U.S. Colored Troops

U.S. Colored Troop Unknown

Unidentified Soldier, LOC
Digital ID, ppmsca-26456

For many years now, I’ve been interested in researching U.S. Colored Troops who served in Union forces from the communities where my family lived. Most people know by now that almost 200,000 black people, slaves and free blacks, served in the Union Army and Navy. The Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863 finally began the process of their large-scale recruitment into the service as soldiers. The racial ideology of the times believed that black people, especially slaves, did not have the mental capacity, bravery or intelligence necessary in a soldier. However, blacks served with valor and distinction as U.S. Colored Troops and proved everyone wrong. Although the impetus for their service was military necessity, their service no doubt contributed to Northern victory and provided proof of their equality as men, even if most whites of the times were not ready to hear that message.

U.S. Colored Troops service records are available on Ancestry and Fold3. We always search for our own ancestors, but I’d like to recommend that you also search for others in the same county. Particularly in the case of former slaves, the analysis of service (and pension) records can expand your understanding of the community and add valuable details about the slave community. One of the ways to do this is to enter a county in the birth search box for the U.S. Colored Troops Service Records, but do not enter any names. So, if I put “Montgomery County, Maryland” into the birth place box, and leave everything else blank, the database will return soldiers born in that community. Keep in mind that they may have since migrated from that community. Also, there will be others from the county who may not have their county of birth recorded in the official cards. But this process will catch plenty of people. After analyzing these records, I cross reference and attempt to find pension records for those soldiers.

From NARA’s description at the 150th anniversary of the digitization of these records, we find the following:

Researchers may be surprised to find that the USCT military service records hold not only muster rolls but also a huge array of personal papers that can include enlistment papers, correspondence, orders, prisoner-of-war memorandums, casualty reports, and final statements. Starting in October 1863, slave owners could enlist their slaves and receive up to $300 upon filing a “manumission” or deed of ownership. Unique to some of the records of the USCT are these deeds of manumission and bills of sale. For genealogists, these records may offer the only source of documentation of an enslaved ancestor in the absence of other vital records.

I’d like to share some of the personal papers that can be found within the USCT service records. Below are two documents you’ll see in the files to let you know there are “other” papers (click to enlarge):

U.S. Colored Troop William Abel

William Abel

Personal Papers Form

Personal Papers Form

In the four border states of Maryland, Kentucky, Delaware and Missouri, slaves could join with their owner’s permission (runaways also joined). They had to be freed and the owners were compensated. There will be documents indicating the slaveowner’s claim, title and loyalty, and possibly the manumission document:

U.S. Colored Troop Alfred Snowden

Slave Claim

U.S. Colored Troop Mortimer King

Ownership Note


U.S. Colored Troop Snowden manumission


When soldiers died in the service, some files included death certificates and other statements about their death:

U.S. Colored Troop Leonidas Gray Death Cert

The brief cards created during hospital stays could provide a valuable contact name in the area for “PO address of wife or nearest relative”:

U.S. Colored Troop Frank Posey Hospital Card

Hospital Card

Some files indicate that the person was substituting for another, although who that other person is only sometimes stated. A whole industry of people willing to join for pay arose, stoking class conflict as only those with money had that luxury:

U.S. Colored Troop Sam Abernathy Enlistment



Sometimes the “remarks” on the bottom of cards will mention whether a person was “free” or “slave.”

U.S. Colored Troop Campbell Harris status

Slave Status

By far my favorite document is the volunteer enlistment. If I had a direct ancestor who served, I would have this framed and up on the wall:

U.S. Colored Troop Uriah Perry declaration


Many former soldier’s opened accounts at the Freedman’s Bank, so be sure to cross-reference the soldiers you find with that database:

U.S. Colored Troop George Askins bank card

George Askins


There are many more interesting documents like medical examinations, documents indicating desertion and subsequent discipline, inventories if the soldier died in the service, letters, etc. Go back through your research and see what discoveries you can make by searching for others in the community. I’d love to hear in the comments what you’ve found.

