(You can download a copy of this article here).
I remain convinced that researching American slavery is some of the toughest, most difficult genealogical research in the field. Slavery lasted approximately 246 years in this country, still longer than the period of freedom. Brutality was central to its existence.
Most Americans forget that our country was a slave society for most of its existence.
As a descendant of enslaved people, there is a substantial emotional impact to seeing an ancestor’s name attached to a dollar value and valued in documents with silverware and cattle.
Nevertheless, I remain motivated to continue this work.
I’m on a quest really. A quest to reclaim the names, families, and experiences of as many as possible and record their stories.
I want to let the world know they were here.
Slavery Was a System
Slavery’s primary purpose was to extract labor out of a group of people, just short of death, for monetary gain. Everything else that occurred was secondary and in service to the primary purpose. It was a system held in place by extreme violence.
There was so much degradation, and pain, so much trauma in slavery and its aftermath. Enslaved people lived lives of having things taken from them. Women had their children taken, men had their wives taken, children had their innocence taken.
There are times when my mind can’t conceive words to describe what I read. It simply feels like an emotional vortex–a mixture of grief, sadness, and boiling rage.
I read about Sally’s sale away from her four children, or David being whipped to death. I read about an elderly woman valued at zero in an estate inventory, her life of labor used up, and her care and feeding now counted as a charge on the estate. I read about the couple married over 40 years, sold apart from one another.
Enslaved people were deemed unworthy to have their names recorded in the 1850 and 1860 slave census records. Their age, sex and color was all that was necessary to know.
Babies were bequeathed before they even existed, captured in the will’s ominous phrase “Charity and all of her increase.” Women were forced to become breeders, since the most intimate of relations served to enrich their owners.
Enslaved people were branded, whipped, burned, castrated, maimed, hung and tortured in more ways than I could ever do justice in naming.
However, thankfully, blessedly, gloriously, their story did not end there.
The Story Did Not End
Enslaved people created a rich culture that infuses American culture today. Their foodways, kinship ties, music, religious, healing and mourning practices, and the remembrance of their African forebears created small spaces where they could affirm their own humanity.
Yes, they suffered mightily.
But the enslaver’s attempt to destroy their humanity ultimately failed. They were never just slaves; they were fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, treasured friends, ministers, soldiers, builders, midwives, healers, culinary masters, abolitionists and skilled artisans. They were loved by someone.
We must never forget that.
It is there where I see the beauty of the enslaved. That in the midst of such degradation they found a way to live. Not just to survive—but to live. Their ingenuity, tenacity, and resilience in the face of such horror astounds me.
For this, Reclaiming Kin was born. It is an exploration and an excavation of the experiences of the enslaved.
This blog hopes to speak to descendants of slaves as well as descendants of enslavers.
In fact, white descendants who neglect to research the former slaves their family owned could be missing important information about their own families.
What We Know About Slavery
Much of what Americans commonly believe about slavery is either flat-out wrong or grossly incomplete. Historians have greatly revised our understanding of slavery within the past 50 years.
They’ve uncovered new sources, used old sources in new ways and most importantly, asked new questions.
All sources have unique strengths and weaknesses. Though there is nothing that is solely a “slave record,” we can discover information about our enslaved ancestors from a whole host of sources, such as:
In my own research, I preference sources where enslaved people spoke for themselves. These sources include slave narratives, the WPA slave interviews, civil war pensions. and southern claims commission files.
In this way, I give them back their own voice. Most importantly, I believe them.
All beginning genealogists should start their research in the present. Fully research all generations (all the siblings) prior to the period of enslavement. That will take some time to do.
I recommend reading one of the many excellent books on genealogy and African-American research. Though reading is often an unexciting thought to beginners, it leads to greater success overall and less wasted time.
Genealogy is a costly hobby in terms of time. This is why reading a good genealogy book is always my first recommendation.
Know Something About Africa
Before we begin to research slavery, we should learn a little about Africa and know that the original captives’ histories began long before they came to America’s shores. Captives came from highly advanced and wealthy civilizations. Their societies had millennia-long histories.
I detail in Reclaiming Kin why we shouldn’t believe the myth that Africans sold each other. The Schomburg Museum’s website provides maps that help us understand Africa before the Slave Trade and colonization. Their maps include the many migrations that its peoples have had to endure.
