21 May 2012
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
15 May 2012
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
4 May 2012
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
19 November 2011
Over the past several weeks, I was a featured blogger for Geni.com. The 12-part blog series provides information on how to conduct family research — with a special focus on the challenges that apply for African Americans.
In case you missed it on Geni, here is a link to the entire series for you to enjoy. Access is FREE:
19 September 2010
My grandmother, Jennie Waymoth, was a farm girl from Eastern Illinois. Born in 1902, she grew up milking cows on her father’s homestead in Sidell. When she left the farm sometime around 1925, headed for the bright lights of Chicago, she changed her name along the way to a more sophisticated “Jeanette”.
My grandfather, Louie Nicholson, was a southern emigre who left his birthplace in Mississippi in 1907 at the age of 12. His transformation from “country boy” to “urban dandy” elicited a change of spelling, from “Louie” to “Louis” and the addition of a middle name – “Bell” – which was borrowed from a family friend.
By the 1920′s, Louie was working on the Illinois Central Railroad, plying the route between Chicago and New Orleans. Jennie was a waitress in the train station restaurant.
In 1926, Louie and Jennie had the temerity to marry. It was a decision that was not very popular at the time. In America, the number of people who exercised that choice were statistically irrelevant.
On their wedding day, miscegenation was illegal in 38 states. Its prohibition was most notably exemplified by the “Racial Integrity Act,” passed in 1924 by the state of Virginia. The act made it illegal for white people to marry anyone with “a single drop of Negro blood.” In defense of statutes such as this, and the mores that made them expedient, the Ku Klux Klan was rampaging in the South, protecting the purity of white women from the savage lust of black men.
Ironically, the majority of people in Vermillion County (Sidell), were Quakers who originated in the South and left because of their distaste for slavery. Abraham Lincoln, “the Great Emancipator,” practiced law in the county seat of Danville for many years. Notwithstanding such a robust history of progressiveness, from the day Jennie and Louie married, Jennie’s family from thenceforth considered her dead. It was not until 1967 that interracial marriages were allowed in all states.
Throughout my life, I have never quite known how to process this family history. I grew up in the same house with my grandparents. My mother looked more white than most white people and I entered this world with a fair complexion. My lack of coloration has been both a blessing and a curse.
The more I learn about my family history, the more conflicted I am about my grandparent’s relationship — what it all means and where this is all leading to.
In an ideal world, there would be no race. It is merely a political construct that keeps one group of people in power and another group of people cowed into submission — all based on the “color of one’s skin.”
Today, I wear my grandmother’s cameo around my neck. This little bauble, which I estimate to be at least 150 years old, was one of my grandmother’s cherished possessions. Her mother (Filura) had received it from her mother (Isabella) and passed it along to my grandmother (Jennie). She gave it to her daughter (my mother, Delores) when she was a teenager. My mother passed it on to me.
My cameo symbolizes a chain of unbroken genes, hanging on a chain of racial acrimony. For me, it is this paradox that must be addressed if we are ever to move forward to a truly egalitarian America that guarantees and protects the rights of all regardless of race, creed, color or sexual orientation.
1 September 2010
Tuscaloosa, Alabama is the home of one of the people I have been researching for many years– Dr. John Marrast. He owned the plantation in Lowndes County from which I believe my ancestors, Tom Leslie and Rhoda Reeves Leslie, emerged from slavery.
According to an official website: “The City of Tuscaloosa, Tuscaloosa County and the Black Warrior River which runs through the City of Tuscaloosa all take their name from the Choctaw Indian Chief “Tushka Lusa” (tushka meaning “warrior”, lusa meaning “black”). According to historical accounts, Chief Tuskaloosa was a very wise and respected leader and was of impressive physical stature standing nearly 7 feet tall.”
Dr. Marrast was definitely not as tall as Tushka Lusa. His passport application says he stood at “medium height.” However, his stature as one of the largest slaveholders in Lowndes County, Alabama is indisputable.
In 1850, Dr. Marrast owned 128 people at Lowndes County. They were surely cultivating cotton on his large plantation, spurred on by the whip of his overseer, J.B. May. He also enslaved several more people at Tuscaloosa, where he made his home and in Mobile, where he had family connections.
I already had a great deal of documentation about the very prosperous and renowned Dr. Marrast. However, this time, I was rewarded to find a deed book with proof of his appointment to the State Banking Commission and the will of his brother, William, who was, for many years, the postmaster of Tuscaloosa.