For more detailed information, read NARA’s description of CMSR records, explore the National Park Service’s  Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Database and visit the website of the African-American Civil War Memorial and Museum.

Remembering Jim Crow

I just finished reading the book Remembering Jim Crow, published in 2001. For those researching African-Americans, a lot of our efforts are eventually spent in the complexity of slavery, but I think we all need to pay better attention to the era of segregation. Most of us still remember this era or have parents alive who do. Reading the stories in this compilation, which included audio tapes, was heartbreaking for me. This was a caste system, and in many ways, being born black defined your place in the system. Richard Wright wrote a powerful piece abut his experiences with Jim Crow. I recently saw the film “Selma,” and cried nonstop through the film.

Separate Fountains

Separate Fountains

My father, who grew up in Jacksonville, Florida shared his recollections of Jim Crow with me during several interviews. “Jacksonville was a big city, and of course we lived on the East Side, in a black neighborhood. We never really encountered white people unless we had to go downtown.” He discussed how it didn’t seem odd or strange because that’s just how it always was. The year my father left Florida to attend Howard University, the city erupted in violent racial protests and riots, marked today with a historical marker. My father remembers leaving his father’s downtown pharmacy during the start of the riots, only to encounter an angry white policeman who barked at him to go home. Which of course, he did. But there were also many wonderful stories. My father shared precious memories of his segregated Matthew W. Gilbert Junior-Senior High School, school of the legendary Pro Football Hall of Famer, Bob Hayes. The bonds of friendship formed there are close to this day. He told me about the segregated beach where my grandparents owned a summer home, American Beach; it was a storied place of refuge for blacks of the era, who were shut out of other beaches and pools.

Smiths at American Beach beach house

Smiths at American Beach beach house

My mother on the other hand, had a very different experience. Her parents migrated from Tennessee when she was three years old to Dayton, Ohio. There was no de facto segregation in Ohio, so all of my mother’s school years were integrated and her Dayton neighborhood was one of blacks and mostly Eastern Europeans. Have you written down your recollections of this painful and shameful period of our history? Have you interviewed your parents and siblings and other relatives about their specific memories of school integration, Jim Crow laws and how it affected their lives? This is likely to be a topic that we can collect and record lots of memories for our descendants who like myself, were born after the worst of these times was over. I discovered that there was a horrific lynching in Salisbury, Maryland in 1931, where my paternal grandmother lived at the time, and I wish I had asked her about what that was like.

Another thing that I think about as I look at census records from 1900, 1910, 1920, etc. is how the vast majority of black people were relegated to the hardest, dirtiest, lowest paying jobs. Men were either farmers, laborers, janitors, drivers or factory workers with just a handful able to become skilled workers or businessmen, doctors or teachers. Women were maids and cooks and laundresses; a choice few became teachers or nurses. In other words, you were absolutely limited for the most part in what you could reasonably aspire to be if you were black. I can’t imagine that, thankfully in my own lifetime, living now in a country with a black President.

I have noticed also that the experiences differ depending on where people lived. Big cities were different from rural areas, like where my maternal grandmother grew up in Tennessee. They worked in concert with their white neighbors farming, although Jim Crow laws certainly applied when they went into the city. Some of the people I interviewed had relatively peaceful experiences with school integration, unlike what happened in places like Little Rock or Mississippi. Places that had larger populations of  black people tended to be the most committed to separation of the races, which makes sense in that the white community was more fearful and more likely to enforce the existing social structure.

Birmingham, 1963

Birmingham, 1963

Include interviews with local whites if you can. I like to ask them what their experience was, what their feelings were as children seeing all of this, how it affected them growing up, etc. Whites who joined in the battle to secure civil rights for black people earn some of my highest regard. They could see our shared humanity, even in the midst of all the hatred.

Rich resources exist for researching this painful period. Here are a few:

1) The excellent documentary  “The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow”

2) Duke University’s powerful collection of oral histories of Jim Crow, called “Behind the Veil”

3) the University of Virginia contains links to similar databases

4) You Tube Video on Jim Crow Remembrances

5) The Jim Crow museum at Ferris University is a must-see full of painful remainders

6) “Living with Jim Crow: African-American Women and Memories of the Segregated South,” by Ann Valk and Leslie Brown

7) Michelle Alexander has a powerful book called “The New Jim Crow

8) Examples of Jim Crow laws can be found at: the National Park Service  the Smithsonian’s Brown v. Board exhibit  American Radio Works

9) The Southern Poverty Law Center has a resource on Teaching Tolerance

10) A brief history can be found at the Library of Congress on Jim Crow

The struggles continue as Ferguson and other recent events teach us. I hope that we can all learn the lessons of the past, and approach each other with more love, compassion and understanding.


Racial Covenants and The Plot to Keep Blacks Out of White Areas

I ran across a startling deed recently. In the record, Monroe and Robert B. Warren, of Washington, DC, were selling land to Harry E. Mockbee in May 1927. After the typical legal language came this ominous phrase (click to enlarge):

1927 deed

1927 deed

“…Subject to the further covenant that said land and premises shall never be rented, leased, sold, transferred or conveyed unto or in trust for or occupied by any negro or colored person or any person of negro extraction.”

This is the first time I’ve actually come across a racially restrictive covenant while doing deed research. They are defined as “a legally enforceable contract imposed in a deed upon the buyer of the property.” I knew a little about the history, primarily from a few books I’ve read: “Not in My Neighborhood,” by Antero Pietila (focusing on Baltimore) and “Family Properties,” by Beryl Satter (focusing on Chicago). Although frequently used against African-Americans, they were also used to keep Jewish people from certain areas in cities like Baltimore.

We’ve all seen  “A Raisin in the Sun” which portrays a black family attempting to move into a white neighborhood. But, an even better introduction to the topic can be found in the 2004 National Book Award Winner, “Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age,” by Kevin Boyle. The book tells the riveting true story of Dr. Ossian Sweet, whose purchase of a home in Detroit in 1925 resulted in attack by a white mob and the death of a white man. If you read any book on this subject, read this one first. You will not put it down, especially since the author does such a beautiful job with Ossian’s history.

Initially, covenants became popular in response to the large migration of Southern blacks to Northern cities, essentially forcing racial segregation. On May, 1926, in a case called Corrigan and Buckley, the U.S. Supreme Court, by its refusal to hear the case, tacitly affirmed the legality of these covenants. Their use skyrocketed, and particularly in large cities, the result was that blacks were forced into certain “black” areas, whether they could afford to live elsewhere or not. The Federal Housing Authority institutionalized this racism with their Underwriting Manual which denied mortgages based upon race and by practicing “redlining”: deciding which neighborhoods to approve mortgages in.

In 1930, J.D. Shelly, a black man, bought property in St. Louis in a neighborhood covered by a racial covenant. He convinced a white owner to sell to him anyway. A neighbor sued, and the case wound its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. The resultant ruling, Shelley vs. Kraemer, held that the covenants could not be enforced without violating the 14th Amendment. However, it only meant that states could not enforce the covenants; people could and did privately continue to make them and voluntarily follow them.

Still the 1948 Shelly ruling put racial covenants on Death Row. NAACP lawyers Thurgood Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston put together a legal strategy to fight these cases all over the country. Still, it wasn’t until The 1968 Fair Housing Act that their use was deemed illegal.

