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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.

MC900390920My friend Aaron calls them artificial. They can also be called self-imposed brick walls. We say this to mean we have labelled something a brick wall that really isn’t a brick wall. We call them that even though we haven’t done our due diligence in terms of careful research. Consider these examples:

We declare the brick wall of not being able to find an ancestor in a census year but we haven’t tried multiple spellings and pronunciations,
haven’t used wildcard searches,
haven’t searched surrounding counties,
haven’t searched other census websites other than Ancestry,
haven’t considered a migration out of state and biggest of all—
haven’t done a line-by-line search in the district or county we expect to find them in.

We declare a brick wall, but we have only been to one or two repositories in person, or worse still, have done all our research online.

We declare a brick wall,
but have used books and websites to collect information without ordering and examining firsthand the original record.

We declare a brick wall,
but we’ve only searched 2 or 3 TYPES of records such as census records, vital records and the “easy” databases on Ancestry (like World War I draft cards). We haven’t even tried to search land records, court records, church records, maps, city directories, probate records, newspapers and other record sets.

We declare a brick wall,
but we’ve only been searching for our direct ancestor and maybe his wife and children. We have not expanded to the group (or “cluster”) of people that were associated with our ancestors and would significantly increase our chances for success.

We declare a brick wall,
after jumping back several generations, and not doing extensive research within each generation on all the siblings and children of each sibling.

We declare a brick wall, but we’re wearing cultural blinders. We aren’t considering that people may have had children outside of or before marriage, or that they may appear in the records as a different race.

We declare a brick wall,
but have never actually analyzed and correlated the evidence that we DO have. In fact, we don’t know how to evaluate the evidence. We believe everything we see in print is factual, accurate and true. If two records give conflicting information, we have no idea which one is correct.

We declare a brick wall,
and have never tried to find living descendants of any of the family members.

We declare a brick wall,
but never stopped to consider our ancestor may have had multiple marriages. We also never actually verified the mother of each child separately from the father.

We declare a brick wall,
but have never expanded our search to less common but potentially valuable records stored onsite at universities, historical and genealogical societies. And-

(my personal favorite)

We declare a brick wall,
but have never actually read a book on genealogy methodology or any of the thousands of teaching articles published in genealogy journals. We have progressed mainly by asking others what to do next instead of taking the time to learn ourselves “what to do next.”

I could go on and on, but I think you get the point. Genealogy is a learned skill and a profession with defined standards. You get good at it by practice and by education. I define “good” as using best practices for careful research and ultimately being able to discern clues that don’t jump off the page. That’s what will set you apart from when you were a beginner. I look at evidence I gathered in earlier years and see things now I couldn’t possibly see then. You have to progress away from “looking up” people in databases and learn how to “look into” people’s lives, which is a different animal altogether.

I have been guilty of many of these artificial brick walls myself and have had to overcome my special tendency to declare someone dead when I can’t find them;) But I’ve gotten better over the years by constantly educating myself and learning about methodology and resources. I hope you will too. Tell me in the comments, which artificial brick walls you have been guilty of?

MP900390424Sometimes—well, probably a lot of times—our research veers off into an unexpected direction. Usually its because we come across a person or a circumstance that is of interest.

My 3rd great-grandfather, Perry Simpson, married a woman named Margaret Fleet. I found her family quite interesting, even though she technically is not a blood relative.

After their marriage, they lived in Montgomery County, MD, but Margaret was originally from Washington, D.C, which is my own birthplace. Margaret can be found on the 1850, 1860, and 1870 census records in the 1st Ward of Washington D.C., a freed black woman before general emancipation came. By 1860 she had 7 children: Robert, Annett, Cora, Edward, Augustus, Willy and Mary. After those years, Margaret appeared in Montgomery County, MD with her new husband Perry Simpson.

This is the record that made me “turn left” (click image to enlarge):

1880UnitedStatesFederalCensusForEdwardFleet

1880 Census

  I was fascinated by the fact that Mary’s father’s birthplace was “Mexico.” Was this a fluke? Was he really Mexican? I started tracking this family through the available records. Although Margaret birthed many children before her marriage to Perry –9 according to the 1900 census—no known record documents a marriage to any other man.

