplex housing, and the myriad other forms that remove that “log cabin–field slave” image out of my mind. Yes, there were certainly log cabins, but many other types as well.

How did Malinda and her children live down in rural west Tennessee? What kind of housing did the slaveowner Nathan Cook provide in Maryland? How did they live in that space, and how did that affect the slave experience for them?

From cestsuzanne.com

Have you searched for pictures of surviving slave housing in the area where your ancestors lived? I found only a few websites that included images of slave housing: The Missouri State Park, a dig at Monticello, and a school resource site in the UK. A promising site for Virginia doesn’t seem yet to be complete.

As we tell the story of our enslaved ancestors, let’s not forget the physical aspect of their day-to-day lives.

Consider this sobering description from Booker T. Washington’s “Up From Slavery:”

The cabin was not only our living-place, but was also used as the kitchen for the plantation. My mother was the plantation cook. The cabin was without glass windows; it had only openings in the side which let in the light, and also the cold, chilly air of winter. There was a door to the cabin — that is, something that was called a door — but the uncertain hinges by which it was hung, and the large cracks in it, to say nothing of the fact that it was too small, made the room a very uncomfortable one. In addition to these openings there was, in the lower right-hand corner of the room, the “cat-hole,” — a contrivance which almost every mansion or cabin in Virginia possessed during the ante-bellum period. The “cat-hole” was a square opening, about seven by eight inches, provided for the purpose of letting the cat pass in and out of the house at will during the night. In the case of our particular cabin I could never understand the necessity for this convenience, since there were at least a half-dozen other places in the cabin that would have accommodated the cats. There was no wooden floor in our cabin, the naked earth being used as a floor. In the centre of the earthen floor there was a large, deep opening covered with boards, which was used as a place in which to store sweet potatoes during the winter. An impression of this potato- hole is very distinctly engraved upon my memory, because I recall that during the process of putting the potatoes in or taking them out I would often come into possession of one or two, which I roasted and thoroughly enjoyed. There was no cooking-stove on our plantation, and all the cooking for the whites and slaves my mother had to do over an open fireplace, mostly in pots and “skillets.” While the poorly built cabin caused us to suffer with cold in the winter, the heat from the open fireplace in summer was equally trying.

Read Full Post »

I thought I’d share a few genealogy-related recommendations which I haven’t done in awhile.

If you don’t have my friend Michael’s “Online State Resources for Genealogy” yet, then get it now. It is a great addition to any genealogist’s collection—all the links are arranged by state and are free. The guide is $15 and well worth it with the time he saves you by finding the big and small websites associated with colleges, archives & independent sites. It’s really useful when you are diving into a new state for research. I just pull up his PDF file and click away.

He’s also got a new blog on genealogy as a profession which is quite nice. Check him out.

The National Genealogical Society (NGS) has a series of outstanding booklets called “Research in the States“. I’m always surprised more people don’t know about these books. These concisely describe all the major record sets and locations in the focus state, including archives, libraries, universities, and all the major record types. These are a steal and I’ve bought ones for every one of my states. Each is written by scholars who specialize in that particular state, and will key you in to specific collections and information–all I’ve purchased have been invaluable. Members get a discount, but the public can purchase them usually for under $20. They are AWESOME.Note: Every state is not completed yet.


Some great reads lately: “The Warmth of Other Suns” was a sweeping, epic of a novel that sucks you in and doesn’t let go. The author describes the great black migration North and uses the lives of three people to illustrate the reasons and changes that the migration caused. The people she chose are meant to be representative of three of the major routes: One person migrated from Louisiana to California, another from Florida to New York, another from Mississippi to Chicago. The author is a professor of narrative non-fiction and it shows—I wish I could write like that. I have recommended this book to at least 10 friends and family and they all read and loved this book. It is a GEM of a book.

Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery” by John Michael Vlach is intriguing in a different way. He shows examples of plantations around the country with slave quarters still extant (at the time of the pictures which was the 1930s, 40s). He deftly discussions what the houses said about not just the masters but the slaves themselves and their lives. This book expanded my thinking in that I saw many different types of slave housing that I had not seen before and because the floor plans are included, I could visualize and imagine my ancestor’s lives as enslaved people in more vivid detail.  There were several pictures included from areas I am researching, like Lawrence County, Alabama. The book also provides the layout of various plantations in general which was interesting. Some owners wanted to “hide” the slave housing from the front of the main house, while others wanted the slaves’ houses built on the path to the main house as a display of wealth. Very interesting book. The commentary is well-written and detailed.