As I review this information, I am stricken by the great injustice that was inflicted upon my ancestors as well as the Native American tribes to whom Tuscaloosa (and indeed, all of America) once belonged. The indigenous people who owned the land were brutally displaced and eradicated. The people who did the most daunting work of taming the “new frontier” — the slaves — got nothing for their toil. Their owners, John and his brother (and thousands of others), got cushy jobs with important titles and, surely, some attractive remuneration.
Some days, I just don’t know where in my heart to put all this learning. I am praying that I can transform my pain and anger into something positive for the future. Surely, the essence of healing is discerning how to empower our future by honoring our past.
31 August 2010
Every year when I do my genealogy trek to the Southland, I am reminded of the rife injustices about which I have enormously conflicting emotions. Here is yet another issue that has been top of mind this week.
My paternal grandfather had seven siblings. My maternal grandfather had five. There are at least two dozen additional grand aunts and uncles emanating from my grandmothers. Proceeding forward to me, this generation gave birth to literally hundreds of people whom I can identify as blood relatives.
However, going back in time — back to a past generation — back to my GREAT grandparents — it is a shock to find that NONE of them appear to have brothers and sisters.
Why is that? Because they were slaves and slaves were not generally documented in human records. Their personal details and family relationships were obliterated by omission.
Before 1870, my great grandparents are listed on census forms with references only to their quantity, age, gender and color — maybe.
Although I can sometimes find the name of a mother (generally on a death certificate if the person died after 1900), I can’t find the name of a father, the deceased person’s siblings nor any children they might have had other than the one who produced me. Even on death certificates, the mothers frequently have no surnames. In death records, they are “Harriett Unknown” (along with “unknown” place of birth). Fathers are straight ahead “unknown” (no given name, surname or place of birth).
In plantation records, if you are lucky enough to find them, enslaved people will be noted variously as “Rhody’s boy,” “Old Mary” or “Little Tom.” Fathers again are non-existent. Virtually all of them, black or white, are unnamed, unknown and unclaimed.
Even without names — or perhaps the reason why there are no names — is because enslaved people had such great economic value that Thomas Jefferson “urged slavery as an investment strategy…. There is icy clarity in his instructions to an overseer not to overwork pregnant women: ‘I consider a [slave] woman who brings a child every two years as more profitable than the best man of the farm. What she produces is an addition to the capital.’”
I long to know where the descendants of all those “financial dividends” are in 2010?
There are surely people walking around in this world today who probably share some of my genes. Their great grandparents could have been the siblings of my great grandparents. But it is very unlikely that any of us will ever know one another or even surmise our relationship. Public records mitigate against our ever finding and reaching out to one another.
White people can tell you who in their family came over on the Mayflower. They can show you on paper when their ancestors got their first tract of land along with its exact dimensions. They can document marriages all the way back to the 1600s — even before there was an America — and before slavery was the economic engine of its growth.
As I proceed with my genealogical research, it is ironic that digging up the past has proven to be a most therapeutic exercise. Believing as I do that spirits never die, I am convinced that my ancestors are assuaged in knowing that they are not forgotten — even if I don’t know exactly who they are. That is how I attempt to transform my pain into productive use.
29 August 2010
Every year for the last 10 years, the good people of Burkville, Alabama have gathered for an annual celebration of “the people’s vegetable.”
Burkville is a very small community in Lowndes County. It is just down the road from Montgomery, on the way to the county seat at Hayneville. The festival, which attracts hundreds of people on the last weekend in August, is very much like a big house party where neighbors gather to “chew the fat.” There is food, music, mule wagon rides for the children and a wonderful collection of art in Annie Mae’s Place. Every possible permutation of okra is available, from gumbo pots to pickled delicacies.
I was supposed to do a genealogy workshop, but that didn’t work out. I couldn’t compete with the soulful blues being belted out by Sonny Boy King!
By way of history, gumbo is the African name for what we call okra. It was brought to the North American continent by slave ships. Originating in what is now Ethiopia, the word is thought to derive from “quillobo,” which is the indigenous name for the okra plant in central Africa. The words “Gumbo” and “Callaloo” are often used to describe something that is mixed up. This is, no doubt, how the dish so many of us love got it’s name.
In case you didn’t know, okra has many healthful attributes.
It lowers bad cholesterol and keeps the intestinal track clean, which reduces the risks of heart disease and colorectal cancer.
For those of you who turn up your nose at okra’s sliminess, I have a proven method for eliminating it. Just trim the okra above the line between the cap and the pod then soak it in lemon juice before cooking.