There is so much important black history that is left out of the “official” story of America. Huge obstacles awaited black people every step of the way it seems –in education, labor, and housing were just a few. I am amazed that we made it through, and know the resilience and strength that must have taken. A generation of people are coming of age who have no knowledge of these obstacles. How would others have fared if after enslavement and Jim Crow, they were prevented from equal education, prevented from certain jobs, prevented from equal pay at the jobs they did hold, prevented from living where they wanted, prevented from marrying who they wanted and preventing from partaking in the fruits of society that depended on that labor? These people who placed their lives at risk by challenging the system and buying homes in “white” areas should absolutely be regarded as civil rights heroes.

What I find interesting is that some communities in the deep South, especially in rural areas, blacks lived alongside whites. My grandmother did in Tennessee. You can see it in the census records.

One of the beauties of genealogy is the history you learn. Let’s keep getting educated and telling others the real story of America.

The Terror of Reconstruction

Andrew Johnson

Andrew Johnson

The image on left is a famous Thomas Nast drawing illustrating Andrew Johnson’s veto of the Freedmens Bureau in 1866. It shows him kicking the “Bureau” and has little black people falling out. The drawing may be a funny caricature, but what black people were experiencing was no laughing matter.

One of the things sometimes overlooked is the absolute terror of the Reconstruction period for our ancestors. Although they were no longer enslaved, the vast majority of former slaves were still in the South and living amidst a very angry populace that had lost the War. White Southerners lost a war that eventually added the destruction of slavery as a war objective, much to their disgust. Most whites (North and South) did not consider black people worthy of anything close to equal treatment. Even minor displays of independence by blacks could and did invite deadly responses. It is no coincidence that the Ku Klux Klan was founded during this period and that Confederate soldiers were often guilty of much of the violence.

Many Freedmens Bureau offices kept records of crimes that were committed in their districts, what they termed murders or “outrages.” Most take the form of registers or logs or were written as summaries in letters of the reporting officers. Although these records usually captured crimes against everyone, black and white, a quick read show the vast majority of crimes were committed against the newly freed black population. The Freedmens Bureau in many places replaced the law enforcement of the local area and had the power to arrest and charge individuals, and to hold trials.

I still remember the first time I read one of these documents, shortly after I started doing genealogy. The records show freedmen and their families working under labor contracts, then being beaten or otherwise forced off the farm without any pay when the crops came in. There were also lots of cases of black men and women being randomly beaten, whipped or raped. Many of the perpetrators in the documents are listed as “parties unknown,” which would become a familiar refrain used during the era of lynchings.

These poor people just went from terror to terror. Even filing a charge with the Bureau could expose one to more retribution, so I’m sure many more crimes probably happened than were reported to the Bureau. Union soldiers, teachers, preachers, landowners and those attempting to vote were especially targeted. Most Southern whites were intent upon keeping blacks in their socially inferior and economically dependent status.

When you read these outrages, what comes across is the widespread level of violence and the terror that the newly freed lived under. Surely, some areas were worse than others. But when I think about the joy that freedom bought, I also remember it must have been stunted by the violence and terror that was to come. So many of the people weren’t even named, just “colored man” or “colored woman.” I wonder how many are our ancestors that seem to “disappear” after the 1870 census? I just don’t know how they made it through.

Freedmens Bureau.com has some transcriptions of Outrages. Here are some selections from Alabama in the year 1866:

District of Alabama, 1866

March – Bradley killed freedwoman with an axe. Montgomery.

April 3 – Woman taken by three men out of her house in middle of night to swamp & badly whipped – beaten on head with pistol &c.

April 27 – Freedman shot by Confed. Soldier wantonly [killed] near Livingston, Sumter Co.

May 30 – Mulatto hung by grapevine near roadside between Tuscaloosa & Greensboro.

May 29 – Richard Dick’s wife beaten with club by her employer. Richard remonstrated – in the night was taken from his house and whipped nearly to death with a buggy trace by son of the employer & two others.

June 16 – Mr. Alexander, colored preacher, brutally beaten & forced to leave his house at Auburn, Ala.

July – Band of armed men came to house of Eliz. Adams, threatened to kill her & her sister if they did not leave the county, abused & beat them. (illegible) Franklin & (illegible) started to report outrage, not heard from afterward.

