Plantation Papers for Genealogical Research on Enslaved People

Plantation Papers for Genealogical Research on Enslaved People

My “tattoo” expresses just how I feel about the honor of doing this research

This past weekend, I had the total honor of presenting at the Ohio Genealogical Society Conference. . . the people there were so enthusiastic, and I loved all the conversations that happened around the space.

But mostly, I was thrilled to give a talk on my favorite topic: how to find out more information about our enslaved ancestors.  In this presentation, I focused on how to use plantation papers – i.e. collections of documents from the white slaveholder – as a way of finding genealogical, demographic, and personal information about people who were enslaved.

You can find the slides from my presentation here if you are interested.

And if you’ve used plantation documents to find information about your own family, I’d LOVE to hear what you’ve found and any tips you have to share about those resources.  Thanks.

 

I’m always eager to share this forum with you if you have a story to share, want to reach out and ask people for help, or have a topic about African American history or genealogy that you are passionate about. Please email me at andi_at_andilit.com, and we’ll get your words out to as many people as we can. Thanks. 

Great Grandmother’s Legacy by Charles F. Holman III

Great Grandmother's Legacy by Charles F. Holman III

Charles’ great grandmother, Lucille Holman.

Today, I am thrilled to welcome Charles Holman as he tells the powerful story of his great grandmother’s name and the way finding our stories is a communal endeavor.

Some ancestors gift you with a bequest when they pass on. We often think of this kind of thing as money, property, a cherished item, etc. But my Great Grandmother Lucille (Robertson/Robinson) Holman (1863 – 1932) left my family a hidden, valuable legacy which again revealed itself to me just yesterday afternoon.

More than 40 years ago I began to research my family tree. Like many African Americans I wanted to know where in Africa some of my ancestors originated. The late Alex Haley taught me to seek out any African words or names that might have been associated with ancestors for clues.

So my Dad and I approached my paternal grandfather, Charles Holman Sr., (1898 – 1987) and asked him what he knew. Initially unwilling to talk about the past, with some prodding Grandpa began to provide some details. He told us his mother, Lucille (Robertson) Holman had African ancestors and he thought her father had an African name which he pronounced as “Da-dash- shoe-wah”

Soon my Dad and I began to share what Grandpa had told us. A few years passed and in the summer of 1978 I mentioned this to my double cousin, the late Geneve (Holman) Jackson (1924 – 2014). Geneve told me flat out that we were wrong. Geneve told me in no uncertain terms that“Da-dash- shoe-wah” was actually my grandfather’s mother’s name.

What Geneve told me didn’t make sense to me at the time. I had heard my grandfather’s mother’s name was Lucy or Lucille Holman. How then could her name be “Da-dash- shoe-wah,” especially when we knew Grandpa's mother was not African but South Carolinian?

Although Geneve’s message didn’t make sense to me, I made a mental note and filed it away. A few years later in late 1986, I wrote to a linguist at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria to see if they could tell me about the name “Da-dash- shoe-wah.” Much to my delight, a reply arrived in January 1987. They told me they thought the name was a name given to girl children. They also told me the name was characteristic to an area in Nigeria in or near the northern part of its Bendel State.

Decades passed after I received this letter, and I never heard more until just yesterday on Facebook. Facebook has a series called “American Slavery,” and if you don’t subscribe to it, you definitely should. Anyway, yesterday the topic at “American Slavery” was naming customs during slavery. They stated that during slavery it was sometimes customary to give a child two names, one name that the slaveholder and everyone would know and a second “given name the child’s family selected and kept secret.”

When I saw this, what cousin Geneve had told me all those decades ago finally made sense, i.e. Lucy or Lucille was great grandmother’s public name, and “Da-dash- shoe-wah” was her secret African name known only to family members. Immediately, I wrote and thanked the authors of “American Slavery” for sharing this insight with me. But little did I expect that it would get evenbetter just a very short while later.

An African lady saw my note to American Slavery and responded the same day. The lady said the name “Da-dash- shoe-wah” was a popular one and actually spelled “Adeshuwa”. The lady also independently confirmed that the name was given to girl children. Even more importantly, the lady told me the significance of the name:

That means you hail from the Yoruba. They are in Western Nigeria. Adeshewa in Yoruba means the beauty of royalty. I am Igbo by the way, I just happen to be able to speak Yoruba. It could also mean she (Great Grandmother) was from Benin. They are also a mid-western tribe in Nigeria. The Yorubas originated from the Benin tribe. So she definitely hailed from Nigeria either way. God bless you.