In 1850, Margaret was a freed black woman in a city bursting with contradictions. Amid thousands of freed blacks living and working in the city, were enslaved “quasi-free” people, many of whom were working and living on their own while paying their masters monthly fees. Washington had been the site of an active slave trade, and a notorious slave pen making it an easy target for abolitionists looking to shame the young nation. In 1850, the slave trade was finally outlawed in D.C. During the next decade, events would continue to escalate around slavery, finally culminating in Civil War. In 1862, slavery itself was outlawed in the district creating a haven for thousands of enslaved people from the surrounding states. “First Freed: Washington D.C. in the Emancipation Era,” edited by Elizabeth Clark-Lewis is a good book to read to understand what life was like for African-Americans in D.C. at that time.

Margaret had been fortunate; she came from a family of skilled artisans. Her father was Henry Fleet Jr., a freed black shoemaker from Georgetown, who learned the trade from his father, the senior Henry Fleet. Today, Georgetown is a mecca of white wealth and privilege, but it had historically been home to a thriving freed black community. Henry Fleet Sr. purchased his wife Ann and “5 or 6 children” and later freed them, something many skilled blacks were able to do if allowed by the slaveowner. Henry Fleet Sr. was doing well enough that several boys were apprenticed to him in the early 1800s to learn the trade of shoemaking. An 1803 apprenticeship document notes that “He purchased his son Henry Jr. in 1812 and he is also a shoemaker.

In 1864, while living at K Street and 21st street, Margaret was assessed $25 in the brand new federal tax system as a “Retail Liquor Dealer”. In 1870, Margaret is still in D.C., and her daughters Annie (living with her) and Cora living next door are both dressmakers. This would have been one of the best occupations for a freed blackwoman of that era. I wonder if they would have known Elizabeth Keckley, the freed black dressmaker for Mrs. Lincoln?

In that same 1870 census, Sarah Carter, Margaret’s mother, is living with her and is 100 years old! Margaret also owns $1000 worth of real estate, no small feat for a black woman.

U.S.IRSTaxAssessmentLists1862-1918ForMargaretFleet

1864 Tax Assessment

1870 Fleet

1870 Fleet

In 1873, Margaret opened an account with the Washington D.C. branch of the Freedmen’s Bank, naming her new husband Perry and her children:

Freedmans Bank

Freedmans Bank

Her sons Robert (a policeman) and Edward also opened accounts. Most of Margaret’s children can be tracked through their marriages, vital and land records and city directories in D.C. The death certificate of her daughter Annett names a “Greg Jarvis” as her father. That man, Greg Jarvis, appears in the 1850 and 1860 Washington D.C. census also living in the 1st Ward. By 1860 he is married with children:

1850 Jarvis

1850 Jarvis

1860 Jarvis

1860 Jarvis

In these records, Jarvis is shown as being from Mexico and also New Mexico–it was probably the Territory of New Mexico (it was not a state yet). The Mexican War had just been ended by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the country was also reeling from the recent Compromise of 1850. I wonder what would have brought him East?

Jarvis also went from being a “mulatto” in 1850 to being “white” with an Irish wife in 1860. So what his racial background is exactly we can’t quite tell. This man appears to be heading two families, at least for awhile: one black, one white. It is unknown whether he fathered all of the children of Margaret Fleet, but documents tie him to at least 3 of her children.

A mortgage executed in Montgomery County in 1911 noted Margaret’s date of death and listed all of her heirs living at the time, who had inherited her land:

“Edward G. Fleet, Sr. & wife Lucinda William Fleet & his wife Blossie, Mary Fleet, widow Harry Fleet, unmarried, Anna Grant, widow Cora Lemos, widow Augustus Fleet & his wife Sarah, Mary Lemos & her husband Beverly”

Margaret, amazingly, lived into her early 90s, long enough to leave a death certificate:

Death Cert

Death Cert

Margaret’s life was pretty interesting and only goes to prove that sometimes veering off-course is absolutely well worth it.

My 14-year-old ggrandmother Martha Simpson was serving in the 1860 Howard County, MD household of William R. Warfield. A special set of records called Slave Statistics available in some Maryland counties connects slaveholders with the names of their former slaves. I was surprised to find this for Warfield (his heirs):

WmRWarfield_PERRY
Warfield owned Martha’s father, Perry Simpson (no. 2 on the list above). Martha and her siblings had been born to a freed black woman, Louisa, illustrating that freed blacks often married enslaved people. We’ve got be open to looking out for this scenario in our research, especially in areas like Virginia and Maryland where there were relatively large numbers of freed blacks.

