I have been pondering this topic for awhile and received a recommendation to discuss it on my blog. It’s an important one I think, but one fraught with all the ugliness that discussions of slavery and race entail.
What follows are informed thoughts I’d like to offer garnered from the almost 20 years that I have been researching my enslaved ancestors.
This is from my heart and I hope no one takes any offense to these suggestions. It goes without saying that African-Americans are not monolithic in thought and viewpoint.
1) Finding out your ancestors were slaveholders is disturbing to most people. You might feel uncomfortable talking about this and sharing this information with others.
My first suggestion is to not leave out or overlook or dismiss this information. It’s an important, though yes ugly, part of not just your family’s history but American history. So please include it in your history.
There are many things that are painful about this research for African American descendants.
But when we come across books and articles and websites about slaveholders and those books include nothing about the enslaved, we experience a particular kind of heartache that desires at a minimum acknowledgement.
- **If you are involved in abstracting wills, please include the names of the enslaved laborers you find.
- **If you transcribe marriages, include the African-American ones, which may be listed separately.
- **If you do a cemetery project, include African-American cemeteries.
You can never know how frustrating it is to do this research and come across so many compilations that appear to believe that including information about the enslaved or African-Americans is somehow less necessary, less valuable or less worthy.
Another example of this can be found at many of the plantations still standing. Some of these sites have done an excellent job of including histories of the enslaved people that labored there, such as the Hermitage and at Evergreen Plantation (which created a database to the site’s enslaved laborers right on their website!)
The Whitney Plantation, is the only plantation site dedicated to the enslaved laborers and not the slaveholding families.
Other plantation houses like Sherwood Forest have no reflection on their websites that hundreds of enslaved laborers made the lifestyles of their owners possible.
That’s disappointing and maddening.
No one expects your research focus to be a thorough examination of the individual lives of your family’s enslaved laborers. There are, however, some who have done just that, as illustrated by Edward Ball’s outstanding book Slaves in the Family:
But at least an acknowledgement and recording of the facts of that ownership is helpful. Laura on her blog at The Old Trunk in the Attic, illustrates beautifully the idea and I simply love the Slave Names Roll Project at Tangled Roots and Trees.
2) The tragedy of American slavery complicates family history research greatly for descendants of the enslaved.
Constant sale of children, parents and spouses, the frequent use of only given names in records, name changes, and the lack of names on the 1850 and 1860 slave schedules and in other records lead to serious problems for most African-Americans in terms of uncovering their roots beyond 1870.
TV shows today make it look easy when it’s absolutely not.
Most African-Americans who may contact you online or through genealogical societies are primarily interested in finding records that may enable them to uncover more of the roots of their enslaved ancestors. Please do respond to our emails if we contact you.
It was not uncommon for larger slaveholders to have business papers and account books and other documents that discuss their enslaved property.
Bible records of slaveholding families sometimes recorded births and deaths of family slaves. Sometimes that information ends up in the hands of slaveholder descendants. Those precious documents might help us to recover some of the roots of our ancestors.
If you find something like that in your family, please share it with us.
Consider sending copies of it to the library, state archives, and genealogical society where the farm or plantation was located. That will ensure future generations might be able to find it as well.
And David reminded me to add that submitting that information to genealogical society journals is also a great way to get the information out and ensure the information survives.
For the descendants of enslaved people to find any family information before 1870, we must discover the names of, and then research extensively, the slaveholding family.
That’s why 1870 is referred to as the Brick Wall in African-American research.
If you have no family records such as those named above, you can help us with the details of your family tree. This will help us to track the enslaved property through the family.
3) We are very clear that you did not own any slaves. We do not hold you personally responsible for holding slaves, any more than we hold ourselves responsible for the reprehensible things any of our ancestors did.
The past comes with the baggage of both good and bad. Family history research shows us all how human we are—flaws and all.
So we don’t expect you to apologize for anything, although I’ll honestly say when this has happened to me as it has many times, I’ve thought it was a thoughtful gesture.
I’ve thought it was more of a validation of how horrific slavery was in general than some personal feeling of accountability. As Americans, we all inherited that history.
