My Foray into African American Research

Boarding the trainWhile at the Ohio State Genealogical Conference a couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend multiple presentations on African American topics. I wanted to learn more about the records and their availability, but my desire to learn wasn’t just driven by my genealogical interests. African American history is also a part of my history as a white person.

I am part Swedish. Swedish records start in the mid 1900’s and extend in an unbroken line back to the late 1600s. One of my ancestors has a calculated birth date of 1595. The stark contrast of the continuity of Swedish records and those of African Americans is not lost on me. African American genealogists speak of the “the wall” of Emancipation. This wall is not like the white genealogist’s “brick wall,” which is often one that is more of a “high threshold.” The “wall” of Emancipation is real—there is a serious lack of records for a people who were, in the minds of their masters, working animals. Even if the slave adopted a surname, a critical identifier for a genealogist, it was informal, sometimes changed and not recorded until after Emancipation. Nor could they marry, another record type that appears after Emancipation.

And, no, slaves didn’t usually accept the name of the master upon Emancipation and if they did, they might change it some years later.

I am working with an African American family now where it was stunningly simple to trace them back to 1867, up to “the wall”. The family resided in a single county in Texas coninuously. Atypically, the family did adopt the surname of their master, and kept that name continuously. They defied the norms of African American research up to the point of where I, too, hit the wall of Emancipation.

The records which exist after Emancipation tell a skimpy story about the slave life of Ben, the slave ancestor of my client.[1] The master moved from Tennessee to Texas around 1846. Ben was born in Virginia between 1832 and 1838, but it is not known if he made the move south from Tennessee with the slave owner or was bought later.  Was Ben purchased in Virginia and separated from his family when he was moved to Texas? Why did the master move from Tennessee to Texas? Was it just about the land? or, was it the desire of the master to move deeper south to secure his slaves.

What we do know is that in 1867, Ben registered to vote and recorded that he owned property–a brave and proud moment, but not without risk.

I know my next step—tracing the slave master. Slaves were property and as such had to be dealt with through the courts upon the slave owner’s death which occurred in 1858. If extant, the probate records will help. Also, it is possible that the plantation papers, the day to day working papers of the plantation, are available.

I have much to learn, but willing researchers attending the conference helped me take those first steps to learn more. And yes, I will continue the journey. I need to know more about plantation papers[2] and Freedman’s Bureau [3], and, about the records contained within the Historic Black Colleges and Universities[4]. (Many more were presented but these were some of the best.

At a minimum, for those of you who are “on the clock” consider attending a session at a conference or provided by your society which is other than the ethnic groups you primarily research. It is great fun to be a “beginner” again.

Happy Hunting!

Jill

What I have done since the last posting: worked on the BCG website, “played” President of the Seattle Genealogical Society (agenda, committee, reports, etc.) wrote briefing paper on online class for BCG who is very interested in the model.

[1] Name is changed.
[2] Andi Cumbo-Floyd, “The Wild Terrain of Plantation Papers for Research on Enclaved People,” Ohio Genealogical Society 2017 Conference, 29 April 2017.
[3] J. Mark Lowe, “Finding Former Slaves and Freedman Marriage Records,” Ohio Genealogical Society 2017 Conference, 29 April 2017.
[4] Deborah Abbot, “Researching Libraries and Archives of Historical Black Colleges,” Ohio Genealogical Society 2017 Conference, 28 April 2017.

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