 One last book: “Dark Bargain: Slavery, Profits and the Struggle for the Constitution” by Lawrence Goldstone. I picked this up at a discount book store and put it aside for a about a year until I got to it, and it blew me away. Here is a quote that sums it up: “Regardless of how events played out, sectionalism and slavery are key to understanding the major debates and compromises in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787.” This book focuses on the “deals” made to preserve slavery at the Constitutional Convention, but from a different perspective than you’ve heard. The author first describes the major players from the states, men like John Rutledge of South Carolina, and three others whose actions and popularity drove many of the biggest decisions.  You really get a feel for all these characters from Maryland and Virginia, Connecticut, North Carolina and the other states. There’s some fascinating but sad tidbits in here—shows how the influence of just a few people, and sectional interests were at the heart of slavery’s preservation in the Constitution. For example, the North was willing to let the South win big battles over slavery because the North  didn’t want maritime tariffs levied–they were making too much money with shipping. This book opened my eyes in a lot of ways.

I’ll leave you with a new website I like: Phototree.com. Nice to compare some of those old pictures you might have lying around and get a firmer date on them. Plus, lots of good learning here.

If you read (or have read) any of the above books or get a chance to peruse the website or buy the PDF, let me know I’d love to hear from you.

Read Full Post »

Recently, I solved a genealogical mystery that I’d had for many, many years. As fellow genealogists, you can imagine how immensely satisfying this was. The solution utilized many tools, but black newspapers and the ease with which we can now search some of them deserves the biggest praise for solving the puzzle. My friend Tim Pinnick, who offers a class in newspapers at Family Tree University and a free e-newsletter, has been preaching and teaching about black newspapers for years.  He has even written a book on the topic, which I would highly recommend for your personal library.

The puzzle starts in Hardin County, TN, where one branch of my research is centered. The 1880 census showed two black men named “James Holt”, around the same age. One was living with his brother, one was newly married and living with his wife. For years I thought they were the same man, and the census taker had made an error. Only through deed records did I realize they were different men. The marriage of the 2nd James was not shown in marriage records, but his wife is listed in the land records when he is selling land, thus delineating him from the other James, who had a different wife at the same time. To further confuse—the 2nd James married the sister of the wife of the 1st James. But I digress.

About 4 years ago, I found this 2nd James living in Obion County, TN in 1900. I was pretty sure it was the same man (his kids had names like Phlenarie, Ferdinand & Ollie), but he had a different wife (Alora). His occupation was listed as a minister. And that’s where my trail ran cold—again. I simply could never find him again and realized he was probably moving a lot with the church. This is the 1900 entry for him & his family:

A family relative had saved oral history, pictures & other memorabilia with regard to this family. One photo showed a well-dressed black couple labeled “Mr. and Mrs. George and Ollie Knucklis.”

A separate postcard was addressed to “Aunt Nannie” and was signed Ollie. Perhaps this Ollie was the daughter of James Holt listed in the 1900 census? That hunch turned out to be right. The photographer’s studio from the picture was located in Chattanooga. It is there in 1930, and 1910 that I found the couple living. However, in 1920 I found them in Indianapolis, IN (Ollie was misspelled as Dollie). Hmm.

I used the Indiana records at Familysearch.org (marriage & death) to try to look for Ollie or any of her siblings in Indianapolis & I found a Ferdinand Holt who looked promising as her brother. Ancestry had indexed the Indianapolis Star newspaper, and a search in that paper turned up a court case (my specialty) between George & Ollie Knucklis. James Holt was listed next to Ollie’s name—could that be her father? It had not occurred to me to look for him in Indianapolis. I don’t know why–I suppose I was focused on the children by now.

A census search for him found a James Holt, born in TN, living in Indianapolis in 1920 & 1930 but the wife is different (now Harriet) and his occupation is lawyer. Well, this couldn’t be the man I was looking for—he was a minister after all…right? Short answer, of course it was him. My GenealogyBank subscription finally got put to good use, and I searched the black newspaper The Indianapolis Freemen which is archived on the site. Searching James Holt (and later J.M. Holt) turned up numerous articles on this popular, politically active man. I learned that he had been a prominent minister—then went to law school at Central in Louisville & became a lawyer! A profile in the paper even turned up a picture of him—genealogy solid gold:

Articles described his ministry in other states (he was all over the place) including his stint in Jacksonville, FL which is where he was in the 1910 census. I was able to eventually find his subsequent marriages and also his death certificate in Indianapolis. The marriage record for his son Ferdinand made everything conclusive when it noted his parents were James Holt and Mintha Barnes. Wow.

Part of what also helped is simply growing in my analytical skills over the years. I don’t think I could have solved this five years ago. I wrote up a five-page PDF file of this research and my approach to solving it, if you’re interested email me and I’ll send you a copy.

This is the part of genealogy that just makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up! The story the newspapers outlined about this James Holt—the son of an enslaved woman—was fascinating. Without the Indianapolis Freemen newspaper, I would never have realized this was the same person…there were just too many changes.  Just another chapter I have reclaimed from the annals of our precious often-times lost history.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: