Repost #5 Peek in our e-book: “Out of Sight’ for beginning Black Genealogists

PART I: Out of Our Gloomy Past

Slavery’s Impact Upon Black Genealogical Research

  Slavery’s far-reaching effect upon the lives of African Americans is the single-most reason why it is challenging to easily research involving our Black ancestors. Records of names, places of origin, accurate ages and other important data were not kept for slaves or if kept, are likely long ago destroyed or lost. In rare instances, some of the basic passenger information was retained by the Atlantic Ocean ship’s captain or slave holders. In the records born from slave holders, it is likely that the surnames are the same as the persons who took possession of our ancestors.

The estimates vary on when the first slaves were shipped across the Atlantic to the North and South American soil. Some reports suggest that the first slaves arrived on U.S. shores somewhere between 1525 and 1619. It is well documented that in 1619, slaves were unloaded from ships at Port Comfort, VA., near Jamestown. Between 1619 and 1866, approximately 13 million Africans were packed into ships headed for the “New World.” Of that, an estimated two million slaves perished by disease, suicides and other means, making their graves the Atlantic Ocean. That left an approximate 10.7 million Africans who survived the brutal slave ships’ conditions across the Atlantic Ocean. It is estimated 388,000 black ancestors arrived along North American shores through 1866, according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database (edited by Profs. David Eltis and David Richardson). The remainder of the precious “cargo” was delivered to South American and Caribbean countries.

Sometimes in the pursuit of African American ancestors, the inquiries or checklists do not take into consideration that not U.S. residents arrived on these shores with passenger lists to identify them. One case in point is found in a test that I took to a complete a genealogy course. I missed the correct answer on one question because I responded based on my African American family history.   The question on the examination was: “Which immigration records are the best sources for determining if someone’s ancestor arrived in the United States from an international country. The instructor’s answer was “Passenger lists.”  The answer choices did not include one for my ancestors. This is an example of the importance of remaining flexible and open to the workarounds and delays in retrieving records related to your family’s ancestors.

 When searching for ancestors not all potential information is included in general inquiries. Many records unique to Black, Native Americans, Afro-Caribbean ancestors are not integrated into traditional family ancestry searches. For instance, “Slave Schedules” is not included in an ancestry site query for a relative. Therefore, it is important to review all categories of detailed listings such as the Sumter County, Alabama, U.S., Circuit Court Files, 1840-1950 and Americus times-recorder NEW.  It is advisable to rely on more than one on-line genealogy site to expand the ancestral search and build family trees.

Pre- and Post-Civil War Searches

The important benchmarks that are integral to effectively and efficiently researching African American ancestry are divided in two major categories:

  1. Slave families before the Civil War.
  2. Black and African American families beginning with the 1870 Census.

Prior to the Civil War, information and data about African American ancestors is sparse and vastly different than that of others. Slaves’ surnames were often the same as their owners and not of their African-given names.  In addition, the U.S. Census Bureau developed separate listings known as “Slave Schedules” in 1850 and 1860. While not providing the names of slaves, the Slave Schedules provide the owners’ names. In many cases, the identifiers for slaves included the ages, sex and varying notations such as “deaf …dumb.”

However, after the war and beginning with the 1870 Census, the official recordkeeping involving Blacks was similar to that of U.S. Whites and immigrants. While some former slaves maintained the slave owners’ surnames given to them, others changed their last names. That is why the family Bible is so important as it was a historical recorder of the important events in the lives of freed slaves. The family Bible also served as an official legal document in the courthouse where African Americans sought official birth records. Usually, the births of our family members occurred with the help of midwives. The midwives were also principally responsible for reporting births to the respective county court houses.

Making the most of “Brick walls”

Between 1920 and 1930, my Great-Grandmother Carrie changed the spelling of our surname to “Wead” and my grandfather followed her lead when applied for his social security card in 1936.  My father, Rodney Wead, never learned why the spelling change in our surname. The Census Bureau and other government sources frequently contain errors in ages, relationships to the heads of households, racial classification, employment, literacy, name spellings, real estate and other categories involving the documentation of African American families. This e-book will offer recommendations on how to confirm the demographic data and thereby move around the “brick wall” effects. “The wall” or “the brick wall” is a phrase often used in genealogy to describe what it feels like when after several hours or even years of sorting through delicate historical information, the researcher is not able to breakthrough with accurate information about their ancestor.