So it turns out all these decades later, Geneve must have been right – in fact two independent African sources confirm what Geneve said. But even more important than simply proving Geneve right, by her very name, Great Grandmother has left me a legacy, and all of her descendants, the priceless knowledge, unknown to most African Americans, that we share a bondwith Nigeria because it is one of our ancestral homelands.

Great Grandmother’s legacy is also corroborated by DNA analyses indicating that approximately 15% of my ancestry comes from Nigeria and the Yoruba tribe, both mentioned by the lady at Facebook just yesterday afternoon. Indeed, even science acknowledges that Great Grandmother’s legacy rings true for me and all of her descendants today and down through the generations yet to come.

 

A Call for Your Stories of African American History and Genealogy

A Call for Your Stories of African American History and Genealogy

Weighing the Christmas Baby – 1889

Every week, I post a story – with a historical or genealogical focus  – about the lives of African American people.  I love researching these stories and sharing them with you all. However, I have a very Virginia-centered focus, and I’d really like this to be a place where the stories of all our ancestors across the U.S. are told.

What This Space Does

My goal with this entire website is to share the stories, struggles, hopes, and work of African American people, and I’d love to share your passionate stories about these things here.  Here, we are looking for:

  • family stories,
  • for stories of injustice rooted in historical racism,
  • for stories about the places important to African American communities,
  • for tips about African American genealogy,
  • and most anything that has to do with black folks and our history and families.

How Sharing Might Help You

When you share a story here, it goes out to everyone I know online, and I also share your story in other forums that are appropriate including:

  • African American genealogical sites
  • Historic preservation groups
  • Anti-racism organizations

I will get your story out to as many people as I can so that you find your cousins, receive wider support for an action or work or art, connect with other like-minded folks, and

Formatting Guidelines

The posting guidelines here are very loose, but typically, a post will:

  • Be 500-1,000 words
  • Include an appropriate image that the writer has permission to use. (Or I can select a copyright-free image for you.)
  • Include a bio of the author, including links to websites or social media pages.
  • Incorporate links where people can get more information.

If you’re have something you’d like to share, just reach out to me via a comment on this post or at [email protected]  We’ll work together to get it ready and get it out there.

I can’t wait to hear what you want to share with the world. 

The Slave Dwelling Project and the University of Virginia – An Opportunity to Present

The Slave Dwelling Project Conference at the University of Virginia

In October, researchers, historians, genealogists, and others are invited to attend the Universities, Slavery, Public Memory, and the Built Landscape Symposium put on by The Slave Dwelling Project and the University of Virginia. Currently, the Symposium is accepting presentation proposals, and I will be putting forth a panel proposal. I hope you’ll join me.

If you’d like more information about the Symposium, please visit this link. 

Hope to see you here in Virginia in October. 

Snowstorm on the Plantation

Snowstorm on the PlantationHere in Virginia today, we’ve had a small snowstorm – ice coats the dogwoods, and the pear blossoms are encased. Fruit farmers here will suffer. . . I acknowledge this even as I recognize the beauty of the landscape today.

But as I walked up from our barn today in my lined boots, hooded sweatshirt, and warm coat, I began to think about the enslaved people who once worked and lived on this land. I wondered if, by now, the master might have taken back their shoes to save for the next winter? If they had warm enough clothes for working all day out in the snow? If they still had enough firewood to warm their homes after the work day?

I considered what they must feel to see the mistress’s flowers bending low under snow. Did they worry they would be blamed? Or if the orchard trees had already gone to flower, did they wonder if they would be hungrier still come fall?

What did it feel like to abide in the beauty of a day like this in the midst of the horror of the institution that meant that not only the weather was beyond your control but that almost every decision about your own life sat beyond your own reach? How would you find a way to hope under the ice of that reality?

Readers, do you know of any slave narratives that tell stories about snowy days on the plantation? If so, I’d be grateful to be pointed toward them.

