I Am the Dream

14 April 2013

I have long dreamed of being able to make a MAJOR contribution to the world of genealogy for African Americans. From the first day I realized how truly hard it is to uncover our roots in slavery (which is where the ancestral past for 90% of contemporary African Americans is buried), I have yearned to find my own way and to help others negotiate their path through this circuitous and brambled road to the past.

On my own behalf, I longed to discover the facts about my ancestors whose children departed the onus of slavery in Alabama and Mississippi — making a way out of no way as they recreated their destinies in the “promised land” of Chicago. I have since found the NAMES of 12 of my ancestors, associated with an awareness that there are many more who will likely remain “buried in the past.”

In my quest, I remember well the momentous day in the reading room of the Alabama Department of Archives and History when, after days of research, I FINALLY found a slave schedule for the white man whom I believe to be the father of my paternal great grandfather. I sat there in front of a microfilm reader, stunned in disbelief with tears in my eyes — stricken to my core as I confronted the FACT that there were NO NAMES … only an assaulting reference to to the owner. He WAS named, along with a list of the ages and genders of his “possessions”… My forbears were summarily reduced from being PEOPLE to being ticks on a slave schedule. At the very moment my discovery incited a searing pain that coursed through my my entire body, a white woman sitting next to me exclaimed with JOY, having found the NAMES and DETAILS of HER ancestors.

My reaction was instantaneous and visceral … I felt an almost overwhelming desire to slap the crap out of the woman next to me — blinded by the resonance of her joy juxtaposed against my pain. At that moment, it became painfully clear that meticulous white record keepers had preserved THEIR records but not OURS. (Which is one reason for the name of this website/blog =  OUR Black Ancestry.)

Sensing my alarm, the man who worked for the archives (a black man) put his hand on my shoulder and tried to comfort me. He said “We all feel that way…the first time — I see it all the time…”

Indeed we do and well we should.

As all of us who are dedicated to the quest to discern “from whence we came” are painfully aware of how EXTREMELY difficult it is to achieve our goal — to discover the dreamers who endured the brutal experience of slavery and yet held on to dreams of a different life… a dream of what their progeny might be today. It is only dogged pursuit that keeps us going… searching relentlessly for names in wills, deeds and family records… hoping against hope to find answers and to give honour to those who were deprived of their humanity as they built the economy of the western world.

In our quest, there comes a day when each and every one of us hits that proverbial “brick wall” — the census of 1870 — the first “legal” record that acknowledged black people as PEOPLE… with surnames, ages, birthplaces and … families…. connections that are vital to knowing who we are.

In 2007, I built the Our Black Ancestry website in the hope that — one day — I would find an answer… for me and many others. For all these years, I have financed Our Black Ancestry out of my pocket. But, in order to evolve into the site I want Our Black Ancestry to be… I have to build it into a business — one that pays for the expertise, records and technology that will transform my dream into reality.  

Today, I think I might have FINALLY found the route that can make my dream come true.

My goal is to build a one-stop repository that leads African Americans to their enslaved ancestors. Visitors to the renewed OBA portal will be able to search, see and download documents that NAME and claim our ancestors, engage in a social network based in the best that technology has to offer… share our family trees… make connections with living relatives, plan family reunions… post photos and do so much more.

To this end, I recently launched a campaign on Indiegogo to raise a$50,000 to make my dream (and the dreams of my ancestors) come true. (Here is a link to the campaign: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/our-black-ancestry )

I am hoping that ALL people — black and white — will appreciate how much a repository like this will mean to MILLIONS of people like me who long to know…

Here are photos of my three of my ancestors who were enslaved. In spite of my bounty, I long to know MORE.

Don’t you?

These are my people who DREAMED a better world. Help me find yours and give them the honour they deserve.

Bettie WARFE/GAVIN -- Captured as a 9 year old girl and taken from VA to MS to become the mother of 17 children with a member of her owner's family

Bettie WARFE/GAVIN –Taken as a 9 year old girl from VA to MS to become the mother of 17 children with a member of her owner’s family

Tom LESLIE -- Presumed to be fathered by the local blacksmith in Lowndes County, AL.

Tom LESLIE — Presumed to be fathered by the local blacksmith in Lowndes County, AL.