Sept. 14 – Black man picking fodder in a field shot dead — & another who had difficulty with a white man abducted & supposed to have been murdered near Tuscaloosa.

Sept. 3 – Murderous assault upon returned black Union soldier in Blount Co.

Dec. 17 – Enoch Hicks & party burned school house in Greenville in Sumner – assaulted Union soldier &c. Judge Bragg & son mercilessly beat wife & daughter of James, freedman & drew pistol on James. Kell Forrest beat wife of colored man George.

July 16 – Mrs. Prus beat Eve & her children. Henry Calloway beat freedwoman Nancy with buck, wounding her severely in the head. J. Howard & nephew beat & shot at Frank. Jno. Black attempted to kill Jim Sneethen with an axe. Jack McLeonard whipped his freedwoman mercilessly. Lee Davidson tied freedwoman up by wrists & beat her severely. Frank Pinkston cutting freedman Alfred with knife. Louisa’s husband murdered by unknown white man.

July 18 – One Yerby set fire to colored [church] Near Tuscaloosa, threatened to kill black man who saw him do it.

August – Gang of ruffians in Clarke Co. set fire to house & fired on family as they ran from it – one killed, two wounded.

February 1866 – Freedwoman beaten with club by her employer near Selma, head cut in most shocking manner.

June 1866 – Freedman shot while at his usual work by his employer for threatening to report his abusive conduct to the authorities of the Bureau – Mobile.

December 1866 – Freedman killed by parties unknown, brought to hospital in dying condition, shot through brain.

Here are a few reported from Murfreesboro, TN in 1866:

July 28th 1865 – Ben (col’d) Plaintiff vs. Beverly Randolph. Ben says ” on the 29th of June Randolph beat my wife with his fists then caught her by the chin threw back her head pulled out his knife swore he would cut her throat—His brother-in-law stopped him, he then went to his house got his pistol and swore he would kill some dam nigger—-fired of his pistol and went to Mr. Harris’s (the woman was large with child at the time).” Defendant admitted the charge—-was fined 50 Dolls. Which was paid to plaintiff.

Aug. 1st. Egbert (col’d) vs. J. Irvin. Egbert says “Irvin returned from the Reb. Army & found I had a crop growing (I staid on the place and took care of his family house and stock ever since the war begun). When I began to gather the crop (I was to have the 1/3) he drove me and my family off and would not give us a bit of anything to eat and said he did not care a dam for the Bureau.” Got 3 mounted men sent for & brought Irvin who was very penitent under bayonet force and secured by bond. The crop to plaintiff. Since, all paid.

Aug. 2nd. Sam Neal (col’d) vs. Andrew B. Payne. Sam says “Payne hired myself and family 10 altogether to work for the season, he has made several base attempts on my daughter, has ordered me off without pay or share of the crop & because I did not go he got his pistol & threatened to shoot me—-he got Miles Ferguson to beat me & the both together beat me badly.” Payne came by a summons & on proof of guilt offered to let them go back gather the crop & have their share & I fined him for beating and ordering Ferguson to beat him 25 Dolls. Paid to Sam—-

Aug. 4th. Anthony (col’d) vs. Bill Murray. Anthony says “Mr. Murray did on the 1st severely beat my wife and daughter with a stick because we were singing a union song.” Send an order to Murray to appear at this office but was taken with the appoplexy & it is said died from mortal fear of the being put in the Bureau.

These are a sad but informative set of records that paint a picture of what our ancestors endured. Of course, 99.9% of these records are not online, but they can be located by referring to the Freedmens Bureau pamphlets on the National Archives website.

Slavery Studies

As I have researched more and more enslaved ancestors, I have become more immersed in researching slavery itself. I have a friend who is a Ph.D. and professor of African-American studies and he has really helped me understand the history in a different way. We’ve clocked tens of hours of conversation about the institution of slavery.

