I have been pondering this topic for awhile and received a recommendation to discuss it on my blog. It’s an important one I think, but one fraught with all the ugliness that discussions of slavery and race entail. What follows are informed thoughts I’d like to offer garnered from the almost 20 years that I have been researching my enslaved ancestors. This is really from my heart and I hope no one takes any offense to these suggestions. (It goes without saying that African-Americans are not monolithic in thought and viewpoint.)
1) Finding out your ancestors were slaveholders is disturbing to most people. You might feel uncomfortable talking about this and sharing this information with others. My first suggestion is to not leave out or overlook or dismiss this information. It’s an important, though yes ugly, part of not just your family’s history but American history. So please include it in your histories. There are many things that are painful about this research for African American descendants, but when we come across books and articles and websites about slaveholders and those books include nothing about the slaves they owned, we experience a particular kind of pain that desires at a minimum acknowledgement.
If you are involved in abstracting wills, please include the names of the enslaved laborers you find. If you transcribe marriages, include the African-American ones, which may be listed separately. If you do a cemetery project, include African-American cemeteries. You just have no idea how frustrating it is in genealogy to do this research and come across so many sources that appear to believe that including information about the enslaved or African-Americans is somehow less necessary, less valuable or less worthy.
Another example of this can be found at many of the plantations still standing. Some of these sites have done an excellent job of including histories of the enslaved people that labored there, such as the Hermitage and this one at Belle Meade Plantation. but others like Carnton and Sherwood Forest have no reflection on their websites that hundreds of enslaved laborers made that life possible. That’s disappointing and maddening. (on a sidenote, I hope to visit the Whitney Plantation one day, which is a plantation site focused and dedicated to the enslaved laborers and not the slaveholding families.)
No one expects your research focus to be a thorough examination of the individual lives of your family’s slaves (though some have done that), but at least an acknowledgement and recording of the facts of that ownership is helpful. Laura on her blog at The Old Trunk in the Attic, illustrates beautifully the idea and I simply love the Slave Names Roll Project at Tangled Roots and Trees.
2) The tragedy of slavery entailed many facets that complicate family history research greatly. Constant sale of children, parents and spouses, the use of only given names in records, names changes, numerous geographical moves, and the lack of the slaves’ names on the 1850 and 1860 slave schedules and in other records lead to serious problems for most African-Americans in terms of uncovering their roots. TV shows today make it look easy when it’s absolutely not.
Most African-Americans who may contact you online or through genealogical societies are primarily interested in finding records that may enable them to uncover more of the roots of their enslaved ancestors. Please do respond to our emails if we contact you. It was not uncommon for larger slaveholders to have business papers and account books and other documents that discuss what at that time was considered their “property.” Bible records of slaveholding families sometimes recorded births and deaths of family slaves. Sometimes that information ends up in the hands of the descendants of the slaveholders.
If you find something like that, please share it with us. Consider sending copies of it to the library, state archives, and genealogical society of the location where the farm/plantation was located. That will ensure future generations who may come looking might be able to find it as well. And David reminded me to add that submitting your articles to genealogical society journals is also a great way to get the information out and to ensure it survives.
For the descendants of enslaved people to find any family information before 1870, we must discover the names of and then research extensively the slaveholding family. That’s why 1870 is called the “Brick Wall” in African-American research. If you have no family records, you can help us with the details of your family tree which may allow us to at least track the enslaved property through the family.
3) We are very clear that you did not own any slaves. We do not hold you personally responsible for holding slaves, any more than we hold ourselves responsible for the reprehensible things any of our ancestors did. The past comes with the baggage of both good and bad. It shows us all how human we are. So we don’t expect you to apologize for anything, although I’ll honestly say when this has happened to me as it has many times, I’ve thought it was a thoughtful gesture. I’ve thought it was more of a validation of how horrific slavery was in general than some personal feeling of accountability.
4) One thing has really bothered me is when descendants of slaveholders proclaim their ancestor “treated their slaves well.” Even worse is this notion of “oh well, that’s how it was back then.” I beg of you please not to say anything like that to descendants of slaves and please reconsider your thoughts on the topic if this is what you believe. Yes, enslaved people would certainly prefer a less brutal owner vs. one of the truly depraved and plenty of enslaved people talked about owners this way, but go back and read my post and reasoning in There Were No Good Slaveowners. How individual owners treated their slaves means little in a system predicated on brutality. Enslaved people were trapped in a system whose governing philosophy was violence.
