Archive for the ‘Online Research’ Category

I have no idea how I’m going to keep my job. The internet keeps offering these incredible websites that beg for hours of exploration.

The American Historical Association blog highlighted the Forum Network website the other day and it is mind-blowing. It’s a collaboration between PBS and NPR to offer free audio and video lectures on hundreds of topics.


They have 129 lectures in the African American culture series alone. One series, “Slavery and the Making of America” offers the following lectures, among many others:

  • “Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property”
  • “Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom”
  • “Robert Smalls: Yearning to Breathe Free”
  • “Clinging to Mammy: Our Relationship to Slavery”
  • “Complicity: How the North Profited from Slavery”
  • “Modern Slavery: MIT-BBC Symposium”

It doesn’t end there. There’s a series of lectures on the Civil War, Native Americans, the Civil Rights Movement, Ken Burns Jazz, and Abolition—all kinds of stuff. Not just history, there’s science and culture and most any other topic you can think of.

All you need to do is sign up for a free username and password and you’re ready to go. I am in heaven!!!!! Thanks again to the American Historical Association. There are simply not enough hours in the day.

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The Digital Library on American Slavery is a web-based database that contains 18 years worth of research from the Race and Slavery Petitions Project. The site has been updated and anyone researching slaves and slavery should take some time to utilize this wonderful resource.

Here’s a little background from the site:

The Digital Library on American Slavery offers data on race and slavery extracted from eighteenth and nineteenth-century documents and processed over a period of eighteen years. The Digital Library contains detailed information on about 150,000 individuals, including slaves, free people of color, and whites. These data have been painstakingly extracted from 2,975 legislative petitions and 14,512 county court petitions, and from a wide range of related documents, including wills, inventories, deeds, bills of sale, depositions, court proceedings, amended petitions, among others. Buried in these documents are the names and other data on roughly 80,000 individual slaves, 8,000 free people of color, and 62,000 whites, both slave owners and non-slave owners…Established in 1991, the Race and Slavery Petitions Project was designed to locate, collect, organize, and publish all extant legislative petitions relevant to slavery, and a selected group of county court petitions from the fifteen former slaveholding states and the District of Columbia, during the period from the American Revolution through the Civil War. ..The Project now holds 2,975 legislative petitions and approximately 14,512 county court petitions.

Here’s a chart showing the states represented:


You can search the site from the home screen using the basic search criteria or choose several other advanced searching options. You can also limit the searches using keywords, for example, you could put your county name in to pull up those entries only. I did a search for petitions from Maryland during the period of 1820-1850 and got 533 results:


Each entry is numbered and summarized and the site explains how to order copies of the actual petitions for yourself if you find one relevant to your research. Here are two examples:

Claiborne County, TN, 1841
Abstract: Lewis, “a man of Color,” represents that “he was the property of William Graham Esquire … and was by him (amongst others of his slave property) [directed] in his will to be emancipated.” Noting that Graham’s executors “have performed the trust confided to them,” Lewis laments that “the act of assembly require for them to leave the State.” He further submits that “he is now getting old” and that “he has a wife & several children, from whom he feels a great hardship to be separated.” The petitioner therefore “prays that your Honorable body would … so modify the Law, that he might be permitted to remain in this State.”

TN, 1841
Abstract: Thirty-one petitioners, lamenting the deplorable condition of people of color and citing rights promised in the Constitution, seek a gradual end to slavery. The petitioners argue that slaveholders should be permitted to free their slaves on terms that will not involve their estates so long as the emancipated slaves can maintain themselves. They also argue that descendants of slaves born after the passage of an emancipation law should be freed when they reach a certain age. Black people to be freed should be taught a useful occupation and to read the Scriptures. Lastly, a law should be passed prohibiting within the state “the inhuman practice of separating husbands and wives.”

The website  is easy to use, beautifully organized, and a wealth of information. Take a look at some of the categories of entries, which you can also browse:



Obviously, it does not contain every single record, but it does contain a very large (in fact huge) representative sample that is outstanding. Kudos to Loren Schweninger and his entire research team for making a tool that both historians and genealogists can utilize.

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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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I have been absent from my blog. I started teaching my Advanced African American Genealogy course at Howard County Community College, and I’ve spent the last few weeks revamping my class from last semester. I’m always excited about the class and meeting my students. So I haven’t had alot of time to post lately, but I plan to remedy that this weekend. For now, I thought I’d share some of my most favorite, coolest websites in the world. Well, maybe that’s a little strong, but these are some that I tend to go back to again & again:

Hope you find some little nuggets above that you find interesting. If you know of a great website you’ve utilized for your genealogy research (besides the major ones we all know: Library of Congress, Cyndi’s list, NARA, Ancestry, Footnote, all the newspaper ones, etc.) please do share in the comments here.