4) One thing has really bothered me is when descendants of slaveholders proclaim their ancestor “treated their slaves well.” Even worse is this notion of “oh well, that’s how it was back then.” Those are some of the worst and most wrongheaded beliefs you can have about slavery.
I beg of you please not to say anything like that to descendants of enslaved people. Better yet, please reconsider your thoughts on the topic if this is what you believe. Research the institution of slavery. The answer is always in more knowledge.
Yes, enslaved people would certainly prefer a less brutal owner vs. one of the truly depraved and plenty of enslaved people described their owners this way. For more on this topic, read my post and reasoning in There Were No Good Slaveowners.
Here’s the bigger point:
How individual owners treated their enslaved property means little in a system predicated on brutality.
Enslaved people were trapped in a system whose governing philosophy was violence.
Let that sink in a bit.
Any suggestion that slaveholders were simply people acting in the norms of their times ignores the many thousands of slaveholders who rose above “their times” and freed their enslaved property.
This was especially prevalent in and after the Revolutionary War, when many slaveholders realized American hypocrisy in fighting for “freedom” but holding enslaved laborers.
This is not to mention the small but vocal group of people who fought against slavery in times where doing so put their own lives in danger.
It always feels like a denial and a dismissal and diminishment of the horrors of the institution when people say these kinds of things.
Because I am immersed in the primary source documents of slavery, I can tell you there is no way to adequately convey how truly horrific slavery was. Some of the things I have read have made me physically ill.
The scope and scale of the everyday violence was almost unimaginable. The methods slaveholders contrived to torture enslaved people into submission will simply make you weep for humanity.
So here’s a thought: don’t feel the need to make any comment about slavery at all.
If it’s a topic that interests you, ask questions, get references to primary source material, find out more about the institution and its aftermath. Be authentic and compassionate. Learn.
Know that the beliefs that under-girded the system of slavery continued long after it was over and into the present day. Slavery was not something that happened a “long time ago.”
Descendants of enslaved people have not even been free as long as our ancestors were enslaved.
This country was a slaveholding republic for most of its history. Think about that.
In the year 2000, I interviewed my 102- year old relative Freddie Holt, whose father John had been enslaved. I met the daughter of a slave.
Many of my African-American friends today had grandparents and great-grandparents who had been enslaved.
That is a breath away. That most certainly is not “a long time ago.”
Nevertheless, most Americans don’t know much about slavery beyond what they’ve seen in pop culture (and watching “Roots”). There’s much to learn about the institution, far beyond what most of us were taught in school.
New scholarship has been uncovered and new sources, especially in the last 50 years or so. Be open to learning more. I promise you will learn many things that you never knew.
I have created a reference list of recommended sources if you are interested in learning more about race and slavery, especially if you recognize that you have gaps in your knowledge.
I created it because I received hundreds of emails commenting on this post and readers sharing their personal stories.
One excellent documentary I recommend are the first two episodes of “Many Rivers to Cross.” You can watch Episode 1 for free on You Tube.
5) Real friendships can be had with the descendants of the enslaved your family owned. I am proud to say I’ve developed such friendships. We have helped one another with our research. The stories are numerous.
Coming to the Table is one outstanding organization dedicated to providing the platform for these relationships to heal and have meaningful dialogue. I highly recommend you explore their resources.
God knows that right now, we could all use more examples of how to have calm-headed discussions of difficult subjects with others.
To do that, you have to be willing to be uncomfortable, and sit through the discomfort in order to learn.
6) I had to come back and add this topic: miscegenation. Anytime the bodies of women are under the control of men, you can bet sexual exploitation will occur.
Sexual exploitation of female slaves was not a novel circumstance; it was commonplace. This is attested to by hundreds of thousands of primary sources. Slavery narratives and interviews come back to the topic over and over again.
Whole classes of people in society were created by it, for example, read about the practice of placage in Louisiana.
It was not considered a crime to rape an enslaved women: the enslaved had no right to self-defense and no ownership of their bodies (see “Celia, A Slave.”)
And I would be remiss if I neglected to mention that enslaved boys and men were also sexually exploited.
Understand that it was not just the slave master. Any white man–overseer, neighbor, cousin–could and did take advantage of enslaved women.