Any suggestion that slaveholders were simply people acting in the norms of their times ignores the many thousands of slaveholders who rose above “their times” and freed their slaves, not to mention the small but vocal group of people who fought against slavery in times where doing so put their own lives in danger. It always feels like a denial and a dismissal and diminishment of the horrors of the institution when people say these kinds of things. Because I am immersed in the primary source documents of slavery, I can tell you there is no way to adequately convey how truly horrific slavery was–some of the things I have read have made me physically ill.
So here’s a thought: don’t feel the need to make any comment about slavery at all. If it’s a topic that interests you, ask questions, get references to primary source material, find out more about the institution and its aftermath. Be authentic and compassionate. Know that the beliefs that undergirded the system of slavery continued long after it was over and into the present day. Slavery was not something that happened a “long time ago.” Descendants of enslaved people have not even been free as long as our ancestors were enslaved. Now, just think about that. When I first started researching in 1997, I interviewed my 103- year old relative whose father had been a slave. Many of my African-American genealogist friends TODAY have grandparents whose parents had been enslaved. That is a breath away.
Nevertheless, most people don’t know much about slavery beyond what they’ve seen in pop culture (and “Roots”) and there’s a lot to learn about the institution, far beyond what most of us were taught in school. New scholarship has been uncovered and new sources, especially in the last 50 years or so. Be open to learning more. I promise you will learn many things that you never knew. I know I have. One excellent documentary I recommend are the first two episodes of “Many Rivers to Cross.” You can watch both Episode 1 for free on You Tube.
5) Real friendships can be had with the descendants of the slaves your family owned. I am proud to say I’ve developed several such friendships. We have helped one another with our research. The stories are numerous. Coming to the Table is one outstanding organization dedicated to providing the platform for those relationships to heal and have meaningful dialogue. God knows in the era of Trump, we could all use more examples of how to have calm-headed discussion of difficult subjects with others.
6) I had to come back and add this topic: miscegenation. Anytime the bodies of women are under the control of men, you can bet sexual exploitation will occur. This was frequent and commonplace during slavery, attested to by many hundreds of thousands of primary sources. Slavery narratives and interviews come back to the topic over and over again. Heck, whole classes of people in society were created by it, for example, read about the practice of placage in Louisiana.
It was not considered a crime to rape an enslaved women: they had no right to self-defense and no ownership of their bodies (see, for example, the book “Celia, A Slave.”) And not just the slave master-any white man–overseer, neighbor, cousin–could and did take advantage of enslaved women. DNA supports this, with a high percentage of black Americans today who have a European Y-DNA (estimated at 25%). In the generations after emancipation, many blacks who looked white chose to pass, many for job opportunities or simply to escape the burden of race.
As I am fond of saying: people have always–always– lived and loved across the false boundaries of race. Some of the earliest colonial laws in Maryland and Virginia were laws trying to stop these marriages and relationships. So please do not be surprised if someone in your family tree turns out to have been African-American, or if one of your slaveholding ancestors fathered children with his slaves. This was not a novel circumstance; it was commonplace. And I hope you won’t hide what you’ve found because of shame or embarrassment.
Our country is still suffering from the long history of slavery in our country—the need for a Black Lives Matter movement today is a direct descendant of that institution and the continuation of its beliefs and practices. I’m not sure I think it will ever be overcome, so deep is it embedded in the American experience. Although we can’t change the past, we can do some things now in the present. I hope the small suggestions I offered above help you to not just think about some things differently, but also to know there are actions you can take along your genealogy journey to help the descendants of slaves to be able to do the same.
I will also add a reminder to all that race is not a real thing. We’ve lived with it for so long, we take it for granted, but the idea that human beings were created into separate “groups” that have differences reflected in their appearance, that cause different behavior is simply NOT REAL. This has been proven by science over and over again.
Race was a concept created in 17th and 18th century American society for a very specific purpose and there are many books on the subject (here are some background readings). It is a social construct–an idea created by society. One of my favorite (though intellectually heavy) books on the topic is Racecraft. A short interview summarizes the points of the authors, and it is one I think everyone interested in the subject should read. Though race is an invention, racism is in fact very real.
(Here’s a short experiment: anytime you hear something like “(Black/Hispanic/any group) people are more prone to (crime/lazy/insert any negative behavior),” replace the racial or ethnic group with something like “Blue-eyed people are more prone to crime than black-eyed people” or “Tall people are really lazier than short people.” You’d recognize those ideas as preposterous on their face. But people have those thoughts with race everyday, and see nothing wrong with it.)
Whew! OK, I’m done for today;) I’d love to hear in the comments, responses from descendants of white slaveholders on any of their own experiences. We are all on the same amazing journey to uncover our ancestors and I hope everyone received this in the spirit with with it was written.
NOTE: if you enjoyed this post, please read Part 2