Historic marker for the county seat where my great grandparents were enslaved

When I was a child, many of my friends were recent arrivals from the South whose families came north during “The Great Migration.” Those of us who were born in Chicago sometimes laughed at their funny accents and country ways. There were also many children who disappeared every summer. When school let out for vacation, their parents sent them south to experience country life with their grandparents.

I was not one of those children. Although I have undeniable roots in Alabama and Mississippi, I was not born there nor did I have grandparents in those locations to spend my summers with. I didn’t visit the South until I was a married woman with a child of my own. I have been making pilgrimages back at almost every opportunity since.

As a genealogist, I believe the best way to appreciate the truth about my ancestors is to walk in their footsteps. My journeys take me to a lot of old courthouses, cemeteries and farms.

African Americans have a long history that reaches all the way from the cotton fields of the South across the waters to Africa and all points in between. We provided the labor that built America — literally. Over the four centuries we have been in this land, we have contributed in every possible way to the evolution of American society. I can think of no better way to honor those contributions than by researching my genealogy and trying to see life through my ancestor’s eyes.

During my travels, I have visited the courthouse in Forrest County, Mississippi; a county named for Nathan B. Forrest, a Confederate general and the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. I walked the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma where civil rights demonstrators were beaten and incarcerated on “Bloody Sunday” so that my great grandfather would have the right to vote. I went to Tuskegee University, where my grand uncle learned the electrical trade. I found the farm and family graveyard for white ancestors in Mississippi; along with a road that still bears their name. I stood in the remnants of slave markets where my ancestors could have been sold or bought. I discovered a long abandoned cemetery on the plantation land where my ancestors picked cotton.

Almost every location I have visited has a bitter memory associated with it. Yet, every time I go South, I am reminded of the paradox that the South, as bitter as the memories may be, is the only homeland most African Americans will ever know. It is the place of memories that, through genealogy, will live forever in my heart. This is how I know that I am guided by my ancestors. They want to be remembered and reach out to me at every turn. In almost every town, I haven’t needed a GPS to find the ancestral homestead. At virtually every cemetery, I feel like I’m holding a dowsing rod as I discover graves of ancestors I may not even have been looking for.

 

This post first appeared as part of a 12 part series for Geni.com: http://www.geni.com/blog/african-american-genealogy-part-i-the-adventure-begins-370149.html

So Much More

23 July 2012

Family Bible, presented to a family member in 1877

Even though I have done my best to cover the basics of family research, there is still so much more.

The point to remember is that every human being has left a paper trail of some sort. Your job is to find it and put the puzzle pieces family relationship together. Depending on how deep you want to go, there is no end to where you can look and what you might find.

There are land records, tax lists, Social Security files, military records, newspapers, cemetery records, funeral programs, city directories, church records, work records and records of fraternal and social organizations. As you proceed with your research, you will surely find references to many of these on your own.

And don’t forget family heirlooms. One of my distant cousins has a bible from 1877 that was presented to his mother. It lists all the births, marriages and deaths in his line of the family and was indispensable in building his part of the family tree. In my mother’s belongings, I found a box of old letters written to her brother when he was serving in the Navy in World War II. What a glimpse of life she shared, with him then and with me now.

Speaking of heirlooms, I have a couple of words to say about photos.

We are very lucky that the state of photography has become so advanced as it is so nice to be able to visualize people, places and things with the ease that photographic images make possible. Before the 1800s, photography was not universally available. It was expensive and out-of-reach for most people. Some of my most cherished possessions are photographs of ancestors I will never meet. They may be gone, but their visage continues to exist.

Whatever photos and documents you find, there are many programs available to catalog and save your images. I use free Picasa software that saves files in .jpg format, which is easy to transmit and share with others.

To cover everything about how to do family research would easily fill a book. And, fortunately, it has… several of them. The books I recommend for further study are:

  • BLACK ROOTS: A Beginner’s Guide to Tracing the African American Family Tree by Tony Burroughs
  • BLACK GENEALOGY by Charles L. Blockson
  • A GENEALOGIST’S GUIDE TO DISCOVERING YOUR AFRICAN-AMERICAN ANCESTORS by Franklin Carter Smith and Emily Anne Croom
  • FINDING A PLACE CALLED HOME: A Guide to African American Genealogy and Historical Identity by Dee Parmer Woodtor

For the African American researcher, I encourage you to never become disheartened. You may not find some of the ancestors you are looking for nor prove definitively some of your family relationships. Much of what you find will be “circumstantial,” but that is better than nothing at all. At least you will have tried and for that you shall be blessed by the ancestral spirits who came before and watch over you now.

 

This post first appeared as part of a 12 part series for Geni.com: http://www.geni.com/blog/african-american-genealogy-part-i-the-adventure-begins-370149.html

 

DNA results for my first cousin, the only remaining male in my paternal (LESLIE) family line

DNA testing is a modern marvel that makes it possible to “prove beyond doubt” whom you are related to and where your family originated.

National Geographic is leading a project that seeks to chart “new knowledge about the migratory history of the human species by using sophisticated laboratory and computer analysis of DNA contributed by hundreds of thousands of people from around the world. In this unprecedented real-time research effort, the Genographic Project is closing the gaps of what science knows today about humankind’s ancient migration stories.” Their research suggests that “all humans today descend from a group of African ancestors who—about 60,000 years ago—began a remarkable journey.”

DNA tests are commercially available from a variety of sources, costing from $150-300 per person. This technique is especially useful for African Americans, for whom recordkeeping during slavery was so incomplete and paternal evidence so obscured.

During slavery, it was common for slaveholders to produce children with their female slaves. Because slave children followed the status of their mothers, many of our forefathers (black and white) are lost. In a best case scenario, mixed race children were cared for, educated and enabled to have privileges. In the worst case, they were shunned and sold away.

I am not an expert on DNA, but I do know that there are two strains of genetic material: One comes from the father and the other comes from the mother. When you do DNA testing, you need a person who is a direct line descendant. If you test a male, you will get the paternal result. If you trace a female, you will get the maternal line. That means for me, my mother, her mother, her mother….. I need a male relative to trace back his father, his father, his father….

I have recently found through testing that my maternal ancestral origins are within the Makua tribe of Moçambique. DNA tests revealed a definite match with the Bantu people there. In my joy, I researched to find a picture of a Makua woman. She has the same high cheekbones and broad nose that my great grandmother had. Our family ascribed that to being “Indian.” But the DNA results said otherwise. On my paternal side, I found a preponderance of Scottish and Puerto Rican. Huh?!! The Scottish certainly confirms the origins of my Leslie maiden name. I haven’t figured out the Puerto Rican part yet.

Whatever the results, I cannot express how happy I feel to finally have a definitive answer to where I came from. Now I know for sure, I came from somewhere. What DNA testing did for me was to provide a “homeland,” a place “from whence I came.” That is a major reward for all of the genealogical research to which I have devoted myself over the last 30 years.

I am told there is now a test that can verify both lines and bring the results much closer in physical time. I wish I could tell you more, but, like you, I am still learning.

 

This post first appeared as part of a 12 part series for Geni.com: http://www.geni.com/blog/african-american-genealogy-part-i-the-adventure-begins-370149.html

Estate papers listing the assessed value of my great grandfather and his mother

Once you find likely prospects for the family who enslaved your ancestors, you will need to dig deeper to see if there are any documents that might list their names. The easiest documents to find will be wills and deed books, which are kept in both county courthouses and state archives. Most of these documents are on microfilm. They have not yet been digitized. I am sure they will be — eventually.

