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

 

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

Census Records

2 July 2012

1880 Census Card for my great grandparents — Tom and Rhoda LESLIE

From 1790 until now, the United States government has taken a census every ten years that is meant to count every person living at the time. (There is only one census that is missing; the one for 1890. Except for a few thousand names, this census was completely destroyed in a fire.) These are a treasure trove of information.

Each census asked a different set of questions. By piecing them together, it is possible to get a very good picture of a person’s life. It is possible to learn where someone was born, where their parents were born, the number and duration of marriages, the number of children a woman had and how many survived, occupations, whether they were literate and whether they owned or rented a home.

The system for census tracking is to work backwards. That means you would start with the 1930 census (the latest one available) and go back ten years at a time. Remember that, in the past, communities were relatively small and tight knit. People tended to move in groups (friends or family); live nearby and marry each other. The easiest families to find are those who stayed in place. For those of you who have relatives still living in the “home place,” you are very lucky indeed.

The most significant census for African Americans is the 1870 census. That is the one that records us as humans. From 1790 to 1840, heads of households were counted along with the number of slaves owned by that person. In 1850 and 1860, we are counted on separate slave schedules with no personal details — not even our names.

In order to progress in your research, there comes a time when you will have to look at the white families that enslaved your ancestors. Finding a slave schedule is the first step in this process. Slave schedules establish the names and locations of slaveholders. Note that there are two separate documents. One is the slave schedule, the other is the general census form. You need to look at both.

If you find your ancestor on the 1870 census, keep looking around them. If they lived in the same community as a slaveholding family with the same surname, it’s likely you found the family that “relates” to you. (There is something called “The Nettie Rule” that says look 10 households forward and 10 households back on the census and you will likely find a match.) In many cases, you will find several white families with the same surname in the area too. They are likely related to one another — brothers, cousins…. and may have held slaves as well.

The 1870 and 1880 census records are available for free in several places. The site I recommend is FamilySearch.org. You can search for your surname and get immediate results. Just bear in mind that names were spelled differently on different records. In the census, I have found people with the most unlikely spellings — often because the handwriting of the census taker was so illegible. There is also a frequent problem with ages. Huge variances from census to census are common. I usually accept a ten year variance as being acceptable.

States also engaged in local census taking. I have had great luck with the 1866 Alabama census, which was the first one taken after the Civil War. Like the 1870 U.S. census, it lists African Americans by name — first and last.

For privacy purposes, Federal census records are released 72 years after they are taken. The 1940 census came online this year.

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

Marriage certificate for my great grandparents – 1871

As you proceed with your research, you will probably want to obtain copies of certain key documents that prove your findings. These would most certainly include birth, death and marriage certificates. All of these records validate a person’s identity and can give you clues to preceding generations. These types of records were kept at the county level of government. That means you have to look for them through county court houses or county departments of health.

Unfortunately, laws governing the maintenance of public records did not come into existence until the twentieth century. People born before 1900 were likely born at home, brought into the world by a midwife. There is no official record of their birth. When the Social Security system came into being, many people used a census record to prove their birth date. The State of Virginia is unique in that it has birth and death records from as far back as 1853. Marriage records have been kept pretty much from the very beginning of the United States. I have found these back into the 1600s.

The situation for African Americans is that, in slavery, we were not officially allowed to marry. When it became legal to do so after Emancipation, our records were generally kept in separate record books, particularly in the South.

In general, death records are the most readily available documents, although different states have different laws regarding their release. Many states provide an index of deaths online, which will lead you to the paper certificate — which you have to pay for.

There are various places where you will find these documents. GOOGLE “vital records” for the state you are researching to find out exactly where to place your order. The average price per document is about $10, which means copies can become expensive if you order many of them. In most cases, you will have to provide a copy of your identification in order to obtain non-certified, genealogical copies of documents.

If you are lucky, you may find records kept by slaveholders. I found a diary where all the births and deaths on the plantation were dutifully recorded. But that is very rare. I also hit a gold mine with my great grandfather’s death certificate. It is the only place I ever found a name for his mother. Once I found it, I had the key to discern papers for an estate sale where she and her son were listed.

 

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

Most of us know only the people who were/are living during our lifetimes. But how far back can we go?

1880 Census Card - LESLIE family

For most African Americans, it is absolutely possible to trace families back to 1870. That was the year of the first Federal census that recorded African Americans as people (rather than property), with surnames and families. Unless your ancestors were “in motion,” or not responsive to the census (for whatever reasons), their names will be on this census. Beyond this, recent developments in historic research have made it possible for many people to go all the way back to the arrival of their ancestors into America from Africa and/or the Caribbean.

But wait…. therein lies a major challenge. For African Americans, there is a big brick wall when it comes to names. None of us had European names when we arrived in America. Further, the name you now call your own may have been through some changes before it got to you. Officially, slaves were known only by first names. If there were an associated surname (family name), it would be that of the “master.” It was only at Emancipation that we were able to choose a surname that we and future generations would be known by. We chose all kinds of names. It could have been the name of the first slaveholder; the last slaveholder; someone whom we admired; the place we were born; a significant historical figure (i.e., Washington, Jefferson); even a name we just “fancied” because it sounded good. Many people changed the name that was recorded on the 1870 census to another name when they were enumerated in 1880.

We will talk more about census records later. Right now, what you need to know is that it is possible to get back past 1870, but it takes a lot of effort and many people will be disappointed. You can always take a shortcut if you have the money to hire a professional genealogist. But most of us can’t afford that. So, we just have to struggle along. Know that there are records and that more and more are being discovered and coming online every day.

Every researcher relies on standard public records likes birth, marriage and death certificates and military records. These records are useful for everyone. However, for African Americans, our information is often found in property records because, as slaves, that’s what we were. That means wills and deeds can be very important to us. Enslaved people were often used as collateral for loans and were passed on as inheritances when people died. Other records that are especially useful include slave schedules, Freedman’s Bank records and Southern Claims Commission records. The Freedman’s Bank was a savings bank and development program for newly emancipated slaves. The Southern Claims Commission was formed to make restitution to people who provided supplies to the Union army during the Civil War.

The lesson here is that it IS possible to go back… way back… but you have to proceed with great determination and creativity.

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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