We do not just share a country; in many cases, we share a bloodline.
DNA supports this, with a high percentage of black Americans who have European based Y-DNA haplogroups (estimated at 25%) and European-based autosomal DNA.
In the generations after emancipation, many African-Americans who looked white chose to pass, many for job opportunities or simply to escape the burden of race.
As I am fond of saying: people have always–always– lived and loved across the false boundaries of race. Some of the earliest colonial laws in Maryland and Virginia were laws trying to stop these marriages and relationships.
So please do not be surprised if someone in your family tree turns out to have been African-American, or if one of your slaveholding ancestors fathered children with his enslaved women.
And I hope you won’t hide what you’ve found because of shame or embarrassment.
Our country is still suffering from the long history of slavery and racial violence. The need for a Black Lives Matter movement today is a direct descendant of that institution and the continuation of its beliefs and practices.
I’m not sure I am hopeful it will ever be overcome, so deeply is it embedded in the American experience.
Although we can’t change the past, we can do many things now in the present.
I hope what I have written helps you to think about some things differently. There are actions you can take along your genealogical journey to help the descendants of the enslaved to be able to trace our roots further.
I will also add a reminder to all that race is a fiction and has no biological basis. We’ve lived with it for so long, we take it for granted.
The idea that human beings were created into separate “groups” that have differences reflected by our appearance that cause different behavior is simply false.
This has been proven by science over and over again.
Race was a concept created in 17th and 18th century American society for a very specific purpose and there are numerous publications on the subject (here are some background readings).
It is a social construct–an idea created by society. (Read my post on The Invention of Race)
One of my favorite (though intellectually heavy) books on the topic is Racecraft. A short interview summarizes the points of the authors, and it is one I think everyone interested in the subject should read.
Though race is an invention, racism is in fact very real.
Here’s a short experiment: anytime you hear (or think) something like “(Black/Hispanic/any group) people are more prone to (crime/lazy/insert any negative behavior),” replace the racial or ethnic group with another feature of human appearance.
Tell yourself something like:
- **Blue-eyed people are more prone to crime than black-eyed people
- **Tall people are really lazier than short people
- **People with blonde hair are not as smart as people with brown hair
You’d recognize those ideas as preposterous on their face. But people have those thoughts with regard to skin color everyday and don’t question why it’s ok in that case only.
You have to ask yourself why.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. I’d love to hear in the comments, responses from descendants of white slaveholders on any of their own experiences.
We are all on the same amazing journey to uncover our ancestors and I hope everyone received this in the spirit in which it was written.
NOTE: if you enjoyed this post, please read Part 2
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.
Thank you for publishing this post. When I found out that I had ancestors who enslaved people, it was not a surprise but nonetheless chilling. I now have some great ideas about what to do with any information I find. I actually found a probate record on Ancestry.com after reading this that lists the names of 25 slaves as part of the estate of an ancestor, and with only a little bit of digging. I am planning to transcribe it and make it available on the Slave Name Roll Project. I also came across the name of a caretaker that worked for this family who was the descendent of the people they enslaved. It especially pained me to see how these oppressive relationships continued after emancipation. We all know systematic racism and the unfair imbalance of power have always existed here, but seeing it in your family history makes it a personal matter rather than an abstract issue, and inspires one to fight it more vociferously. Thanks again.
Thank you for sharing your experience. It’s the same thing with slavery–to see it attached to your ancestors makes it devastatingly real and personal. It was also very common for relationships between the slaveholding family and the enslaved to continue long after emancipation, easily though 1900. I have many stories of that in my own family, but of course it’s more because most former slaves didn’t have any choice but to stay where they had been. I am glad to hear of your discovery of the probate record and your plan to transcribe it. I’m going to do a follow-up post on this topic with more ideas, so stay tuned. Seeing the real, tangible artifacts of slavery and racism really humbles me, but as you mentioned, it also inspires me to do what I can in terms of uncovering and acknowledging the truth of that historical experience. Best of luck to you in your research.
Thank you so much for this thoughtful piece. As I do genealogy research, I’m struck often by the effect of racism on the creation, preservation and accessibility of records on African Americans. For example, I was at the Family History Library in SLC last month, and there were many indexes to deed books that abstracted only the name of the slave holders, leaving out the names of slaves that were in the underlying records. I was so happy to find your links to projects where I can add information I find for others as I do my own research.