Rhoda REEVES/LESLIE -- Emancipated from slavery in 1865 in Lowndes County AL.

Rhoda REEVES/LESLIE — Emancipated from slavery in 1865 in Lowndes County AL.

The Color of Love

6 December 2012

Just like everyone else, my family tree includes an assortment of characters from the unsavory to the sublime. The two I want to talk about are my grandmothers. Both were white women who married black men in the 1920s.

My father’s parents, Dora Federico and Bob Leslie, tied the knot in 1922. My mother’s parents, Jennie Waymoth and Louie Nicholson, followed suit in 1926. When they did so, miscegenation was illegal in 38 states. A “Racial Integrity Act” was on the books, which made it illegal for white people to marry anyone with “a single drop of Negro blood.” The Ku Klux Klan was on a rampage to protect white women from the “savage” lust of black men. The Red Summer of 1919 (a wave of race riots in dozens of cities throughout the North and South) was a recent memory and black people were being lynched in record numbers. It was not until 1967 that interracial marriages were allowed in all states.

Antonia Dora Federico

Antonia Dora Federico

Dora’s parents were Italian immigrants. Her father arrived in America in 1878. The proudest moment of his life was when he was granted citizenship in Mount Vernon, New York in 1897. The family moved to Chicago sometime before 1910 and he was dead when his daughter married my grandfather, a widower with three children. The Federico family thought Bob was a “dark Dago” because of his light brown skin and straight hair. When they found out differently, it didn’t stop them from helping the newlyweds get established in the bootlegging business, under the stewardship of Al Capone.

Dora, with whom I spent most of my summers, spent her later years working as a domestic for rich white people in Rockford, Illinois. Although she loved her employers (and I resented them for taking her away from me every day), she was not fond of white people in general. Later, when I read the history of Italians in America, it was easy to see why. Italians suffered extreme prejudice and violence at the hands of white, Anglo Saxon Protestants. They were restricted to low-income, low-class jobs and attacked for their Catholicism by the Ku Klux Klan. In 1891, eleven Italians were killed in New Orleans in one of the largest mass lynchings in American history. During World War II, Italians thought to be loyal to their homeland were incarcerated in internment camps, just like the Japanese.

When Dora died in 1983, I was so distraught I spent three days locked in her bedroom, crying inconsolably. I met her Italian family for the first time at her funeral, when I was thirty-two years old.

Jennie Marie Waymoth

Jennie Marie Waymoth

Jennie Waymoth, on the other hand, was born into a family of Scots-Irish who came to America at an unknown date. She grew up in the small farming community of Sidell, Illinois and met Louie Nicholson in the Illinois Central train station in Chicago. He worked on a train. She waited tables in the station restaurant. After their marriage, her family pleaded with her to come home — for four years, through the births of her first two children, who looked white. When her third child emerged with a skin that matched his father’s , they declared her dead. In 1932, she went to visit her sister Sylvia (who also lived in Chicago) with all three of her young children in tow. Inseparable growing up, Jennie was stunned when her favored sibling derided her with “You better get away from my door. You know (my husband) doesn’t want any niggers in his house.”

When I found Jennie’s relatives online, we had many pleasant conversations as I shared the details of my grandmother’s life. My correspondent was happy to know she hadn’t died and agreed that I should visit. There was, however, a catch. I was informed: “My mother lives with us and still keeps the old ways. She would not want a black person sleeping in our house.” I felt what my grandmother must have felt that day on her sister’s stoop.

It takes a long time and a lot of lessons to learn what it means to be black and how one should relate to people who despise you. I am still on the learning curve. I once had a friend who described seeing a “colored” water fountain as a child. He really wanted to drink the water because he thought the spigot would spew a rainbow. Then there was my time in South Africa, a country that had recently been emancipated from the chains of apartheid. Many newly enfranchised people derided the dream of a “Rainbow Nation,” noting that rainbows do not have a band of black.

I was twelve years old in May 1963 when my grandmother Jennie dropped dead in front of me. I remember standing in the kitchen doorway watching her drink a glass of water. Gazing out of the window over the sink, she quenched her thirst, remarked “What a beautiful day,” and collapsed onto the floor – dead from massive heart attack. I was too stunned to even cry over the loss of one of my primary care givers.