I have had great success finding people this way. Recently, I found a treasure trove of information in deed books. The slaveholder repeatedly used his slaves as collateral for loans — from both individuals and banks. I found more than 100 names. And he was not even the main slaveholder I was looking for. He was the father of someone a white ancestor married. I also found where he made gifts — even before he died — of slaves, to all his children.

What I usually do is a “kamikaze” hit on a courthouse. I arrive, go through all the books and copy everything for everyone who has the surname I want. That way, I can take the information home to study it. I also scour records for neighbors as there was a lot of buying and selling going on. You might find what you want in a place you would not logically think to look. So, whenever you get the opportunity, grab everything you can get. If it doesn’t relate to you, it may relate to someone else. Genealogists are generous and generally have no problem sharing.

For wills, get the will for the head of household as well as others in the family. Money values in the past were vastly different from today. That means somebody you might think of as “poor” today was actually rich enough to write a will to pass on his inheritance. People passed along such simple things as donkeys, spinning wheels, pianos and…. slaves. Consider too that wives often came from slaveholding families, just as their husbands did. Widows are a good source as they were very responsible about passing along to their children what their husbands and fathers left to them. Sometimes, inherited possessions were administered by husbands, but often, the women retained title to them.

Deed books record transactions of land and other possessions. They are recorded in two versions: Grantor and Grantee. You need to look at both. It is in these books that I found numerous records for a slaveholder who repeatedly used his slaves as collateral for loans. The names were repeated over and over again. There is an index in front of each deed book so you can easily find the names. You are then directed to the actual document, usually in another book.

There are also records of slave importations where people were supposed to document slaves being brought across state lines. Few of these records continue to exist, but I know there are some extant for Mississippi, Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Finally, slaves, because they had financial value, were often insured. Some states, in recent times, have started requiring that companies that want to do business with public entities, must report their involvement in slaving. I know that California and Illinois have active programs that require this. I am not sure about other states.

The big idea is that you have to look anywhere and everywhere for just the slightest shred of information. It is not easy to make the connections we long for, but it is possible.

This post first appeared as part of a 12 part series for Geni.com: http://www.geni.com/blog/african-american-genealogy-part-i-the-adventure-begins-370149.html

Family Memories

18 June 2012

My great grandmother Rhoda REEVES LESLIE circa 1900 @ AL

Family stories are incredibly powerful because they put flesh on the bones of our long dead ancestors, telling us a great deal about who these people were; how they survived and what they felt. And this is where every family historian starts — recording the stories of everyone in your family who has memories to share. You will find factual stories repeated from generation to generation as well as “tall tales” embellished with personal details. Even when stories are not factually correct, almost every one of them has a basis in truth. It will be up to you as the researcher to ferret out the fact from fiction.

When I was born in 1951, I had a great grandmother who was still living. Her name was Rhoda Reeves Leslie. She was, at that time, 101 years old. I remember her well, even though I was far too young to talk to her. She died when I was three years old. With her demise, I still had my grandparents, three of whom survived well into my twenties, and my parents, both of whom I lost within the last ten years. My mother lived with me during the last two years of her life. We filled many hours talking about her past and making family connections. Unfortunately, like most people of her generation, she hadn’t talked to her parents very much, which left big gaps in what she could tell me. In my father’s case, he didn’t want to talk about anything at all. It took years for me to get him to open up.

What he told me led to a plantation in Lowndes County, Alabama, the place from which his grandparents emerged into “freedom.” They went first to Opelika, where his grandfather worked on building a railroad. Later, they went to Montgomery, where they built their lives and raised their children.

My mother’s memories led me to an ancestor who made a claim for herself and her children for recognition as Mississippi Choctaw Indians before the Dawes Commission to the Five Civilized Tribes. Her claim was rejected, but one of her sons succeeded in obtaining a land grant, only to be driven away from his fields by “Night Riders” (minions of the Ku Klux Klan).

Another story, from my mother’s father, led to an uncle who served our country in France in World War I. He died of gas poisoning in a state institution. I learned that he had a wife we had never known about. From other stories, I was led to cousins who crossed the color line and whose descendants, until I met them, had no idea they had black ancestry.