Speaking as a white woman who is not the descendant of slaveholders, I think your points apply also to all white genealogists. We need to confront structural racism wherever it exists, in our hobby or profession as well as larger society.
I simply loved your comment–Yes! Yes! Yes! This blog post has been pretty amazing and brought up ties to other related issues, like as you have noted creation and preservation. I will say I have been uplifted by some of the more recent works which have tried to address enslaved people, and every now and then then I come across even an older secondary source that did the same. But as you note, these seem to be the exceptions and not the rule. But the biggest problem with this research remains the need to find the identity of the last slaveholder, since so many records only list given names. We’d still be lost with the number of Rachels, and Johns and Marys and Louisas—the critical missing piece is still that slaveholder identification. This tasks becomes harder with common names like Johnson. The very nature of slavery makes that task truly daunting. I hope in sharing more information about the research process for African-American descendants, that more slaveholder descendants will make efforts to publicize what they’ve found. W might be able to “meet each other halfway” so to speak. I think also descendants of slaveholders would be surprised to find information on their own families in researching the enslaved descendants. I’m going to do another post on these topics to follow up. Thank for adding your voice here.
Wonderful comments that have arrived, by your blog.
Thanks so much for this thoughtful and helpful blog entry. I’m the descendant of slave-holding families in North Carolina and have been, for the last couple of years, saving ideas on how to share the names and situations I have found and how to increase the possibilities of meeting descendants who may be linked to me or my family in any number of ways. I look forward to seeing additional posts and so appreciate these suggestions.
I missed a few earlier comments and I wanted to thank you for taking the time to add your kind comment. I have done some slave research in North Carolina, and that state has some excellent resources, of course depending upon the county. I do plan on following up on this post with more helpful ideas, since happily I find that there is an interest in the topic.Keep doing what you’re doing and stay tuned for more ideas.
Robyn, this is a great post, and very timely. I give a talk on this very subject – as a matter of fact, I’m giving it on the 28th in Tyrrell County, NC to their genealogical and historical society.
I’ve also recently been contacted by a fellow researcher from one of my ancestral counties, who was frustrated because the whites on the page for the county are so reluctant to talk about or share information regarding their slave-owning ancestors. I am going to share this post on that page. Hopefully, it will do some good!
Thanks for this effort!
Thanks Renate! Because of the interest in the topic, I have decided to also turn this into a lecture. I think the more we get actual information about how to share information found about slaves and also the need to acknowledge it in the written histories, we will start to see different responses. There will always be some who just shut down and turn off and want to turn a blind eye to it, but I believe those passionate about family history will understand the desire on the part of slave descendants to be able to at least recapture some of our own histories.
Thank you for such an astute and timely article. More and more people have found out through DNA testing that they are not what they expected themselves to be. In my research in colonial Virginia, immigrant African and American Indian were foundational populations, along with European. Hopefully, DNA testing and genealogical research will help more to break down our false conceptions of race. We are all related.
I just wanted to thank you for your kind comment on my blog post re: slaveholding descendants. I am sorry this comes late, I’ve been ill and offline since last week and missed yours and the comments of a few others.
DNA is indeed a wonderful tool and I am thankful for it, but it’s interesting how many of the old prejudices rear their heads even in that regard. I myself and others I know have simply had the emails go dark when we reveal that we are African-American.
Thank you for the time you took to respond and adding your voice. We are indeed all related.
Thank you for posting.
I’ve been thinking about this ever since I discovered from estate papers that an ancestor had owned a slave. This came as a great surprise, since they lived in New York State and I knew nothing about the existence of slavery in New York, despite growing up there. I made a commitment to Nan and to her descendants, including any who might be living today, that I would find out as much as I could about her and show her as a real person, Nan, not just “a slave.” I have also started to talk about the fact of slavery in the North and New York State in particular.
I’m writing to ask for help from anyone who has encountered the specific kinds of difficulties I did, and to share what little I have learned about this kind of research.