That was the same year (six months later) when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated for reasons black people surmised had much to do with his championing of civil rights. In 1968, riots erupted after Rev. Martin Luther King was murdered by a white supremacist. I was a college student, trapped in the student administration building at the University of Illinois. When I heard the mayor announce a “shoot to kill” order, there was no doubt who it applied to: Me. A year later, I was an unwed mother, wondering how to raise a child in a world embittered by rancor and fear. There was a period in the 1970s when I could barely have a relationship with my surviving Mama Dora, having become profoundly and painfully aware of her whiteness. I am now ashamed of my reaction, but when all was said and done, I was totally turned off by white people – all of them. I did not want to acknowledge them as part of my family. I did not want to be friends with them. And I certainly would not have crossed the color bar to marry one. I could not comprehend how my grandfathers made that leap, coming as they did from birthplaces in Alabama and Mississippi.

Until recently, the story of my grandmothers was not part of my conversation; at least not within the context of race relations. As a child, I didn’t consciously think about what race they were; they were just my grandmothers. The segregated black community in which I grew up and into which my grandmothers were seamlessly adopted wrapped its arms around everyone. I eventually came to terms with the fact that I loved them both – dearly and unconditionally.

These days, my grandmothers are top of mind — maybe because I am now a grandmother myself, one with a burning desire to leave the world a better place. Resolution of the racial conundrum lies at the heart of that aspiration. That is why I embarked on a journey with a white man whose ancestors were the largest slave traders in US history and co-authored a book with him to document an approach to racial healing.

My grandmothers left me with two cherished mementos. On my ring finger, I wear Dora’s diamonds. Some years after Dora’s death, Aunt Lottie climbed onto a step stool, dug into the deep recesses of a closet shelf, and handed me a wadded up ball of Kleenex. Inside were seven loose diamonds belonging to Mama Dora that I had set into a ring. Around my neck, I wear Jennie’s ivory cameo; one that has passed through many generations over 150 years. Both pieces of jewelery are reminders of a past I must deal with in order to embrace a future in which the paradox of love and acrimony has been resolved.

In an ideal world, race would be a mere descriptive, not a pejorative. As it stands, it informs a global construct that keeps one group of people (white) in power and another group (people of color) in submission. It is disproportionately destructive because it lies at the core of many other isms; influencing how people deal with gender, religious belief, and ability.

In thinking of my grandmothers, the classic Bill Withers song “Grandma’s Hands” comes to mind. I love this song that describes through metaphor the essence of one of the most dearly beloved in every family. Neither of my grandmothers “clapped in church on Sunday morning,” although both were believers in God. They didn’t play tambourines, though one cut a mean step on the dance floor. If their hands “use to ache sometime and swell,” I didn’t notice as they worked tirelessly, without complaint.

When I get to heaven, it will be those hands I seek, fully expecting Dora and Jennie to greet me in their loving arms for what will surely be a grand reunion.

The Next Generation

18 September 2012

Sometimes, in our quest to rediscover and connect the dots of our past, we forget to consider the  future. I thought about that this weekend as my granddaughter celebrated  her third birthday. In the not too distant future, I will stop being the “Shama” she knows and become one of the ancestral spirits who watch over her from another realm. What will I leave behind?

Princess Violet Celebrates Her Birthday

I am determined that her inheritance include a cache of stories and pictures from which she and her brother can learn and gain strength to become the accomplished adults they are destined to be. They will learn that only a few generations ago, their paternal GGGgrandparents labored as slaves in Alabama and Mississippi. They will meet my grandfather “Paw Paw”, the stylish railroad cook and steel mill laborer who raised me; my father “Boots” who was a boxer, bouncer and bartender; my mother “Blossom” who was the most beautiful woman in the world (to me and those who loved her); “Mama Dora” whose roots were in Italy and who worked for Al Capone during prohibition; and “Maw Maw” who came to Chicago as a young farm girl from southern Illinois and helped bust redlining laws that kept black people from buying property. They will be introduced to patriarch Tom Leslie, a man of diminuative stature who married the statuesque Rhody; and Robert Gavin, the Confederate soldier who fathered 17 children with Bettie, his uncle’s captive farm laborer. They will meet all of Bettie’s children, their children, and their children’s children who continue to thrive.