There are many other communities that have okra festivals, including Mobile, New Orleans and Birmingham. But the fun for me is in Burkville, which is nearest to my ancestral roots.
For more information on the festival, go to http://www.okrafestival.org/home.html and start planning your trip for next year!
26 August 2010
Just got back from the Alabama Department of Archives and History. I have been visiting there for many years and always leave with a treasure trove of new information. More on that later.
Right now, I want to recall visions of the past…
I vividly remember finding and viewing my very first slave schedule, one that applied specifically to an ancestor I was looking for. This happened many years ago, but it is still a profoundly evocative memory.
There I was, sitting in front of a microfilm reader at the Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery. A library staff member was standing behind me, helping me pull up the document, poised to explain how to read it.
Suddenly, there it was. Exactly what I was looking for. Right in front of me in black and white. Absolute proof of one person owning another — a stranger owning a possible member of my family.
The slave schedule I was viewing applied to James E. Leslie, a 27 year old blacksmith, born in North Carolina. In 1850, he was a resident of Lowndes County with his wife, Elizabeth, and their newborn baby, Robert. His slave was a 30 year old Black woman of indeterminate name and description.
To say that I was shocked and appalled would be an understatement. Tears filled my eyes and I started trembling. I could barely contain myself.
The white woman sitting at the reader beside me erupted almost simultaneously with a shout of joy because she had found someone she was looking for. She said something like “There he is! My grandfather!” announcing her ancestor’s name with obvious pride.
I wanted to lean over and smack the crap out of her.
The library aide held me by my shoulders and comforted me. “There, there, ” he said. “It’s OK. Many people have that reaction the first time they see the evidence. Calm down. It’s OK.”
The shocking part was the realization that the evidence IS there. That it IS possible to find our ancestors. That records WERE kept.
The appalling part was that, for slaves, there are NO NAMES.
I have seen the bloodlines of cows and dogs kept more meticulously than this. The American Kennel Club keeps the names of dam and sire, place of birth, a genetically documented provenance — providing these as indisputable proofs when one purchases a purebred dog. Cattle breeders keep records on stud semen and can tell you to this day which ancestral bulls sired offspring in contemporary herds.
Black people — my people — are mere cross hatches. No names. No places of birth. No family relationships.
Each person is listed as “1″ — the numeral being a symbol of their solitary essence. The vestige of physical description is limited to “black” or “mulatto.” Impediments to economic value are indicated in a column for noting “deaf, dumb, blind, insane or idiotic.” That’s it. That’s all I am destined to know.
Was James Leslie the father of my GGrandfather, Tom Leslie? Was James’ female slave Tom’s mother? Or, maybe James was doing some blacksmithing at the neighboring Marrast plantation and spent some “quality” time with Tom’s mother, Harriett Morass?
Somehow, I think these records were obscured on purpose so that people like me would NEVER be able to connect the dots. Should we be able to do so, we might lay righteous blame on the perpetrators of America’s greatest shame. How else can I explain the meticulous absence of personal details for the human beings who contributed so enormously to the foundations of the American economy?
Driven by a need to know whose blood is flowing through my veins, I want to know exactly who that 3o year old black female was!
24 August 2010
I succeeded in finding the grave of James E. Leslie, the man I believe sired my great-grandfather, Tom Leslie.
Born in 1823 in North Carolina, James migrated sometime before 1850 to Lowndes County, Alabama. He operated a blacksmith shop in Hayneville and lived about 17 miles from town in the Braggs community. In 1875, he died.
The Leslie family plot is in the New Bethel cemetery on County Road 7. James’ wife, Elizabeth Farley Leslie, is there along with three of their children: Elizabeth, William and Jane. His first wife, Martha Ann Betterton, whom James married in 1848 when she was 12 years old, is no where to be found. And, unfortunately, the gravestone that covers James is overturned and so embedded in the ground, I couldn’t turn it over to read it.
Throughout the day, I tried to put myself in the mindset of a person living in 1850. Gazing upon the verdant fields of Lowndes County, it is easy to fantasize on the times. In my mind’s eye, I can see the cotton fields. I reconstruct a modest little house of white clapboard where the Leslie’s live. James is riding his horse into Hayneville, where he lives and works during the week. Elizabeth is at home, minding the children.
In the midst of all this bucolic beauty, I wonder where my relatives are? Is Tom picking cotton?
The 1850 Federal census says James was in possession of a 30 year old female slave. Was that Tom’s mother? By 1860, James was no longer a slaveholder. Did he sell her… and their son?
Clearly, there are many more mysteries to explore.