My family at this period were small farmers, part of a fairly large settlement of German immigrants who first came to a part of NY along the Hudson River about half way between Albany and Syracuse in the early 1700s. The first mention of Nan (or any other slave in the family) was in records of an estate settled in 1793 when Nan was “about seventeen years” old. She was mentioned again in an 1806 estate. There were no other slaves mentioned in that estate. Slavery was abolished in New York State in 1827. Those are the years I had to deal with. Through digging into census records, I was able to discover that several other family members, not in my direct line, also owned a few slaves but I couldn’t identify Nan in the records. (Remember that during that period the census did not include names for anyone but the head of household.) After abolition, even though there were names, I couldn’t find her, partly because I had no idea what surname she used.
The census was the only thing that gave me even a nibble of information while working online. There are probably other records available in the county or state archives onsite. There are some “slave files,” I’m told, but I may also have to search “property” records for the period. Were slave births, marriages and deaths recorded? The records I have found for my white family have been in the churches. I haven’t found anything about slave or African American churches or burial grounds.
I have tried every other resource I can think of. Does anyone have similar experiences to share?
Here is a meditation I wrote as part of my process of remembering Nan. It’s built on the bare bones of the few facts I have about her. The rest is imagination. I know that I’m presuming a lot to imagine what Nan might have been thinking but it’s my first step in filling out her life and recognizing her the real person that she was.
I hear Nan’s voice in 1827.
“July 3. Today I am a slave. Tomorrow I will be free.
Free. What does that mean? Miz Mary won’t own me anymore.
She owns me today. Tomorrow she won’t.
She won’t own me AND she won’t have to give me a place to live, or clothes, or anything to eat.
Twenty-one years since Master Nicholas died and 13 years before that with the Dygerts. I was only 17 when I went to live with them. I love Miz Mary but I want to live with my man. But where? He has his place with his master three farms down. We can’t both stay there.
What is my name? Nan, just Nan the Dygerts always called me. It was so long ago, but I remember my mother calling me something else. Why have I forgotten?
My man, Amos, he says that’s his real name. And his father told him they were Giants. Maybe Amos is Amos Giant and I will be known as Nan Giant.
How long before Amos and I can have our own home? How will we be able to buy food, find a place to sleep, keep warm when winter comes?
There is so much I don’t know. I’m scared, but all that really matters is that I’m also free.”
I am sorry I am just responding–I have been ill and offline and somehow missed several earlier comments such as yours. I regret that–you have written simply a beautiful comment. I so appreciate that you recognized the humanity of Nan instantaneously when you became aware of her existence. The poem you wrote is nice– you are thinking about things that most people don’t, the very meaning of freedom. Enslaved people like Nan certainly had skills, be it farming or domestic, so there’s no doubt that could support themselves. I would imagine–sort of like you have tried to do– that the fact that their spouses and children could not be sold away or killed would have been foremost in their minds.
Many people, myself included, have been amazed at what I’ve learned about Slavery in the North, and their complicity in southern slavery. That’s just one example of what I mean when I say there is so much to learn. In your efforts to find Nan, you have experienced what her descendants would and the challenges of this research. What was her surname? Where did she live after emancipation? Many of my enslaved ancestors end at just such a juncture–a given name in an estate document. I look at my work in genealogy in uncovering their names and remembering their lives even with the tragedy of not having details about what that life entailed.
I have often relied on finding narratives and interviews and other primary sources written by slaves themselves to approximate their experiences. That may be an idea for you? For example, in Maryland there are many narratives written by enslaved people who ran away, of course the famous ones being Douglass and Tubman. You could search for those kinds of sources in New York, for the colonial period. I have heard the New York Historical Society and the NY Genealogical and Biographical Society are both outstanding and I would bet they could lead you to some of those sources. On a sidenote, the timeframe of her birth (ca. 1776) makes it possible that she could have been a direct African importation (as opposed to American born) but again, I would defer to the experts on New York slavery. It is also correct, as you asked, that more answers would likely be in the local records of where she lived. If you are fortunate, a court record may exist if the family ever had a legal battle about property. If you can follow her trajectory through the family generations, there may be records of her being hired out during estate probate. Was this a small town or rural area? That would help guess what kind of work she may have been engaged in. Nan could have been a nickname for Ann, Nancy, Hannah or even Joann.