All of these discoveries started with simple stories. It worked for me and it will work for you too. I continue to cherish the sound of my uncle’s voice when I recorded him many years ago telling family stories.

Get a digital recorder and capture those memories while the people who hold them are still alive. If you don’t, you will regret not doing so. It will help a lot if you prepare a list of questions ahead of time before you interview anybody.
This post first appeared as part of a 12 part series for Geni.com: http://www.geni.com/blog/african-american-genealogy-part-i-the-adventure-begins-370149.html

How Did We Get Here?

12 June 2012

Map of the Transatlantic Slave Trade

America is a land of immigrants. That is indisputably true, even though most of us have integrated into this society to a point where we no longer think of ourselves as “foreign” or “other.” I believe that natural human curiosity leads us to ask questions about who we are, where we came from and what life might have been like before we existed. That is where the genealogical quest comes in. With the exception of indigenous Americans — all of us have origins outside the continental boundaries of the place we were born and have always known as “home”.

For African Americans, our origins are in Africa and that is where we ultimately have to look to answer questions about “from whence we came.”

An estimated 15-30 million people (men, women and children) were stolen from Africa and sold as slaves. These figures exclude those who died aboard the ships and in the course of wars and raids connected to the trade. Ten to twenty percent of these captives perished in the Middle Passage, the voyage from Africa to the Americas. Five percent of the survivors ended up enslaved in America. The “triangular trade” connected the economies of four continents – Europe, Africa, North and South America (and the islands in between). The trade continued for four centuries, from the 16th to the 19th century.
Many people were off-loaded in the Caribbean, Haiti being a case in point. “Discovered” by Columbus in 1492, Haiti (originally known as Sainte Domingue) was ceded by Spain to France in 1697. By 1789, the island paradise was renowned as the single richest colony in the world. It supplied immense surpluses of commodities to Europe and America, including indigo and sugar. From 1791 until 1804, Ste. Domingue was the epicenter of a singularly successful slave rebellion. The revolution defeated Napolean Bonaparte and gave birth to the world’s first independent black-controlled nation: The Republic of Haiti. Fleeing the revolution, more than 11,000 people of French descent migrated to the United States.

I found one of these emigrants in my own family research: Dr. John Marrast. His family, originating in Gers, France, fled the Haitian revolution in 1793. Dr. Marrast was born soon after the family arrived in America. He grew up to be one of the largest slaveholders in Lowndes County, Alabama, which is where my ancestors emerged from slavery. In 1855, he held 128 people in bondage.

Many people think it was only the South that benefitted from slavery. That is absolutely not true. Slavery was the underpinning of the entire American economy; as well as the economies of many nations in Europe. People in Rhode Island built ships and commissioned slave voyages. Factories in Maine processed cotton. People in New York City held slaves.

In 2009, Emory University in Atlanta led the creation of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, an effort to trace the geographic origins of Africans transported in the transatlantic slave trade. The database includes more than 60,000 names. The problem is, these are all first names, which were undoubtedly changed once the ships arrived in America and the people on board were sold.

This post first appeared as part of a 12 part series for Geni.com: http://www.geni.com/blog/african-american-genealogy-part-i-the-adventure-begins-370149.html

If you are interested in genealogy, know that effective research entails commitment. It is a long term journey with many twists and turns. If you are to succeed, you will need a road map. And that road map begins with you.

Baby “Me” in 1954

The very first thing you must do is write down what you know about yourself. When and where were you born? What would you like for future generations to remember about you? It is useful to make copies of important documents to keep in your file. Your birth certificate, marriage certificate, school documents, social security card. These are all things future researchers would want if you were gone and they were looking for you. Make it easy for them. And don’t forget to include photographs: You as a baby, graduating from school, your wedding day…

After documenting yourself, you move on to the previous generation: Your parents. Do the same thing for them. And then, your grandparents. You will be amazed how quickly all this information starts adding up. Each generation is approximately 25 years apart. Over the course of 100 years, that’s four generations, with numbers that grow exponentially. You plus your parents equals 3 plus their parents equals 7 plus their parents equals 21. And that doesn’t include all the other relatives, like brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles.