I will also leave behind the products of my imagination… the books, stories, poems and essays I have been writing all my life, which are dedicated to them as “our grandchildren who keep our hopes alive.”

I urge all family historians to pay attention to making the information you so painstakingly research available to future generations. Write your stories. Save your documents and pictures. Put them in a format that will not be lost.

The next generation is depending on us to empower their future by honoring our past.

Make it so!

 

Timeline

28 August 2012

On this day in 1955, an innocent young man named Emmett Till was murdered in Money, Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman.  This event embodied all that was wrong with America in that day on the subject of race.

On this same day in 1963, Rev. Martin Luther King delivered his famous “Dream” speech before an unprecedented congregation of people in Washington, D.C. His speech articulated all that was right in the hearts of people who longed for change. Five years later, he was murdered for “whistling” for Civil Rights, igniting riots across America.

These historic events shaped my life ever after.

I was only four years old in 1955; too young to understand anything other than the admonishments of my parents about the South from which my forbears had fled. Yet, as Emmett Till’s mother said:

“When people saw what had happened to my son, men stood up who had never stood up before. People became vocal who had never vocalized before. Emmett’s death was the opening of the civil rights movement. He was the sacrificial lamb of the movement.”

In 1963, I was 12; fully able to grasp the many messages in Rev. King’s clarion call. As John Lewis, who was then president of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee and is now a U.S. Congressman, described:

“Dr. King had the power, the ability, and the capacity to transform those steps on the Lincoln Memorial into a monumental area that will forever be recognized. By speaking the way he did, he educated, he inspired, he informed not just the people there, but people throughout America and unborn generations.”

Three generations later, I sit here contemplating this history and wondering what is in store for the succeeding unborn. For all the strides that have been made, we still have so much further to go.

“But one hundred years later, we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize an appalling condition.”

The countless black men locked in the cells of incarceration speak of generations lost. The “bad bitches” and “baby daddies” who are euphemistically parenting the next generation assault my reasoning ability. The murderous rage afflicting our cities compels me to worry about the safety of my grandchildren on the streets of Harlem and my niece and nephews on the streets of Chicago. The racial innuendos continuously directed at the President of the  United States begs me to wonder how far we have really come. The apathy of people who are likely to eschew voting in the November election makes me fear our political fate.

I believe we are standing at yet another juncture in history where “the power of one” will decide the fate of many. We can use our family histories to either empower us or consign us to continued servitude to an economic model that no longer works — for anyone, no matter what race.

 

 

 

Lost and Found

13 August 2012

I hit the jackpot in the last few weeks in finding lost relatives. It seems like all of a sudden people are coming out of the woodwork to claim the ancestors whose lives I have so painstakingly reconstructed over the last 30 years. I must have finally achieved critical mass in putting enough online so that I can be found. Or maybe it is the ancestral spirits who have led us to reunion.

Hayneville (Lowndes County) Alabama

First, there is Neil LESLIE. He wrote to me after seeing a photograph of his great grandfather’s gravestone on a LESLIE family tree I loaded online some years ago.  I believe (strongly and with little doubt) that he and I share an ancestor; only Neil’s line is white and mine is black. His is “legitimate” — with plenty of documents to prove it. Mine can never be substantiated unless Neil takes a DNA test to see if he matches the last surviving male in my LESLIE line. Neil’s thoughtful response to the information I provided to back up the photo was surprisingly sanguine:

“The upshot of all of this, at least for me, is that I may have African American relations I knew nothing about, a possibility that I (perhaps naively) had never considered. For much of the South’s history, clandestine and unacknowledged interracial sexual unions (whether consensual or forced) and children resulting from those unions were far more common than many people, white or black, were willing to admit. I knew this in an abstract, intellectual way from taking college courses in race relations and the history of the South, but there is a huge difference between understanding something as an abstract concept and seeing how it could affect the history of your own family. I am still trying to process both my emotional reaction to this possibility and the evidence for it that Sharon Leslie Morgan has shared with me thus far. We both want to continue the conversation and gather and interpret more evidence, if it can be found.”

