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.

Watching Roots with my Heart

Watching Roots with my HeartI’ve read the book. I saw the original series – but only  two or three years ago . . . and I do this work about the history and legacy of slavery, about finding the descendants of enslaved people . . . so of course, I wanted to watch Roots.  Alright, “wanted” may not be the right word.  I felt it important to watch Roots.  

My husband told me he wanted to watch it with me, and so at 9pm, we sat down together on the couch and began with Kunta Kinte’s birth. . .

I could meditate on the superb actor playing Kunta or the powerful use of setting to convey both beauty in Kunta’s home village or horror in the slave ship.  I could let my literature analysis-training lead my mind here into a study of the use of dialogue or the powerful effects of the close-up camera angles.  But none of that matters in the face of the power of the story . . . not one bit of it.

I cannot – will not – watch Roots with my mind first.  I will not allow mental calculations or cold analysis to mediate this already very mediated experience for me.  No, I let my heart move forward first in this viewing.  I smiled as Jinna danced for Kunta. I ached when his father urged him to take the Mandinka way seriously instead of dreaming of school.  I gasped when they slavers caught him.  I wept in the belly of that ship.

Too much we look at slavery coldly, with the rational distance of academic lenses. Too much we use leapings of mind to rationalize horror.

You know, they enslaved their own people.

Some black people owned slaves.

They had food and water and shelter.  They had it pretty good.

These are all things people have said to me when we have talked about the reality of slavery.  These are all things people use to distance themselves from the massive, systemic horror that happened to millions of individual human beings.  These are the mind-wrought lies we tell ourselves so we don’t have to feel the horror of enslavement . . . and so we don’t have to own up to its legacy in 2016.

Philip and I watched until Kunta reached Annapolis, and then we hit record to watch it the rest later.  Together. . . our family is committed to witnessing this horror. Not because we are good people, good white people, but because in the very least, we as white people owe our black brothers and sisters the respect of paying attention to the stories of their ancestors.  In the very least, we can sit and gasp without rationalizing what happened.

At the very least, I can sit and imagine my great-grandfather Emmanuel as Kunta, picture him laying in the belly of that ship on the passage from Angola to Jamestown . . . and I can pray while I weep.

Are you watching Roots? Why or why not? 

 

Two of my dear friends have written about why they are watching Roots. I encourage you to visit their blogs at the links below. 

Why Am I Watching Roots? by True Lewis

“Roots” Reboot by Sharon Morgan

 

Your Best Resources for African American History and Genealogy

YOUR Best Resources for Researching African American History? One of the things that I’d like this website to be is a place where people share resources for learning about and from the history of African Americans in the U.S.

So today, my question for you is very simple:

What are some of your go-to websites, books, writers, articles, tools, archives, etc. for researching the lives, stories, struggles, and accomplishments of African American people?

List your favorites in the comments below, and I’ll add them to my resources page so others can find them, too. Plus, be sure to check out the resources in the sidebar here at Our Folks’ Tales.  You may just find something new to explore.

 

By the way, we also have an Our Folks’ Tales Facebook page, and I share stories and resources there, too.  Stop by and give the page a “like” so you get links to those tools, too – https://www.facebook.com/ourfolkstales/.

Researching Enslaved People Through Plantation Papers

Researching Enslaved People Through Plantation Papers

the ghost of history lies down beside me,

rolls over, pins me beneath a heavy arm.

— from “Pilgrimage” by Natasha Tretheway

On Fridays, I tuck myself into one of the most special places I know, one of the places that rest quietly beneath the ivory towers, which I now realize are not ivory just because they are consider precious but because of how very white most of them still are. Still, when I descend into the Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia, I feel like I’m walking the spiral stairs into a sacred place, where the records of enslaved people nestle tight against those of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

When I’m there, I make a point of calling those two men, TJ and Jimmy Mad.  It’s all about equalizing our perspective of history as I see it.

My research right now is focused on the people who were enslaved at Bracketts Farm in Louisa County, Virginia.  I am charged, by the foundation that manages the farm, to locate the names, occupations, and family connections of the people that were enslaved by the Watson family for a period of approximately 70 years.

The Search

The boxes are heavy, cut from green cardboard that is acid-free and sturdy.  Inside, brown, acid-free folders are arranged by date and labeled, by hand in pencil, with a general description: “notes, receipts, and accounts – 1837”, or “Sally Watson to David Watson – n.d.”

The great tragedy is that I am most likely to find references to enslaved people in the financial papers – in the account and cash books, in the receipts, in the records from Jack, the enslaved shoemaker’s shop.  Occasionally, I read a letter and see someone mentioned – Charlotte, whose daughter Mary is very ill, is noted in a letter from the farm mistress to the master – but these are rare mentions.  Their obscurity belies the intimacy in which the enslaved and the enslavers spent their days.

I scan lists of purchases – nails, fabric, rum – hoping to see the name of one of the waggoners, who took the wheat to the mill or carried the money from the master to the shop keeper.

I flip page after page of accounts and watch for the names I’m coming to know like my own family’s – Randol, Reuben, Marinda, Manuel.  The master is buying chickens from some people, paying others for their work in the tobacco harvest.  An overly optimistic look at these purchases might think he was preparing them to buy their freedom.  I’ve not yet (and don’t expect I will) found one record where someone here purchases their freedom.

Sometimes my skin lights up with anticipation when I see a list of names. Here, finally, more names.  But that happiness quickly tarnishes when I remind myself that the list exists because these people are being willed to children, shifted around based on their relative value.