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I find myself thinking about this question a lot when it comes to my family history. It has never for me been about “gathering names” or seeing how far back I can go. I have always grappled with trying to recreate my ancestor’s lives, trying to understand the forces of history they lived through and what drove them. What connects my life to theirs? What’s different? Those issues endlessly fascinate me. I think those are the things that inform us and have the potential to ever so slightly turn the lens of life that we see ourselves and our own lives through. I know who am I and where I am as a young woman today (well maybe not so young anymore) because each branch of family–so different, shaped by vastly different lives—collectively moved the ball forward for me to have greater opportunities.  And I embrace all of that.

I’m always trying to encourage people to take a break from researching long enough to actually write up your research. I know it’s hard and trust me, I have a few lines I still need to write up. But thinking about the details about what their lives were like can provide the meat to make your write-up interesting. No one will read a list of names and dates with much interest, but if you can make it come alive (and you don’t have to be Toni Morrison) you can get some serious credibility with the family. Here are some ideas and questions to ask as you ponder what their lives were like:

  • Many of our ancestors were farmers. What crops did they grow? What kinds of animals did they have? Check the agricultural census. How did that shape their lives? Growing tobacco is very different from corn or wheat. Read up on it or do some research at this cool website on agriculture. Were they sharecroppers or landowners?
  • Some of our ancestors were professionals, such as teachers and ministers, some were business owners. I found out all manner of detail on my great-grandfather who was a Methodist minister through the journals at Drew University, which is the archives for the Methodist church.
  • What was going on in the nation politically, socially, and economically that shaped their lives ? Of course most of us know the enormous role that race played. What was the news of the day? What about locally? Blackpast is one of my favorite sites for researching African American history timelines. I found out long after my paternal grandmother died that there was a lynching in her town of Salisbury, MD while she lived there in the 1930s…I would have liked to ask her about that experience.
  • What kinds of technology impacted their lives? My mother remembers the exact year her family got a television set. My maternal grandmother recalled life before refrigerators, which is still hard for me to imagine. But then I tell younger people that we didn’t have the internet or email when I was in college, they look at me like I’m 100 years old!
  • What games did they play as kids? What did they do for fun? My grandmother talked about going to shows/parties at school (which somehow would never have occurred to me in rural Tennessee) but also about spending lots of time socially at church. Her father told the children folktales that she remembered very fondly, scary stories at that.
  • If they got to go, what did their schoolhouse look like? What subjects were taught and how long did they go for? Did many people in the community get to go to school, or was that something only a lucky few got to do? I found a picture of my grandmothers Tennessee schoolhouse (which burned down in the 1940s) in “Negro School Records” at the State Archives…she would have enjoyed seeing that.
  • What music did they listen to? Did they have a radio? (you can find that data on the 1930 census) What movies did they watch?
  • What kinds of food did they eat regularly? This link talks about foods the enslaved ate. My great-uncle who grew up on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, recalled the fresh crabs they caught and the oyster fritters and other seafood treats.

I could go on and on…this is just a small sampling of the multitude of thoughts that go through my head when I am trying to recreate my ancestors’ lives. What questions do you ask yourself when wondering what their lives were like?

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Brown University released a report back in 2006 entitled “Slavery and Justice.” I just read it and found it well worth the time–I encourage you to read it. A steering committee was formed at Brown whose purpose was twofold:

Our primary task was to examine the University’s historical entanglement with slavery and the slave trade and to report our findings openly and truthfully. But we were also asked to reflect on the meaning of this history in
the present, on the complex historical, political,
legal, and moral questions posed by any present day
confrontation with past injustice.

The little tiny state of Rhode Island (believe it or not) had a central role in the slave trade and the Brown brothers, for whom the school is named after, all played roles in the institution. The report goes into great detail using the school’s archives.

It provides a good overview of slavery in New England, and the website includes a database of all the historical documents used in the report. The report ends with several recommendations for the University in terms of moving forward, and the school responded by endorsing a set of initiatives based on the report. Earlier this year, they recommended building a memorial to acknowledge the slaves ties of the University.

I think this is a good thing. Too many institutions today want to forget their historical ties to slavery when the exact opposite is what should be happening: acknowledging the truth and continuing to educate the public. This is true moral leadership and I applaud Brown. The report stops short of offering apologies, but this was a bold and courageous move.

We are still, as a society, struggling with the effects of slavery–all of us. I hope other universities and institutions take heed.