Anyway, I appreciate the time you took to comment and the thought and time you’ve put into the life of Nan. I hope that kind of approach will be more common in the future.
Please keep me posted on your research of Nan, and you can contact me directly at my home email.
I am a descendent of slave holders. I have found some of my ancestor’s wills, where they have given specific named (only 1st names) enslaved people to different family members. I have wondered what became of these people and why they were singled out and the others where not named or given specifically to family members. Slave schedules that only have tic marks are very sobering to me.
I have seen a census that has a African-American young man that lived with my 3x great grandfather after the civil war with the same surname as my relative. I was able to follow him down through the years, I have wondered if he was enslaved by grandfather or possible a son of my grandfather.
Thanks for your post. Gives me more encouragement to try to research more about the enslaved people my family “had”
Thank you for your comment to my post. It was quite common for slaveholders to bequest specific slaves to specific family members, and still have owned many other slaves not mentioned by name. My best assessment (read: guess) is that those were slaves who perhaps had special skills (carpenters, blacksmiths), or were family members of household domestics, such as Sally Hemings’ family, or were perhaps especially valued because they had been in the family for several generations. Slave schedules are just one of the many documents that are indeed hard to look at, and say so very much about this horrific institution.
It was also common to find former slaves living in the houses of their former owners in 1870, and as you say, many used the surname of the last slaveholder (though others did not). I do encourage you to continue as you have, and perhaps you may be able to find a descendant of that man. Try to make the information you’ve found about the slaves available in local and state archives. Again, I thank you and I am so very much inspired about what the future holds in this area of genealogical research. Continue to stay tuned to this blog, because I am going to post a follow -up to this piece very soon. Best of luck to you Mary!
Robin, this is a great post, well written. I’ll share this and not because you’ve mentioned my blog, but I do thank you for that and the compliment you gave me. I do hope that sharing information on slaves becomes much more open and common place among all genealogists.
Thank you, Laura, you deserve every bit of the kudos. Your post was honest and positive and hopeful, and I hope we can all be just a little more of that!
Great blog post.
I would also like to encourage descendants of slave owners to transcribe information about slaves whenever they are transcribing information . I once came across a blog post where a person had transcribed the information written in a Bible. The person mentioned that the Bible contained information about slaves from 1722 to 1758 and slaves births; however, they did not transcribe the information about the slaves because “I see nothing to gain in giving the names of the slaves”.
His statement was very disturbing. Information about enslaved individuals is just as important as information about the other people that was written in the Bible. Slaves are someones ancestors and a person researching that family would greatly appreciate having the information on the slaves.
Yes, while researching our enslaved family; as Marion said above; knowing there is more info, bible and documents out there – that is not shared by the original families of enslaved persons – is sad and heart breaking. I think many of these families over the years just removed and destroyed – any of this information. Mostly having no interest or “avoiding” any connection to former enslaved family members.
I am thankful many are not more open, unfortunately many years or generations later.
Yes, I agree–some of that information has just been destroyed or lost or deemed unimportant. I’m hoping we can start this conversation now and perhaps turn the corner on those behaviors.
Marion, Excellent points, I went back and added it to the original post. I can’t tell you how many secondary sources I ‘ve looked at and later realized they simply did not include information about African-Americans.
This is a wonderful piece. Thank you for all the good ideas and the gentle tone. BitterSweet: Linked Through Slavery is a blog written by people connected to Coming to the Table, full of stories by descendants of enslaved people and enslavers and including as many family names as the writers had access to. Your blog and that blog make ideal companion pieces.
Thank you for your comment to my blog post. I am almost sure I have come across that blog before in previous research. I will have to go back to it and perhaps add a link to it form this post, thank you for that recommendation. I simply love, love, love Coming to the Table.
I have connected with one descendant from a slave of an ancestor. She has the same general family story of how our families came from NC to AL. Hoping to learn more about each family.
Just wanted to be sure to thank you for your comment on my blog post. I am not surprised the story of migration was also passed down in the families of the enslaved. There’s much to be gained for both sides when researching both the enslaved and their slaveholding families. I wish you both the best of luck. I have many posts here about slavery and slavery resources so please do feel free to explore some of the other links.
