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 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.
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.
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.