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j0439262I enjoy sharing resources I love with other genealogists. Today I want to share the possibilities for genealogical research that are buried in theses and dissertations.

When I am reading a historical book or article, I tend to notice the footnotes first. I’m looking to see if there are any resources for that subject or location that I have missed, and in general I’m just curious as to what sources the author is using. Think about it: Ph. D students are master researchers. Their resulting theses and dissertations can be a boon for genealogical research. Other than pointing the way to missed or hidden resources, I like the fact that many of them give social context to understanding the lives and times my ancestors lived in. After all, one of my biggest passions is trying to encourage us all to step away from digging awhile in order to actually write up a narrative on your family lineages (fully sourced of course). Once we’ve gotten the names/dates/places, many of us are stuck about how to craft an interesting story. Theses and dissertations are just one more way to find that kind of information.

The great news is that the Internet now provides instant access to many of these documents, particularly for the last 5 years or so. In fact, many universities now mandate that these works be submitted electronically. Here are just a few examples of some of these websites:

Even better, is the Networked Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations which compiles a listing from many schools.

As an example of using this type of resource, let me walk through the University of Maryland (UM) link shown first above. The homepage tells you that there is a link containing theses and dissertations from 1997, but that link is restricted to only University of Maryland staff, students & faculty. However, their “DRUM” database is publicly accessible and contains full text downloadable documents dating from 2003. So we click on that link.

Then, I like to find the link that allows me to browse by department or category—for the UM site, that’s available from the link on the left that says “Browse by Communities and Collections.” I do this because remember, a college has all kinds of theses and dissertations (engineering school, divinity school, etc.), but I’m primarily interested in ones done by the History Department or perhaps those in Sociology, or even Political Science. Those are typically in the College of Arts and Humanities. Once the list pulls up, I click on “History Theses and Dissertations” and it allows me to do a search.

I search for keywords like slave, slavery, African-American, blacks, etc. but I also search for the county or city I’m interested in, and anything else I can think of. Be creative. Part of my family research is in Maryland so I’m generally interested in the experience of blacks throughout the state, and in a few counties specifically. Look at some of the documents I found at the UM site using some of these search terms:

  • “‘There Slavery Cannot Dwell': Agriculture and Labor in Northern Maryland, 1790-1860″, by Max L. Grivno (this one actually has very detailed information about slavery in Frederick and Washington counties)
  • “A Tradition of Struggle: Preserving Sites of Significance to African American History in Prince George’s County, Maryland, 1969-2007“, by Courtney Elizabeth Michael (this was especially interesting to me since I grew up in PG County)
  • “Capital Constructions: Race and the Reimagining of Washington, D.C.’s Local History in the Twentieth Century”, by Megan Elizabeth Harris

Look at these titles from Pennsylvania State University:

  • “Black East St. Louis: Politics and Economy in a Border City, 1860-1945”, by Charles L. Lumpkins
  • “On the Edge of Freedom: The Fugitive Slave Issue in South Central Pennsylvania, 1820-1870″, by David Grant Smith

Isn’t this wonderful? And get this: most are available immediately as downloadable PDF documents!

If you haven’t tried this research avenue yet, give it a shot. A couple of things to remember:

  • Check elite ivy-league schools, large state schools and smaller local colleges, but don’t forget Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) which may have a higher proportion of theses and dissertations with emphasis on African-American history
  • Many sites won’t allow full access to all theses & dissertations; portions may be restricted, but ALL should be available in hardcopy at that institution if you live nearby and really want to take a look. Also, I found that some universities seem to have third-party relationships with Proquest/UMI Databases to handle this function, and some of those I couldn’t access.
  • Think in broad terms. We want to understand our ancestors lives from the 1700s (and before, if possible) right up until today, so a dissertation about the lives of blacks in your city in the 1960s is going to be just as meaningful from a story-telling perspective as an article about freed blacks in the 1850s in your city.
  • Although I recommend starting in the History department, don’t think good information can’t be found in other departments. At the University of TN, I found one called :“The Health Status of Early 20th Century Blacks from Providence Baptist Church Cemetery in Shelby County, Tennessee”by Rebecca J. Wilson. She was getting her Masters in Anthropology!
  • I’m sure I don’t need to state the obvious, but of course, be mindful of plagiarism and copyright issues as you utilize information found in theses and dissertations.
  • I always like to send the authors a brief email if possible letting them know how useful their theses or dissertation was for me.
  • Remember, many of the dissertations are easily 500 pages, so don’t plan on printing them out unless you have plenty of paper! I typically will zero in on the Abstract and any sections that are especially relevant, including of course the footnotes.

I’d love to hear back from you if you found something useful using this process. Good luck!

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