 

If you’re in Central VA, I hope you’ll come out THIS SATURDAY, March 18th from 10:30am – 12:30pm to learn about the Will The Stones Whisper Their Names? Project to map African American Cemeteries in Louisa County, Virginia.  You can get more information about Saturday’s event and the project as a whole here – https://stoneswhisperblog.wordpress.com/.

Archival Genealogy and Finding Our Ancestors

Genealogy, Archives, and Finding Our PeopleIn a few weeks, I have the honor of presenting about archival genealogy at the Ohio Genealogical Society Conference in Sanduski, OH.  I’m really excited about this, and not just because the society has the great acronym, OGS, which makes me think I’m going to be on some new version of Star Trek.

At the conference, I’m presenting twice: once on how to use ArchiveGrid to find your people and once on how to scour collections of plantations papers to locate enslaved people. Both presentations will be useful for folks researching African American history, or at least that’s my aim. While these techniques can, of course, help people researching anyone through archival documents, my aim – in any presentation I do of this nature – is to foreground the stories and experiences of African American people.

A Story about Helping My White Brothers and Sisters Understand the Challenges

A few years ago, I had the honor of discussing my book The Slaves Have Names with a local book club. We were talking about the people enslaved at the Bremo plantations, but then, as is often the case with a group of people who are interested in history, the conversation switched to how I did my research, a topic I discuss a lot in the book. We talked about genealogy, about how difficult it is to find information on ancestors, especially when those ancestors were enslaved. I talked about the hours of research I put in, and then one woman said, “But all genealogy is difficult. Mine was.”

I took a deep breath and looked this well-intentioned white woman in the eye and said, “I’m sure it was, but at least you have information to find. If you were enslaved, you were likely not allowed to be literate so could not keep written records of your own family. You were also not always able to know dates or even be aware of who your own parents were – or what their full names were.  Slavery intentionally disrupted families, and very few people of European descent have that same struggle.”

She glazed over a bit in the midst of my response. I hope, somehow, she heard me.

So when I present at OGS, I hope my African American brothers and sisters will be in the room because I hope what I share will be helpful to us all. But I also hope my European American brothers and sisters attend too. My work here is to speak the truth to them, my white skin to theirs in the hopes that they can hear me.

If you’d like more information about the Ohio Genealogical Society Conference and if you’d like to attend, you can find that here – http://www.ogsconference.org/. If you do attend, be sure to let me know. I’d love to see you. 

 

The Stories We Have Not Heard: Finding and Mapping African American Cemeteries

The Stories We Have Not Heard: African American Cemeteries in LouisaTomorrow afternoon, we will gather in a small room that used to be a porch at a local museum in Louisa County, Virginia. The handful of us will hear from Lynn Rainville about the key components of locating, mapping, and recording information about African American cemeteries, and then, a representative from the Department of Historic Resources will talk about how our work can help save these sacred spaces.

I am honored to be a part of the Will the Stones Whisper Their Names? Project to identify and map African American cemeteries in Louisa.

Cemeteries are special places to me, places where tiny pieces of the stories of people’s lives are captured in stone, places where the holiness of life is preserved in a world that doesn’t consider much holy anymore.

But more and more – and also since forever in this nation – the places where African American people are buried are considered less than sacred. They are forgotten, ignored, and sometimes destroyed – through intention and apathy, and if we do not take steps to save them, we will lose these places of history while also disrespecting and dishonoring the people who rest in those places.

I grew up less than a quarter-mile from a slave cemetery on the Bremo plantations where I was raised. While I did not always treat the space with the respect it deserved, I always knew it to be special. Now, it is, perhaps, my most favorite place on the earth.  By grace, it is protected – with literal walls and the guarding of ancestors – and it will be there in another 100 years, I’m sure.

Other burial places, especially those where the bodies of formerly enslaved people are buried, are not as graced. They are regularly paved over, plowed through, or hidden in overgrowth and forest. People’s grandmothers and great-uncles are buried here.  We all need to know of these places both as places of remembrance for families but also as places where we remember our hard, broken, beautiful, terrible history.

So tomorrow, when Dr. Rainville teaches us and we hear about how our efforts might save a few of these holy sites, I will listen carefully, both for their teaching and for the ancestors’ who whisper to us about all the stories we have not yet heard.

