The First Time
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!