Know that these original captives would not have called or considered themselves “Africans.” Organized by political, kinship and linguistic affiliation, they were Wolof, Ibo, Fante, Yoruba, Mende, Kongo and others. “Africa” and the concept of “Africans” were products of the Slave Trade and European colonialism.
The middle passage, which brought approximately 400,000 people to North America, was extraordinarily cruel and vicious. Unfortunately, there are no passenger manifests for the original captives that most African-Americans can trace forward in time.
Stories like that of Alex Haley’s ancestors inspire us, but most African-Americans won’t discover what their ancestor’s original names or tribal affiliations were. Still, hundreds of years of history can be uncovered and this research is greatly rewarding.
Slavery in America
Once in the Americas, sale of enslaved people occurred in numerous ways. Many enslaved people were sold multiple times in their lifetimes. Slavery made some Americans very rich over time, and it changed the landscape of the country.
The invention of race occurred in the Virginia Colony in the 17th century. One of the ways we know it’s a false construction is because it changed in almost every census year. There is no doubt in my mind it will continue to do so.
The American colonies changed from being societies with slaves to slave societies, especially in what later became the Deep South. While the Northern states eventually abolished slavery, Northern financiers and industries remained deeply complicit and connected with slavery.
The laws regarding slaves and free blacks were also different in every place and evolved over time.
We know that the experiences of enslaved people differed greatly across time, place, and circumstance. The experiences of my enslaved and free black ancestors farming tobacco in the 1700s in Maryland was very different from my ancestors in the 1800s who were working on cotton plantations.
Obviously, slaves’ day-to-day treatment varied as wide as the temperament and personalities of their present owners. Food, clothing and housing differed. While some enslaved people fared better than others did materially, they were all a part of the system of slavery whose core was brutality. My post discussing why there were no good slaveowners drives that point home.
While the number of slaveowners varied by state, most slaves lived on large plantations (20 slaves is usually the marker for a large planter).
Africans and their descendants consistently resisted enslavement. Beginning on the shores of Africa and continuing through the middle passage, they resisted in ways large and small.
They feigned illness, broke tools, poisoned and killed masters and overseers, laid out for weeks at a time, burned outbuildings and ran away.
Women talked back to mistresses, aborted babies and fought back against rape. The slave “grapevine” carried news of the war and of the whereabouts of loved ones.
They learned to read in secret. In the act of ultimate resistance, some chose death, depriving their owners of their bodies and labor.
The Enslavers’ Beliefs
In the ensuing years of slavery in America, enslavers invented elaborate beliefs about enslaved people that enabled them to continue to participate in its daily evils. The Bible was widely used as a justification that slavery was ordained by God.
Decried as inferior, uncivilized people, enslavers’ believed that manual labor was the natural position of African peoples, and that paternal care was necessary.
Enslavers asserted that slaves did not have close bonds with their families so they could sell family members apart with less guilt. However, in runaway ads, enslavers state that their slaves are running to family members.
How can both of those things be true?
Contradictions were always at the heart of the institution of slavery. In a country created based upon the concept of individual freedom, how is slavery acceptable? As chattel property, how could enslaved people commit crimes? How could they be both people and property at the same time?
If they were so deplorable and unattractive by nature, why did enslavers construct a society where rape of a slave was legal?
Challenges in Slave Research
Beginners should understand some key aspects of slave research.
Though blacks freed before 1870 were named in the census, all African-Americans were not listed in the population census until 1870. As enslaved property, they are absent from the census before that year.
They were sold and mortgaged, bequeathed and gifted away. Enslaved people were used as collateral and sold if those debts were unpaid.
Researchers must discover the name of the last enslaver (remembering there may have been prior enslavers) in order to attempt to trace the family before 1870.
This explains why the 1870 census is such a critical one in slave research.
The process typically begins with making a list of potential owners based on surname or proximity and then researching each enslaver to find connecting sources.
We also need to remember that many planters came into ownership of their enslaved property through their wives.
The complexity of slave surnames ranks as one of the biggest hurdles in the journey to find the enslaver. There are many reasons why a former slave had a particular surname.
Most often, if they knew a parent, they held the surname of one of their parents. That surname may be the surname of the last enslaver or a previous owner. After emancipation, some freedmen chose new names.