Although what genealogists do is similar, it’s also quite different from what professional historians do. We are more interested in the individuals and the specific while they tend to focus more on trends among larger groups of people. The difference in those perspectives fascinate me.

I wanted to present a short overview of some of the most famous works in the evolution of slavery studies and I highly encourage anyone researching enslaved people to read some (at least one) of these works. I haven’t gotten through them all but I’m working on it!

“American Negro Slavery” by Ulrich Phillips, 1918

Typical of the times, Ulrich’s racism was front and center. He believed in the inferiority of blacks and the fantasy of the “Old South.” He wrote that slavery was not a financially profitable institution and that it was done mainly to benefit blacks and maintain white supremacy. He wrote that slaveowners treated, fed and clothed their slaves well. Amazingly, this was the prevailing view of slavery for almost 30 years although W.E.B. DuBois vocally challenged his findings.

“The Peculiar Institution” by Kenneth M. Stampp, 1956

Stampp, in this groundbreaking work, was the first to counter Ulrich Phillips’ school of thought in several areas. He showed that slavery was not benign but a cruel and brutal system of labor exploitation and control. He argued that slavery was indeed a profitable system. He illustrated the extreme suffering of slaves and he also discussed the many methods of slave resistance. Stampp also discussed how becoming a slave owner was a part of a social system which allowed whites to enter the upper class and gain status in the community.

“Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life” by Stanley Elkins, 1959

Elkins was the first historian to look at the psychological impact of slavery rather than just the economics of it. He compared southern slave plantations to Nazi concentration camps and argued that slavery was so brutal and inhumane that it stripped slaves of their African heritage (i.e., they had a “social death”) and transformed them into docile, submissive figures. His most famous thesis was his conclusion that the system of slavery had infantilized slaves, making them “Sambos”—reduced them by brutality to a dependant, child-like status. Although many of his arguments have now been rejected, this single book caused a firestorm and a huge outpouring of responses by other historians.

“The Slave Community” by John Blassingame, 1972

Blassingame presented one of the first slave studies to be presented from the perspective of the enslaved and contradicted historians like Elkins and his “Sambo” thesis.  Through the lens of psychology, Blassingame used 19th century fugitive slave narratives as sources to determine that in fact, a rich and unique culture developed among American slaves, with plenty of evidence that African practices survived. Historians criticized Blassingame’s use of slave narratives (which are considered biased) and questioned his neglect of the WPA slave interviews but the book remains an important contribution.

“Roll Jordan Roll: The World the Slaves Made,” by Eugene Genovese 1974

Eugene D. Genovese was a Marxist and this book attempts to decipher, from a Marxist perspective, the world of antebellum slavery. Genovese’s thesis is that slaves created a rich culture, at once both African-American and uniquely southern. He raised some new arguments and presented a truly dizzying array of footnotes and examples. Sometimes he can lose the reader with his ruminations on social theory, but this is an engaging read nevertheless, from one of the most enigmatic and controversial American historians.

“The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925” by Herbert Gutman, 1976

In this classic text on black family life, Gutman argues that slavery did not break up the black family, which had become a familiar refrain as a result of the 1970s “Moynihan Report.”  Gutman was a labor historian who studied workers and social history. Gutman illustrates that that most black families largely remained intact despite slavery and remained that way during the first wave of migration to the North after the Civil War (although he remained open to arguments about black family collapse in the 1930s and 1940s). Gutman’s work was widely praised.

I could go on and on, and mention works by Deborah Gray White on enslaved women (“Ar’n’t I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South”) works by Ira Berlin (“Many Thousands Gone”) and John Hope Franklin (“Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation”). There are more than I could ever review here, but I hope if you have not yet thought about reading one of these works you will.

The stories of the people we uncover need to be woven with social history, and perhaps nothing looms larger and more complex than slavery. Pick up some of these at the local library or used book store and shoot me an email and let me know what you’re reading.