Thank you for writing this. You obviously gave it a lot of thought, and probably a lot of emotional energy, too. I can’t quite put into words how helpful it is to get a perspective from “the other side” of the slave/slaveholder genealogy issue (for lack of a better term… again, I seem to be having trouble wording today).
One of the sad facts of being a white person from the South with no “recent” immigrant ancestors is that you are practically guaranteed to find slaveholders in your family tree — regardless of family lore about ancestors being too poor, or too religious, or whatever. Worse, though, is knowing that the descendants of those people whom your ancestors enslaved may never be able to follow their family lines back even that far. I guess we can call this yet another facet of white privilege, another way that the echoes of slavery/systemic racism have messed stuff up for centuries.
Also, thanks for sharing all the links in this post. I’m trying to write up a blog post on some slave-holding ancestors right now and finding it difficult to figure out how to address this particularly gross aspect of their lives. So the resources you’ve shared are extremely helpful!
I just wanted to thank you for your comment on my newest blog post. You are right I gave it alot of thought. But it was actually at the behest of another white descendant who encouraged me to write it that I decided to actually do it. I am glad I did since I’m getting so much wonderful feedback. I think it shows that this has been a subject inadequately addressed in current genealogy circles.
I do sort of get a little sad when we see others who trace back 7,8,9 generations and knowing that for most of us to get back even to the early 1800s makes us pretty lucky. But what can we do about it? Its kind of like what you’re saying about being a white descendant. We just can’t get over this ugly past history.
But I do believe being open and honest about it, making the information you find available for others, including the details of slave ownership in your family histories
And I want to especially thank you for bringing up the topic of white privilege! That tells me alot about you, that you are quite a bit more progressive in your thinking and I appreciate that so much. And I spent alot of time on those links, so I am glad you have found them helpful.
Feel free to contact me anytime as your journey progresses.
As usual your comments and post are right on time. What a powerful and timely piece. Loved it !
Your words encourage me to continue the rewriting of my family’s history. What started as a slave name roll has evolved into an effort to incorporate these black lives into my family’s lore. I admit to feeling overwhelmed, but I slog on.
You wrote about how whites describe ancestors as “treating their slaves well.” My grandmother wrote of her grandparents, “Mr. and Mrs. Dodson were good and kind to their slaves, and some of them even stayed on after they were freed.” Recently I worked that statement into a query, and started searching for descendants of these people. I got surprised immediately. When I went to the 1870 census the black families named on either side of my ancestors did not carry the Dodson name. I have continued to research the families, through my white sources like ancestry.com, and will post on my blog eventually hoping for a serendipitous connection. But maybe I am not posting to the right community, not searching in the best repository? Do you have suggestions as to how I can spread my search for linked descendants?
Thanks again for the post.
Hello, I’d be very interested in helping you try to connect to the family of the subject of your photo. (It would have been a good idea to share some of the identifying information, here.) I belong to a large network of African-American genalogists, and given some of the information, it should be fairly easy for me to help identify descendants and/or family members. Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m happy to help!
Renate Yarborough Sanders
I am glad the post spoke to you and thank you for your comments. It is absolutely overwhelming. One of the things about slave surnames is that most enslaved people had surnames that simply weren’t recorded by their owners. Many changed their surnames after emancipation. So I am not surprised you found different surnames.
Other than researching the families forward through the census, and posting on Ancestry and Facebook, I highly recommend submitting what you’ve found (when you finish writing your history) to the local library, state archives and local historical and genealogical society. That way if and when descendants of those individuals come looking, they will be sure to find any information you have uncovered.
I will also caution you with respect to your grandmothers statement. Many white descendants who have written oral histories such as yours make claims such as that–in fact, one of my lines had almost the exact sentiment written by their great-grandmother. You have to look at it through the lens of your grandmother’s time. Reconstruction -era beliefs about slavery such as “kind-treatment, slaves being happy, needing to be taken care of, etc.” persisted well through the mid-20th century until new generations of historian debunked those ideas. And know that most enslaved people did stay near their former masters, because they had no choice. They had no land, money, and no literacy. They had to support themselves and the great majority did that by continuing to farm their former master’s land. I certainly don’t mean any disrespect to your grandmother, but really, do you think anyone would write that their ancestors were cruel to their slaves? That they were whipped and sold? So–as your research continues—I would take her comments on the subject with a grain of salt and include an analysis of Reconstruction era beliefs in your write up.