Enslavers, for the most part, did not record the surname of their enslaved property. However, we know from many sources that they had surnames they used among themselves, (enslaver Henry did just that in this rare record).
Trying to connect the “Mary” we find an enslaver’s records before 1865 to the Mary that is our ancestor in the 1870 census is just plain hard to do. For common names, the problem may be insurmountable.
Another challenge is the fact that one family often did not own entire enslaved families. It was common for the mother and her children to be owned by one person, and the father to reside on a nearby plantation. Being aware of this historical pattern is helpful.
As a general statement, clues to an ancestor’s enslaver can be found in almost any source, like this clue in the census. Sometimes, the name of the enslaver is passed down in a family’s oral history.
One good reason to slowly work your way back to the period of slavery is that you may find a record that names the prior enslaver in those post-emancipation records.
War and Emancipation
Although Lincoln never planned at the start of the war to make it a war for freedom, enslaved people forced the issue by running away and offering intelligence in such large numbers that they could not be refused.
With the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, almost 200,000 blacks officially joined the Union Army and Navy. Hundreds of thousands ran away when the Union Army was nearby. Nevertheless, many of these runaways often suffered terribly in refugee camps behind the Army.
After the war, reconstruction brought at brief period of expanded rights for freedmen as the Republicans tried to hold on to power after Lincoln’s death.
Southern states (except for Tennessee) were all forced to extend the vote to former slaves.
Freedmen first sought to reunite with the spouses, parents, children and siblings who were sold away during slavery. They ran ads in newspapers that are simply heartbreaking to read.
Some black soldiers used their pay to buy small tracks of land and to open accounts at the local Freedman’s Bank. For a time, the future must have held some promise. Freedom was surely a day many had prayed for.
But the violence and terror unleashed during Reconstruction was undeniable and unforgiving. The Klan and other vigilante groups used violence against any attempt’s a independence and self-reliance. Ministers, teachers, landowners and those who tried to vote were especially targeted.
The Freedmens Bureau
The Freedmens Bureau assisted freedmen after the war in numerous ways. They helped open schools, secure pensions and legalized marriages. They also litigated freedmen’s complaints against local whites. Registering a complaint with the Bureau was a dangerous thing to do.
However, to their forever shame, the Bureau also chose to make freedmen sign year-long contracts with white farmers. In many cases, these white farmers were their former owners.
Illiterate, with no land or homes or supplies, many freedmen began to see how truly narrow freedom was for them.
The narrative reports of the Bureau agents show us how bad the situation was in many places in the South. Though complicated to research, I offer a strategy for researching Freedmens Bureau records.
They are the best and richest source for understanding former slaves in the period between emancipation and the early 1870s.
The Bureau could have supported giving the freedmen land supporting their independence, but they did not. Sharecropping and tenant farming kept the masses of black farmers economically dependent on whites.
Prevented from voting through violence, it is no surprise that many black families remained in the places of their ancestor’s enslavement even forty and fifty years later.
The last decades of the 19th century saw the rise of lynchings. Any breach of the complex Southern caste system of expected subservient behavior could result in death.
Peonage and convict leasing arose as legal mechanisms to ensure labor for southern plantations and factories.
Segregation and Jim Crow laws were enacted across the country. It was not merely separation of the races.
We need to understand segregation as the extraction of wealth from the black population. That wealth built schools, libraries, pools, theaters, restaurants, businesses and transportation that only whites could use.
Blacks were forced to make due, and almost everything that was “separate” was sub-standard. Amazingly, blacks did as they always had and pulled together their few resources to survive.
They built churches for spiritual sustenance and schools to educate their children. Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington helped build over 5000 schools for black people all over the South.
Benevolent societies, lodges and other social groups allowed them to financially assist to one another and instill cultural enrichment and pride.
In the next century, black people served in World War I, as they had in every American war.
Their striving never ended.
It is certainly true other people suffered from poverty, religious persecution, disenfranchisement, illiteracy, genocides, and an endless number of other things that complicate accurate reconstruction of families.
However, I am not aware of any group of people that suffered from all those things, in addition to undocumented and changing surnames, constant sale and breakup of families, widespread rape of the female slave, lack of legal marriage, and lack of identification of fathers and legally sanctioned torture and murder.
Slavery’s reach is still with us.
Part of the gift of doing African-American genealogy is recovering the stories of those caught in its grasp who could not leave their own witness.