Once you accumulate your information in one spot, the next thing is to sit down and enter it all in one place. People used to do this part manually, but it is so much easier with the help of technology. There is less paper and you can find what you need instantly with the push of a button. That means you will need some software that helps you store and organize your research.

There are many commercial genealogy programs on the market. The most popular ones are FamilyTree Maker, RootsMagic and Legacy. The Latter Day Saints (LDS) offers a free program that satisfies very basic needs. It has no bells and whistles but is perfectly adequate for the novice. It enables you to create something called a PAF (personal ancestral file), which constitutes the building blocks of your family tree. Once you fill in the forms, you can upload the entire file to the LDS repository and be compatible with others who are also looking for family connections. You will find a PAF download at FamilySearch.org.

When you open your software, you will begin your family tree with yourself and then proceed to systematically record information about everyone in your family. As you record the information, make sure to note where it came from. That is a cardinal rule of genealogy: ALWAYS write down your sources so you can go back to them later if you need to.

This post first appeared as part of a 12 part series for Geni.com: http://www.geni.com/blog/african-american-genealogy-part-i-the-adventure-begins-370149.html

What is Genealogy?

21 May 2012

My Family Tree

My Family Tree

Some people are confused about the meaning of the word “genealogy.” Technically, it means “a personal record of your ancestors — when they were born and where they lived, who their children were and who they married and where you belong in your extended family tree.” All of this information is recorded on forms and charts with which you can determine and show where everybody fits in the family picture. Most genealogists are very disciplined about verifying every bit of information they find by locating documents that prove every detail. That is good advice as it is easy to confuse information, especially when so many people share the same names.

People who are more casual often use the term “family history” instead of genealogy. I tend to like that description better, because what we are really doing is more than just recording names, dates and places. It is one thing to learn that Uncle Arthur was born in Mississippi in 1895. But what about his life? What did he look like? Where did he work? What were his interests? Could he read and write? Did he vote?

For European Americans, there are many records to consult. I know families who can trace themselves back to the kings of Europe and the founding fathers of America. For African Americans, recreating one’s family tree is a bigger challenge. There are not as many records that exist to confirm our genealogies. But we all have stories, and those stories, more than anything else, help us discover who we are in our hearts.

In the 1970s interest in genealogy by African Americans was propelled by the publication of Alex Haley’s Roots. This book and TV miniseries was profoundly influential in encouraging genealogical exploration by America’s former slaves. It was also the first time contemporary European Americans got a glimpse into the realities of slavery. I am told by white friends that it had a major impact on them as well.

One of the reasons Roots and other programs that have been on television lately are so powerful is because they tell the stories of real people — just like you and me. There is something profound about the story of Tom Joyner’s uncles who were wrongly executed for murder and how Tom made things right by getting them exonerated posthumously. There was inspiration in the story of Lionel Ritchie’s ancestors in Tuskegee, Alabama. As he stood in the midst of a cemetery, he was overcome with emotion and said, “This is about as close to a spiritual awakening as I’ve ever had in my whole life.” Even rapper 50 Cent was transformed after being transported back 200 years into the backwoods of South Carolina.

Whether you call it “genealogy” or “family history,” your job is to write things down so that future generations can benefit from what you learn. There is an African proverb that says “you are never dead as long as someone remembers your name.” Our ancestors worked too hard and struggled too valiantly for them to be forgotten.