Macon (Noxubee County) Mississippi

Then, there is Lisa GAVIN. She found my online GAVIN family tree, recognized familiar names and contacted me. Her great grandfather and my great grandmother were siblings (no doubt about it; supported with many documents). She never knew of her African American ancestry but was inspired to consider the possibility as she proceeded to unravel secrets about the obscurity of her family origins. Her immediate ancestors always lived as white people. Mine did not even attempt to. This is ironic since we both grew up in or near Chicago. We knew her family existed even though we didn’t know their names. They knew nothing of us, other than one shared relative who they viewed as white and we viewed as black.

Here is what Lisa has to say:

“I, like Neil, am still trying to process all this on an emotional level. It hurts my heart to think that color may have kept us all apart when we lived so close. Now that I know of all this family I’m excited to continue to build relationships and bridge a long overdue gap. I pray that God will continue to bless you for all your painstaking work as you have blessed us by freely sharing it.”

My recent findings lead me to think even more deeply about the “why” of the work I do. Genealogy is  how I fulfill the Our Black Ancestry slogan of “empowering our future by honoring our past.” And here I am experiencing that goal on a very personal level.

When I first started researching, I only wanted to have a better sense of myself: who I am and where I come from; as well as to build a legacy to leave for my offspring so they would not have to ask these questions. They would be secure in knowledge of themselves and have a sense of pride in appreciating their roots in slavery and the strength it took to survive its horrific physical and psychological bonds. In the process, I did not seek out nor expect to find lost relatives — especially not ones who have lived lives defined by myth. They have been presented to me as a by-product of my researching and writing the stories of those who must not be forgotten. I have been delivered to them as a voice of truth.

Now I need to know: Just what is it — exactly — that must be remembered? Is it the fact that slavery and subsequent social mores tore families apart? It is the reality that we are still so “colored” in our beliefs about one another? Is it that “one drop” does not a person make? Or is it that knowledge of our past will help us transcend the legacy of white supremacy and the unrelenting onslaught of black subjugation?

What a ting, eh?

6 August 2012

Jamaican National Flag

Today is the 50th anniversary of Jamaican independence. That means a great deal to me because Jamaica is a country I long ago adopted as one my favorite places on earth. I lived there from 1984-1989 — in the capital city of Kingston.

There were many reasons why I originally went to Jamaica.  The first time I visited, I knew it was a place I wanted to live. I couldn’t resist the attraction of such incredibly beautiful topography and the profound spirituality of the people. Circumstances made it possible for me to uproot myself from Chicago and go to the land of my dreams. I experienced so many wonderful things in Jamaica that will forever live in my heart.

As a genealogist, it was a compelling idea to leave the United States and trace my way in reverse back to Africa. The Caribbean islands were the first ports of call for slavers and pirates alike. Jamaica is where it is said the “most difficult passengers” on the trawlers of the Middle Passage were disembarked. When one reads the history of Queen Nanny, the “old Obeah woman” who initiated a 100 year war with the British and WON and visits the Maroon community of Accompong, one cannot help but burst with pride. (Nanny freed more than 800 people from slavery and settled them in “the land of look behind” where British dare not tread.)

And then, there was Marcus Garvey, who had the unmitigated gall to extol African people to stand proud in their heritage and support Mother Africa. (While in Jamaica, I produced a commemorative publication about his work for the Jamaica Information Service.)

It was in Jamaica that I learned the true meaning of survival when an historic hurricane (Gilbert – 1989) roared across the land and almost killed us all. In its aftermath, Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds”  sat upon my ravaged doorstep, advising me that “every likkle ting gwan be ahright.”

And then… and then… There are SO MANY stories I could tell, but I won’t lest emotion overcomes me.

Today, the news for Jamaica is the 2012 Olympics where fifty-one athletes are competing in four categories and Usain Bolt has already captured some gold.

When I returned to America in 1989, it was with deep sadness. It took me a month of wandering about before I could bring myself to get on a plane.

I cannot tell you how inspired I am by the call of Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller for Britain to pay reparations for slavery. That call seems so relevant on this day most of all.

Today, what I celebrate is not Jamaica’s independence from British rule. That is such a small part of the story. It is the incredible fortitude of African people, throughout the diaspora, who survived and thrived against ALL odds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

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