In early 2016 there was an advertisement for a genealogy website on American television which showed two nice-looking young black twins sitting in a room talking about genealogy. One of them says “I wish I could get into a time machine and just go back 100 years or 200 years and just meet these people.” I know I am not alone in thinking traveling to the past in America is really not a good idea for a black man or woman.
Many people take up the hobby of genealogy to learn "who they are" or "where they came from." Reading the source documents of their ancestors' lives, such as census records, wills, obituaries, pension claims, etc. often provides the genealogist with a sense of their relatives' daily life and can evoke empathetic feelings in the researcher. Sometimes, however, the emotions can be a bit more equivocal.
At one time, knowing that it is literally impossible to change the minds and actions of people long dead, I thought I wasn't affected by feelings of "ancestral guilt." When researching my forebears I've tried not to judge those ancestors who were slave owners by today's standards. In some way, though, until recently, I always felt that on some deep-down level they really must have known that slavery was wrong.
How could the same men who felt that the right to liberty was unalienable, and that it was self-evident that "All men are created equal" and who fought for these freedoms own slaves? And when they sold those slaves or wrote about them in their Last Will, how could they call them "men" and be so blind to their own hypocrisy? But I suppose everyone is a hypocrite in some way.
In my research I've perused Census records hundreds of times, but I rarely looked at the 1850 and 1860 Slave Schedules. I wasn't burying my head in the sand--I just felt that these schedules didn't provide much useful genealogical information to either the white or black researcher. These records list only the name of the slave owner, and the age, gender, and color of the slaves--rarely are the slaves' names shown.
Prior to 1850 the Federal Census records show only the name of the head of each household, along with the number of males and females by age groups, and the number of male and female slaves, also grouped by age. Therefore, genealogists research other documents to learn the names of other family members. Wills usually give the names of the wife and children, and can often provide the married names for daughters. Since slaves were considered property, their given names are often mentioned in wills and deeds.
"I give and bequeath to my dearly beloved wife Anne the sum of three hundred pounds ... also my riding chair and the choice of one of my horses, the choice of one of my beds with furniture, thereunto belonging and the furniture of one room, my negro wench Zelph and my negro boy Samuel & also three cows and that she shall live in my house during her widowhood with my son James." (Excerpt from the will of my 6th great grandfather, 24 Jan 1786, Richmond County, NY)
"I give unto my Daughter Mary all my wearing apparell but if she dies before me then to be divided Equally between the daughters of my daughter Ann, that is to say Isabella and Mary Ann Taylor; I give unto my son James my Negro wench named Zelpha ... " (Excerpt from the will of his widow, 4 Jun 1797--not probated until 1815, when poor Zelpha may or may not have already been free)
On March 2, 1807 Thomas Jefferson signed a law enacted by Congress prohibiting the importation of slaves 1. The prohibition went into effect on January 1, 1808, but enforcement was somewhat lax. And even though all Northern States had abolished slavery by 1804, they set up some rather convoluted schedules to grant emancipation on a gradual basis. In fact, "as late as 1850, the federal census recorded that there were still hundreds of young blacks in Pennsylvania, who would remain enslaved until their 28th birthdays." 2
Of course in the South the domestic trade in slaves continued until the Civil War. To show just one small example, the Stewart County, Tennessee website (part of the USGenweb Project providing free genealogical sources) includes a Deed Grantee index which, in addition to the numerous land deeds, has almost 1,400 deeds and sales of slaves in a 60-year period.
For many genealogists trying to research their black ancestors, the era before the Civil War may feel like an impenatrable barrier. The lack of recorded surnames is a giant hurdle, although many slaves went by their owner's last name--often with good cause, since some were, sad to say, his sons and daughters, and families were often torn apart, sold off to the highest bidder.
"In 1656 Elizabeth Key won a suit for freedom based on her father's status as a free Englishman, and his having baptized her as Christian in the Church of England. In 1662 the Virginia House of Burgesses passed a law with the doctrine of partus, stating that any child born in the colony would follow the status of its mother, bond or free. This was an overturn of a longheld principle of English Common Law, whereby a child's status followed that of the father. It enabled slaveholders and other white men to hide the mixed-race children born of their rape of slave women and removed their responsibility to acknowledge, support, or emancipate the children." 3
There really were no "good" slave-owners, however some did seem to possess a modicum of compassion and tried to keep families together, as seen in the following letter written by my fifth great uncle:
Caswell County, N. C.