If you’d like to learn more about the Will The Stones Whisper Their Names? Project, please visit our Facebook page. 

Plantations as Complex Historic Places

Plantations as Complex Historic Places

Slave Cabin at Laura Plantation

A couple of weeks ago, I heard a speaker give a moving, powerful talk about how geographic spaces can be places of both traumatic memory and redemption.  I was so inspired by her talk, encouraged to think deeply about the historic places I know (including the place I live) as places of history harm and historic healing.

Then, when an audience member asked this speaker what she thought about plantations, her tone shifted. Suddenly she was adamant where before she had been tender but strong.  She said, “Well, first, let’s begin by calling them slave labor camps . . . and let’s talk about people getting married on a plantation.  Why would anyone ever do that?”

Some members of the crowd cheered. Some of us sat quiet. I bristled, and it’s taken me a few weeks to think through part of why I was put off.

I was put off not because I don’t think she was right about plantations about being places of slave labor and not because I haven’t struggled with my own wedding at a plantation and not because I want to pretend that plantations are simply idyllic places of white-oriented nostalgia.  As I’ve said before, plantations are the geographic locations of massive historic harm – I’m not denying that. . . but I do think when we try to compare them to places like concentration camps we are missing the mark and denying the complexity of these spaces for everyone who has a tie to them.

A few years ago, my friend Michael Twitty wrote a moving piece about Ani DiFranco’s plan to have a workshop at a plantation and her subsequent decision to cancel that workshop.  In that piece he makes a powerful point about how these places were not only places of torture and oppression but were also the birthplace of a rich and vibrant culture:

Hear me now. The Southern Plantation has yet to be acknowledged as the birthplace for a community and a culture that has changed the world.  Roots music, pop music, world music…started there.  The plantation quarters, its fields, its brush harbor/hush harbor churches..the streets of Southern cities…Congo Square….America’s indigenous arts–jazz, blues, and all of their creative spawn was right there–way down South in Dixie.  I celebrate the food that was created there–the grandness of the Southern and Creole/Cajun traditions and beyond–and how hands of color cooked their way to renown.  Our aesthetics–our foodways–our music–our spirituality–our everything—owes a great deal to the civilization in chains–and Ani DiFranco–this African American culinary historian–this interpreter of enslaved people’s lives–salutes your intentions–and when you form that sacred circle–you can bet  I want to be there with you–as you salute the ancestors and the generations waiting to be born who will live in the fertility of your footsteps.

Plantations are places rich with history – painful, awful history, yes, but also beautiful, profound, life-giving history . . . for white and black folks.

I grew up on one of these places.  It is still – despite the pain I see built into the land and carved into the landscape – the most peaceful, restful place I know.  I’m not sure how I know this, but I’m confident that the spirits of the people who were enslaved there are at rest. . . that they live now in peace.  So while I am always aggrieved by what happened to them, while I visit that place with eyes open and heart broken, I take joy there, still.  So there’s this piece – that the people who lived there – white people for sure but probably some black people, too – found these places beautiful, even as they were brutal horrific places, too.

So when we want to decry them as only places of misery, we aren’t honoring any of the people who lived there, the ones who lived there by choice and the ones who had no choice.  To really remember slavery, to really own that history and heal from it, we have to recognize that ALL of that story needs to be told. We need to understand the ways those places and that practice link people together across generations.  We need to hold the beauty of the landscape, the joy of the people, the brutality of the institution, and the strength and suffering of the individuals together.

What I’d love to see on plantations is the whole story told – the stories of the black families and the stories of the white families, the stories of celebrations and the stories of humiliations, the stories of weddings and the stories of whippings because this history has harmed ALL OF US, the perpetrators and the oppressed. It has scarred us, wounded us, damaged us as individuals and as a nation, and we need to recognize the way we have all been shaped by these plantations. We need to see them as their own historical landscapes, as places unique in the history of the world . . . as places that need to be remembered not in some rose-colored nostalgia of history that whitewashes it to pure or drops into the pit of only horror.