This post first appeared as part of a 12 part series for Geni.com:  http://www.geni.com/blog/african-american-genealogy-part-i-the-adventure-begins-370149.html

The Adventure Begins

15 May 2012

My family gathered for Thanksgiving dinner in Chicago, 1953

My family gathered for Thanksgiving dinner in Chicago, 1953

My name is Sharon Leslie Morgan. I am a family historian. For the last three decades, I have been devoted to piecing together the puzzle of my past. It has been a great adventure on a circuitous path that never ceases to inspire, challenge and fulfill me.  I often feel that I am guided by my ancestors as I unlock the story of their lives.

In 2007, I established a website to help others do the same — ourblackancestry.com. My mission is to help people “empower their future by honoring their past.” My work in family history has also led me to co-author a book about racial reconciliation. Gather at the Table will be published by Beacon Press in Fall 2012 — www.wegatt.wordpress.com.

It is amazing how much interest in family history has grown in recent years. Statistics say that 73% of the US population is interested in genealogy and over 80 million people are actively searching online. I am glad to see African Americans getting on the bandwagon. When I did a random survey to measure potential interest before putting my website online, I got more than 7,000 immediate hits!

Ninety percent of African Americans are descended from people who were enslaved. Our cultural ties with our homelands in Africa were broken; which means we don’t know where we came from. Our family ties were severed; which means we don’t know many of the people to whom we are related. Only five percent (approximately 500,000) of people kidnapped from Africa were enslaved in America. That number grew to almost four million people who were officially released from slavery when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. It took a Civil War to enforce it. And, it was not until 1868, when the 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution became law, that we were acknowledged  as citizens. Clearly, there is much we need to know, not only about our ancestors but about the times in which they lived. That means good genealogist also needs to be an historian.

My research has been particularly challenging and yours will be too. Many African Americans can’t trace back past 1870. That was the year of the first Federal census that recorded African Americans as people (rather than property), with surnames and families. Before that, we were just ticks on a slave schedule.

Hopefully, what I write here will open the door to an adventure that will excite and engage you for a lifetime. The search for my family history has been an incredibly educational, enlightening and evolutionary experience. My findings brought home the admonition I grew up with that “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Maybe finding out who we are can help us make the world a better place. I certainly think so.

This post first appeared as part of a 12 part series for Geni.com:  http://www.geni.com/blog/african-american-genealogy-part-i-the-adventure-begins-370149.html

Ancestral Spirits

4 May 2012

Gavin Family Bible – 1897

There is an African proverb that says “You are not dead as long as someone remembers your name.”  I am reminded of that bit of wisdom almost every day.

I was the one person in my family who inherited a compulsive need to know: Who am I? Who are my people? What legacy did they leave behind?

My thirst has been quenched through genealogical research, guided by the unwavering influence of ancestral spirits. At every step along the way, I have felt the presence of long-dead people who yearn to be found so they can be remembered and live again. I experience their presence on the hallowed grounds of historical homesteads. I hear their whispers in courthouses, leading me to documents of their lives. They guide my footsteps on back roads and in unmapped cemeteries.

The longing to know is especially poignant for African Americans because so much of our history has been obscured or excluded. In the end, all we know for sure is that we are part of one big family, united by our history of enslavement.  African familial bonds are evident in our enduring cultural heritage, along with the scientific reality of Africa as the birthplace of humanity. We are all part of a continuum, on one end represented by parents and grandparents who have passed on and, on the other, children and grandchildren whose lives have just begun.

Today, I can proudly say I remember Ailsie, Bettie, Rhody, Tom, Wash, Louie, Arthur, Delores…. and more than a thousand others, spanning centuries back to the slave markets of West and East Africa.

The desire for posterity to remember my name is what led me to create Our Black Ancestry as a portal for African American family history. Our ancestors are calling. Let them take your hand and lead you backward into the mists of time so you can walk forward with pride.

This post first appeared as a guest blog for Geder Genealogy:  http://george-geder.blogspot.com/2012/05/ancestral-spirits-guest-post.html?spref=tw

 

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