You do not have to get used to the wall’s reality. Approach your research by thinking new thoughts and seek opportunities in the historical challenges to keep walls in our ways.  Combine the “old school” with new ways. See value in the centuries ago inscribed family Bibles while trusting the technology to locate grave markers and passports of your ancestors. Invest your time and resources into learning more about your ancestors for personal, professional, mental and physical health benefits. It will be worth it.

Mental, Psychological, Spiritual Walls

“Why can’t I know my birthday?” asked Frederick Douglass, born a slave around 1817.  Think about that statement by the great statesman, Douglass. It was rare for slaves and any indentured black servants to know the details of their lives. Think about how difficult it may be for you to learn the same about your ancestors.

There are many more terms or single words that are triggers for deep-seeded and some surface matters that my cousin and I had not fully resolved. The same may be true for others who embark on the black genealogy path.  For some of the topics and situations we encountered during our research, Mark and I had to take a break after discovering something that was a breakthrough while also being a burden to our souls. We exhaled whenever those temporary “moments” of anxiety and questions flooded our thoughts and words such as the time we dealt with the meaning of word “property” to slave holders and traders. For instance, the reality that slaves were considered “property” by their owners meant that being bought and sold in exchange for land, cash, or another material matter, remains disheartening. It meant that slave families were ripped apart and the scars and outward behaviors would likely be passed through the generations.

Each time, we hit those bumps in the road, Mark and I successfully emerged from our unplanned research breaks with fresh outlooks and words of encouragement about our brave and smart ancestors. After all, if our ancestors had not endured the pain, suffering and the glorious moments, none of us would be on this earth. We are sharing our tribulations to help others who are deeply connected to their pasts to advance their present and future journeys.

 During your early discoveries of family ancestry, it is likely that you will find words, phrases, photographs and other documents that may trigger emotions and reactions that you may have long ago forgiven. For Mark and me, our triggers included the following words, phrases and digits:

During your early discoveries of family ancestry, it is likely that you will find words, phrases, photographs and other documents that may trigger emotions and reactions that you may have long ago forgiven. For Mark and me, our triggers included the following words, phrases and digits:

1525                                                                Land deeds                                         Slave owners

1619                                                                Lynching                                             Slave schedules

1919                                                                Middle Passage                                   Slavery                       

Branding                                                         Missing names of slaves                     Status of black women           

‘Death over foreign servitude’                        Mutilation                                           Whippings      

Fugitive                                                           Property                                 

“Gator Babies”                                                Probated wills                                    

Imprisonment                                                  “Slave for life”                                   

Illustration of slaves in chains, from the August 1838 edition of the American Antislavery Alamanac.

Illustration of slaves in chains. From Southern, N., American Antislavery Almanac (August 1838). Boston: Isaac Knapp, Publisher. https://archive.org/details/americanantislav1838chil/page/20/mode/2up

Slaves under the overseer's whip, illustration from the American Antislavery Almananc, 1838.

Illustration of slaves under the overseer’s whip. From Southern, N., American Antislavery Almanac (August 1838). Boston: Isaac Knapp, Publisher. https://archive.org/details/americanantislav1838chil/page/20/mode/2up

With many more expressions and reminders of our ‘gloomy past,’ Mark and I continued our path as overcomers. We focus on the ‘the white gleam of our bright star is cast,’ as penned by James Weldon Johnson in the poem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” It was written during a time when Jim Crow replaced slavery. His brother, John Rosamond Johnson, composed the song that is sung today and affectionately known as the “National Negro Anthem.”  The words to this anthem are a go-to song of comfort, faith and hope for the future. ­

Lift Every Voice and Sing

James Weldon Johnson – 1871-1938

Lift every voice and sing,
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list’ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chast’ning rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered.
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast by Thy might,
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our God,
True to our native land.

From Saint Peter Relates an Incident by James Weldon Johnson. Copyright © 1917, 1921, 1935 James Weldon Johnson, renewed 1963 by Grace Nail Johnson.

Let’s get started.

Published by Learning family histories

Our genealogy traces our family from western and central Africa and western Europe. Our ancestors entered the United States at the Virginia and Georgia Ports. First cousins Mark Owen and Ann Lineve Wead (it is protocol to use the maiden names of females in genealogy searches) are responsible for writing this blog. Although Ann has been involved in genealogy research while searching for certain ancestors since the age of 10, the cousins began deeper research of their families during the COVID-19 Pandemic Year of 2020. Devoting as much as 6 hours some evenings to the methodical training and research of genealogy, the cousins completed the year 2020 by earning genealogy certificates. Join us. @goodgenesgenealogy on wordpress and fb, twitter Sign up for our blog and enjoy the journey.

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