I read:

Forester, 80 years old, worth nothing

Leanthy, Old and worth nothing

I know, I recognize the dismissal of the old as burden more than gift of wisdom – sometimes these records say these older or infirm people are “worth less than nothing” – but to have it written out, laid into the page against valuations of young, able-bodied men as being worth $500  . . . or a blacksmith worth $600 because of his trade and ability to make his master money – this inscription carves the wound of my heart around slavery even deeper.

The Prayer

I pray as I look, not that my heart will be protected, but that I will see with honesty and not gloss over what I witness and that my heart will stay strong enough for this day’s work.

I pray for the people whose lives I am seeking to recover, for the flesh and bones and beauty and pain is captured, now, only in these fragments of fragile paper.

I pray for their descendants, for the ones searching and for the ones who able to search.  I give thanks for their fortitude, for their wisdom.

I do not know how I came to have this calling, this heavy calling that I treasure more than anything else I do with my time.  But I say prayer of thanks for the mantel of this vocation and another prayer that I may have just a dose of the perseverance that these people displayed to survive the dismal, abominable days of enslavement.

 

Louisa County Roots

If you have ties back to Louisa County, Virginia, I’d love to hear from you.  I am part of a team, organized by the Louisa County Historical Society, that has as our ambitious goal to research as many of the enslaved communities in the county as possible and to make our findings public and searchable.  We are also hoping to work with property owners to help preserve slave cemeteries and burial grounds.

So far, some of the surnames we have found include: 

  • Ragland
  • Quarles
  • Morris
  • Watson
  • Bunch
  • Holmes/Homes
  • Johnson
  • Tinsley
  • Jefferson
  • Hawkins
  • Carter
  • Hill
  • Barbour
  • Stewart
  • Mitchell
  • Marshall
  • Desper

I hope we might be able to work together to put together more of the stories of these incredible people. 

Lowcountry Africana – A Go-To History and Genealogy Site

Lowcountry Africana - Resources on African American Genealogy in SC, FL, GAOne of my favorite websites is Lowcountry Africana. The site, run by the amazing Toni Carrier, is dedicated to sharing resources for exploring the genealogy of people from the U.S. Lowcountry of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.

Their resources include primary source plantation records from that area. In these records, people may find references to their enslaved ancestors’ names and occupations; they may find family listings; and they may find notes about where their ancestors came from or went to.

Lowcountry Africana also has a rich research library , where individuals can find guides on how to begin doing their family genealogy, tips on doing this research, and links to the Freedman’s Bureau records and other archival collections that can be particular useful for researching African American people.

Plus, the site runs its own blog, as well as blogs about research in SC, GA, and FL, all of which are worth looking to for up-to-date research information and stories.

The way I keep up with ALL of the great things that the folks at Lowcountry Africana are doing is to follow their Facebook page.  It’s chock full of links to their own research, resources from other researchers, and fascinating and important stories that are not always shared elsewhere.

If you’re looking to do research in GA, FL, or SC, you won’t want to overlook the resources at Lowcountry Africana.

I Found Out I Was Black, And I’m Still White

I found out I was black, and I'm still white

Photo by Yamon Figurs via Unsplash

A few years ago, I found out I was black.  For most black folks, their blackness would have been self-evident, part of who they were from the moment they were born.  But for me, this girl in a white body, who had always identified as white – or more correctly had not consciously identified as anything since so much of American society sees whiteness as normative, not racialized – this information was new, a new way of seeing myself, of understanding who I was in a world.

It was also something I could forget, put aside, take up when it served me.  I never pulled a Rachel Dolezol, thank goodness, always being sure to say I identify – and am identified – as white, but I still can pick up this black identity when it suits me and shelve it when it doesn’t because it doesn’t reside in my body.

No one touches my hair when I’m out in public.  We don’t do that to white women.

I’m still praying, thinking, working, talking, listening through what it means to be a woman whose ancestors were black, whose ancestors “passed” and became white, whose ancestors chose whiteness – for what I can only know to be powerful, necessary, safety-filled reasons – and so chose that identity for her.  I will probably be building up and tearing down these ideas for the rest of my life.  I’m okay with that.

How could I not be okay with carrying the weight of questions when I only carry blackness for the strength and gift that it is? I don’t carry the weight of the segregation, the oppression, the dismissal. I don’t carry it with the stereotypes about intellect or athletic prowess. I don’t carry it with the assumption of criminality or promiscuity. I don’t carry it with any of the awfulness of things that come from other people and are laid against black bodies.

So today, in my own white body that courses with the blood of courageous, flawed, gorgeous black men and women, I speak loud this question – Fellow white people, what burden are you laying against our black brothers and sisters? What prejudices? What assumptions? What misguided responsibility for racism are we placing on their backs?  

And will you join me in shifting all of that weight onto our own bodies? Will you stand with me as we accept the fact of racism as OURS to mend? Will you let your black brothers and sisters lean into you with their burdens, let them slide some of that heaviness onto your shoulders?  Will you? 

I hope so, I pray so because when we white people shoulder this burden, when we lift it onto our own white-clad bodies, we can sometimes put it aside.  That’s not possible for our friends who walk in brown, yellow, black, or red skin. . . Not ever.

It wasn’t possible for my ancestors, and so they took up whiteness as their shield. The least I can do now is put my own body out as a shield for those who do not, could not have that choice.

I honor, respect, even understand my ancestors’ choice.  But what a shame they had to make it.