Using the basic methodology for researching slaves, I checked the probate records of William Warfield’s father and found Perry listed as a young boy:

BealeWarfield1
I can’t say exactly who Perry’s mother is–there are at least 3 women of age to be his mother in the inventory (all the slaves are not shown in the clip above). For many of us researching enslaved ancestors, this is usually “the end of the road”; an inventory in the slaveowner’s estate. That’s it. I’ve shown it here on my blog before. Most of the time, enslaved people will not be listed by family. Sometimes you are lucky enough, and I do mean LUCKY enough to find: personal papers, bible or court records that name or discuss the enslaved family or even freedmen’s bank or pension records that name the mother or siblings of that enslaved individual. Even if you find that mother, again, she’s usually listed in someone’s inventory. Mariann Regan’s blog, “Into the Briar Patch,” discusses the type of record a slaveowner might have that would be priceless for the descendants of slaves. Marian has been kind and generous enough to transcribe and share these extraordinary records with the public. But the vast majority of us will hit a brick wall at that estate inventory.

I had a hard time coming to grips with that reality. There’s a sadness–a melancholy for me in this. I so badly want to know who Malinda’s mother was, who Harriet’s mother was, or who Margaret’s mother was, separated from her at age 13 as she was. And for that matter, who were their fathers? It’s like the fathers never were, the tragic inevitability of a system built on sexual exploitation. Was Sarah, my earliest documented ancestor, born ca. 1750, an African woman? She easily could have been. Was she Igbo, Mende or Angolan? I have so many unanswered questions.

People love to ask how far back you’ve gotten in your genealogy. That isn’t the most important thing to me. For most African-Americans, we’re fortunate to trace roots back to the 1800s and in a truly elite group if we can trace back to the 1700s. I suppose in some sense, everyone comes to end of the “documented” record—even though for many Europeans it may be much earlier, perhaps the 1500’s in Russia, Poland, Ireland, England or some other Old World country.

Someone asked me recently why I do genealogy. What makes it interesting or meaningful (as it was not to the person asking)? I had to pause. What is it that continues to drive me personally to spend thousands of hours through the years in courthouses, archives, libraries, in books and online, in meetings and blogging, learning about resources and methodology, obsessively and compulsively digging for more, more and more? I realized it’s not just any one thing.

Initially, it is the new information, the puzzles we crack, the names we uncover that drives us most. Discovery is always simply thrilling in and of itself. I would have never dreamed of freed black ancestors from the early 1800s or that my Tennessee roots started in Alabama, or even (on the negative side) that I had an ancestor who was lynched and one who died after World War I in a mental hospital.

But its also something much more. Because of the tragedy of slavery, I consider it a radical act to seek out and find the names of and explore the lives of enslaved people.  In that process I am truly “reclaiming” pieces of myself.  It also represents my connectedness and my entry way to history. It is through researching my family that history has been made real for me. Be it African civilizations, slavery, Native Americans, the U.S. and French Revolutions, west ward expansion, the Civil War, emancipation, the Great Migration, industrialization, World War I and II (and on and on) I approach all of those topics from the perspective of my family. I think about:

—Joshua, born during the revolution and before we were the United States;
—Mason, who migrated west with owners and was present at the founding of the state of Kentucky;
—Daniel, an ordained minister with the Maryland Methodist church in the early 19th century;
—John, the former slave who became the largest black landowner & postmaster in the county;
—Luther and Mattie who left Tennessee for Dayton, Ohio to find their fortunes after World War II;
—Doss, whose pride and courage made him stand up and fight during a TN race riot;
—Beatrice,  who attended the Institute for Colored Youth in the early 1910s, which became Cheyney, the first historically black college

All of them fascinate me and connect me to the very fabric of life. They fill me with pride and they increase my understanding of the world. It has filled me with a desire to write up my discoveries and share them with the world, knowing that this history truly is powerful. It also does something else–it makes me look at my own life so very differently than I would have had I not known any of this.

So even though many roads will lead to and end with a name in an estate inventory, it still has tremendous meaning for me. I honor and celebrate the lives that could not be celebrated in their own time and believe their spirits are smiling at the remembrance of their name. The search continues.

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