Jan. 7, 1844
Dear Children James and Martha Matlock;
Mr. Brazillai Powell is just now about to leave this part of the country for Missouri with Edmond's wife among his other property. As Edmond wishes to follow his wife I have consented to send him to you as a gift as he will be able, I understand, to be near enough to his wife. Mr. Powell is to charge you twenty dollars for carrying Edmond to you provided that Edmond is of no service to him along the way. If he can do Mr. Powell any service on the road then he is to redeem his charge accordingly. This you and him can settle. This you must reasonably .... This might be reckoned as my last gift to you. As .... according to nature I cannot be in the land of the living a great deal longer.
I shall continue to hope to hear a good account from you all.
Starling Gunn, Sen.
Of course there were more owners who were not so nice about keeping families together, such as my 8th great granfather James Jones, who says this in his Will in April 1719:
"Item. I give my wifes two sons two negro children, one named James, the other unborn, the first child that either Betty or Maria shall bring to be the other, which two negro children to be Disposed of to my wifes two sons as she shall think fitt, the unborn and the born child James to be and remain with their mothers till they come to the age of two years and a half year."
What the hell? Taking a 2-1/2 year old child away from its mother? And what work were they planning for these toddlers?
But some even took a bold step for the time and place and freed slaves. Although his reasons are not given, I can only hope a sense of morality and justice helped this very distant cousin with his decision to emancipate a man named Elijah:
Know all men by these present that I John McNeel of the County of Pocahontas and State of Virginia have manumitted, emancipated and set free, and by these presents do manumit, emancipate and set free a negro man slave named Elijah who was devised to me by the last will and testament of my father Isaac McNeel deceased and I herby declare him the said Elijah to be entirely liberated from slavery and entitled to all the rights and privileges of a free person with which it is my power to vest him. He the said Elijah hereby emancipated is a man of yellow complexion about six feet high and forty three years old on the 20th day of October last. In testimony whereof I have hereunto set my hand and affixed my seal the 7th day of November 1837.
- John McNeel
Regretfully, based on the scars used when describing his runaway slaves in the following advertisement, another of my distant cousins of Southampton County, Virginia treated his slaves sadistically, either by his own hand, or through his orders:
Norfolk Herald (Willett and O'Connor),
Norfolk, July 16, 1801.
Run-a-way Negroes. I will give one of the five following Negroes for apprehending them, or 24 dollars for each; they absconded on the 9th ult. from the plantation of Simon Boykin, Southhampton county. DICK, a tall yellow complexioned fellow, about 26 years of age, has been severely whipt on the thighs. ABRAHAM, a tall black fellow, about 24 years of age, has a scar near the corner of his eye. PETER, a black looking fellow, about 19 years old, pitted with the small pox, has one of his under fore-teeth out, and a cut on his head not quite healed. JOE, a small black fellow about 25 years old, if closely examined a few white hairs in his head, speaks better French than English, VALENTINE, an awkward looking lad, about 17 years old, has a scar upon his upper lip, and is much cut on the back with a whip. I expect they will attempt to cross the bay. If committed to any gaol I will pay not only the above reward but all fees. Simon Boykin. July 16. 4
My family's genealogy includes another incident which echoes in American attitudes--both blacks and whites--to the present day, and causes the most turmoil in my emotions, as I have empathy for both sides in this event. On August 22, 1831 in Southampton County, Virginia, Nat Turner killed my 17-year old first (albeit five-times removed) cousin Margaret "Peggy" Whitehead, and others in the Rebellion killed all but one of the remaining members of her immediate family along with about 55 other men, women and children in the surrounding plantations. 5,6
"... Nat Turner and his confederates left in their wake a legacy of fear and paranoia. Southerners had long dreaded that slaves might take up arms against them, and Nat Turner's actions proved them right. To combat the possibility of further violence, Southerners arrested and even executed “suspicious” slaves and also tightened restrictions on slaves' behavior, making a situation slaves had already seen as intolerable even worse." 7
Sadly, I doubt things have changed for the better in Courtland, the scene of the Nat Turner Rebellion, since this was written in 1997:
"Today, much of the town remains segregated, from separate churches for white and black parishioners to separate restaurants. There are no formal restrictions, but the trend to segregate is noticeable to any observer." 8
So, is the stain of slavery indelible? Will the tragedies of slavery and insurrection and hate and bigotry never end? Or will it just be some circular cause and effect going on forever? I have no answer, but I had more hope for America a decade ago than I have today.
