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.
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 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.
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?
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!
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.
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.”
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?
6 August 2012
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.
30 July 2012
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
23 July 2012
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
15 July 2012
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
9 July 2012
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.
2 July 2012
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.
25 June 2012
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.