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

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

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

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

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 — 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 —

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

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:


African American Geni

19 November 2011



Over the past several weeks, I was a featured blogger for 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:

The Cameo

19 September 2010

Jennie Waymoth (1902-1963)

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 and 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.

Albert & Louis Nicholson (top)

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.

The Black Warrior

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.

Chief Tushka Lusha

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.

Brothers and Sisters

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.

Gombo Party

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.

Welcome to Burksville, Alabama

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 and start planning your trip for next year!


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