I am a white person whose ancestors enslaved people. I was very moved by your blog. I have a question: I have an old photograph of an African American woman who may have been enslaved by my great great grandparents. If I could trace any of her descendants, I would like to give them the picture. So far, I have been able to get scant information on her. I know her name; the year of her birth and death; where she is buried; where she was living in 1880 and 1900 from census reports. I have posted information on Ancestry but gotten no responses. If anyone has any ideas of how I might continue to look for her descendants, I would be grateful.
Thank you for your comment and I am very happy to know that this post was helpful to you.
Your photograph is exactly the kind of think I was speaking off when I mentioned things passed down to descendants. I applaud you for all the work you’ve done and for the information you’ve found out. It really is pretty extraordinary.
I suggest planting a copy of the picture with the information you’ve found in the local library, state archives and local historical and genealogical society. Doesn’t have to be anything fancy, just a folder of information. That will guarantee when others come looking they can find it.
I think its harder to do it online other than Ancestry, which you are already doing.
If you’d like to share her name and what you’ve gathered thus far, I’d be glad to also try to help you find descendants. I cannot tell you what I’d give if any of my slaveholder descendants had pictures of one of my ancestors!;)
It would be helpful to know the geographical location of the enslaved individual. My family was owned by slaveowners named Addison in South Carolina Edgefield. It would be wonderful to connect with ancestors if the Addison slave owners.
Thank you for this post. As a young researcher, I was guilty of overlooking the slaves held by my family, and will be adding that information back into my research in the future. During a family vacation when I was a teenager, I met the son of a young slave woman owned by my family. I did not know it then, but it was the moment that spurred me on to become a researcher later.
I can understand your initial oversight and I appreciate greatly that you will include it in future writings. This is tough stuff, tough for us all. I am glad this post spoke to you and that your fortuitous meeting sparked your research later on.
I wish you continued success in your research,
I’m a descendant of 55 New England slaveholders. I think the suggestions offered here are good, and I would add that if you write up a story about your family’s slaveholding history, try to get it published in a genealogical journal. I wrote the story of how I found and met descendants of a man enslaved in Newport, RI from 1774 to 1803 by my ancestor and got it published by the NEHGS. Also, if you have information about slavery, considering donating it to the local historical society because others might be looking for it down the road.
Thank you, David, for commenting here and your suggestion is absolutely on point. In this post, I suggest people donate any information about enslaved people to the local library, state archives and local genealogical society (as a part of their own family research). But I’m going to go back and add in what you’ve shared here because it’s a terrific idea.
And kudos to you on your accomplishments in this area. This kind of work can serve as a model for others.
Thank you for this article. I am a descendant of slave owners. It has been upsetting to me and I am trying to figure out what to do as a response. I sent copies of wills to Sharon Morgan at Our Black Ancestry, but have not connected yet with any descendants of enslaved people. I also have joined Coming to the Table. Interestingly, my ancestry DNA says that I have 1% African DNA. I have lived and worked and raised my children in Detroit for the last 30 years, long before I knew about my ancestors, because I wanted a more diverse and balanced life. But this new knowledge has brought me to a different level. Wanting to do and understand more. Anyway, thanks again. And – Go Green!
Thank you for your comment. I applaud you for diving in and trying to share the information you found. It’s a difficult subject. And I think it takes a lot of courage to approach it the way you have. It sets a wonderful example for your children about how to reconcile the past and how to live in a world comprised of people who look different from us. Find out as much as you can about how the enslaved property was passed through the family. That way, if descendants ever contact you, you’ll have some information for them.
Feel free to contact me personally as your journey progresses.
Again, well written and wonderful to read.
PS, what year did you graduate from MSU?
I’ve been researching my family’s history of slaveholding and trying to understand how to honor these dishonorable ancestors. For my latest thoughts, go to https://www.uurevken.blog.