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):
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:
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.