We need to live into the traditions of West African griots and American Indian storytellers, the laughter that comes during Irish wakes and the songs of horns dancing before caskets in New Orleans.  We need all of the story, the complex, rich, proud, hard story so that we can reclaim these places of trauma as places of healing and hope, so that we can keep them with us for the stories they teach us about ourselves and the cautions they give us about who we have been and who we can become.

What do you think about plantations? Are they slave labor camps? Appropriate places to have weddings?  I’d really love to hear your thoughts here because I’m still thinking through.

 

Great History and Genealogy Podcasts

Great History and Genealogy PodcastsI get a lot of information these days from podcasts.  They are my go-to listening in the car because I can gain insights and learn things while I make the almost always hour-long commute to and from my destination. Two of my favorite podcasts are Research at the National Archives and Beyond with Bernice Bennett and The African Roots Podcast with Angela Walton-Raji.

I appreciate both of these shows because they are hosted by African American women who bring deep knowledge and great questions to their guests. Their guests always explore intriguing subjects, and I never finish an episode without learning something that is really important to my life and my work.

This week, I finally made time to listen to Bennett’s amazing interview with Craig Steven Wilder, author of Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Trouble History of America’s Universities. As a former academic, I found myself both stunned and also unsurprised (as I often am when it comes to American history) about the history of enslavement in the universities of our nation. In particularly, I was struck by Wilder’s note that universities from the colonial period only survived because they attached themselves to slavery. I have the book on order now. . . I know – I’m behind. 🙂

In Walton-Raji’s episodes, I always find myself taking note of a whole slew of other things to read, listen to, or visit, and her tips about genealogical research are rich and helpful.

So if you’re looking for a way to learn more about African American history and genealogy, I highly recommend these two podcasts.

I’d love to hear your recommendations for other podcasts about African American history and genealogy in the comments below. 

 

The First Time I Really Heard Black Peoples’ Stories: Coming to the Table

The First Time I Really Heard Black Peoples' Stories: Coming to the TableTwo years ago, I got into my car and drove up the mountains to Eastern Mennonite University for the National Gathering of Coming to the Table. I had no idea what I was in for.

At this gathering of black folks and white folks from all over the country, I sat and had real, deep, meaningful conversations with black people for the first time.  (Goodness, it’s hard to realize that.)  My experience of life until then – growing up in the South and then moving into academia – had meant that white supremacy had limited my opportunities to know people of color, and I had not ever done the work to make those opportunities for myself.  Now, that’s not to say I didn’t have “black friends,” to pull in that excuse so many white people use for why we are not racist. I did have black friends, people I really cared about. But at the CTTT National Gathering, I sat and really listened to these people’s experiences for the first time. . . I was 39 years old.

At the end of those four days, my entire perspective on life shifted, and still, I’m not sure I can articulate that shift except to say that I would never be blind – even for a moment – to the legacy of slavery in our world today.

Now, that’s not to say I don’t get it wrong . . . a lot. I do.  I still walk around in my white skin, and I still don’t see the privilege that appearance carries sometimes.  But that National Gathering cracked open the hard shell of white privilege and let in some light so I could see that “my way” of doing things was usually a raced way of doing things, and the “white” way of doing things was not always the right way of doing things.  I still have to learn that lesson most every day.

But that National Gathering moved me, broke me, healed me . . . and taught me that I am on a constant road to healing and that I have a responsibility – a responsibility that is free of shame or guilt, but a responsibility nonetheless – to work for real, meaningful, honest reconciliation.  It was that Gathering that led me to join the Board of Coming to the Table and that hardened my resolve to be a lifelong researcher and writer about the people who were enslaved in the United States.

In two days, I will travel back over those mountains to EMU for the 10th Anniversary National Gathering of Coming to the Table.  This time, I’m leading a session with my friend Lorenzo Dickerson*, but this time – like the last – I go with a heart that is open to listen.  That is my prayer for this week . . . that I will have ears to hear because my life is so much richer and wiser and truer when I do.

If you’d like to know more about Coming to the Table, we welcome you to join us.  You can learn more about the organization and sign up to get our newsletter here.  We welcome you. 

 

*Lorenzo runs an amazing film company called Maupintown Media.  On June 24th, Lorenzo will be coming to screen Tim Wise’s film White Like Me here on the farm.  We welcome you to join us. You can get the details here.  The event is FREE and open to the public.