I do know that "who you are" can and should be a lot different than "where you came from" and that if I were able to travel back to visit some of my ancestors I would not like some of them ... but they probably wouldn't like me either!
For those wishing to trace their black heritage to an era before 1860, there were free black people, and there are census and other records for them, even in Virginia. I've included some helpful links below. Some ancestors you will be able to trace, some you may not. And there's always DNA--but you may find out you're related to some truly awful people ...
Additional online sources for those interested in further research
Truly the most polite "Fuck You" letter
Written from a black man to his former master, who (thankfully) is no kin of mine. Originally printed in the New York Daily Tribute in August, 1865, it speaks to the conditions slaves endured. Highly recommended reading!
African-American Genealogy Research for Beginners
African-American research at the National Archives
Links to a number of African American and General genealogy websites that may be useful for those seeking to research personal or family history.
Library of Virginia
* The next four links are to only some of the many online sources available from this site at the time of this writeup. You can also access these and others through the Digital Collections tab on the main page. This site is a treasure-trove for anyone doing genealogical research in Virginia.
Cohabitation Regisrtry - 1866*
"The cohabitation registers were the legal vehicles by which formerly enslaved couples legitimized their pre-slavery marriages and the children of unions that no longer existed in 1866 due to death or other circumstances such as the wife being sold away. These records are invaluable resources for genealogists and historians alike."
Virginia Untold - The African American Narrative*
"The Library’s African American Narrative project aims to provide greater accessibility to pre-1865 African American history and genealogy found in the rich primary sources in its holdings."
Underground Railroad Timeline
From the African American Studies Center. Includes biographies of some of the key figures of the Abolitionist movement, etc.
WPA Life Histories Collection*
"A fully-searchable index to approximately 1,350 life histories, social-ethnic studies, and youth studies plus more than 50 interviews with former slaves which were created by the staff of the Virginia Writers’ Project. Document images are available online."
Chancery Court Records*
"Each of Virginia's circuit courts created chancery records that contain considerable historical and genealogical information. Because the records rely so heavily on testimony from witnesses, they offer a unique glimpse into the lives of Virginians from the early 18th century through the First World War." Many of the cases have been scanned and can be viewed online, or downloaded as PDF files.
There Were No “Good” Slaveowners
Link to the an article in the "Reclaiming Kin" blog by Robyn N Smyth (trigger warning: some of the descriptions of the general treatment and "punishments" meted out to slaves at the end of the article are not for the faint of heart)
African Ancestored Genealogy
"AfriGeneas is a site devoted to African American genealogy, to researching African Ancestry in the Americas in particular and to genealogical research and resources in general. It is also an African Ancestry research community featuring the AfriGeneas mail list, the AfriGeneas message boards and daily and weekly genealogy chats."
The Geography of Slavery
Includes a searchable database of Articles on Runaway Slaves (including one by Thomas Jefferson and two others mentioning him as a slave's previous owner). Also includes some County Records and other documents.
Rensselaer County, NY USGenWeb page on African-American Genealogical Research
(links to specific sources for research in the County are given)
This site includes indices and scanned copies of original records of Southampton County, Virginia
The University of NC (Greensboro) Digital Library on American Slavery
"A repository of historical data about the African American loyalist refugees who left New York between April and November 1783 and whose names are recorded in the Book of Negroes." (site is a somewhat difficult to navigate)
Wikipedia article on Slave Insurance
The Skinner Family Papers
This site relates not only the complex and conflicting emotions which even some slave owners felt about slavery in pre-Civil War North Carolina, but also includes Slave Lists which sadly read like balance sheets showing the "increase" in the number of slaves due to births, names, when sold, etc.
Unknown No Longer
A searchable database by the Virginia Historical Society to increase access to its varied collections relating to Virginians of African descent. Includes many original documents relating to the sale of slaves, including their names.
Short video by Dr. Joy DeGruy
Author of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing
- Teaching American History: Act to Prohibit the Importation of Slaves
- PBS The Slavery Experience: Freedom and Emancipation
- Wikipedia article on Slavery in the Colonial United States
- The Geograpy of Slavery
- Nat Turner
- The Confessions of Nat Turner
- African American Studies Center: Nat Turner Rebellion
- The Maneater (University of Missouri Student Newspaper)