Taking Back What Was Once Lost

What You Didn’t Know About Slavery

OK, I confess that blog title is a little sensationalized. Truth be told, much of this information becomes well-known to researchers within a few years of their African-American genealogical journey. Family research turns many of us into walking, talking, beacons of history. It certainly turned my life around; probably 90% of what I read now is non-fiction and slavery/history related. It is an endlessly fascinating subject, epic, tragic and but often inspiring.

Nevertheless, here are a few tidbits to keep in mind as you do your research.

1.       Slavery was vastly different at different times, in different places. A slave’s life in 1800 in Virginia would not look much like a Georgia slave’s life in 1850. A city slave’s experience was different than a rural or country slave’s experience. Different crops had different labor demands (cotton, rice, tobacco, indigo, sugar).

2.       South America (mainly Brazil) and the West Indian Caribbean islands took in the lion’s share of slaves from Africa. Of those who came to the North American colonies (roughly 4%), most were brought here by 1795. That means many of us have very, very long histories in this country, and many people descended from slaves have lineages that go back over 200 years.

3.       Most slaves had surnames that were known amongst themselves, even though the white planters did not record those surnames (look at this amazing exception). The WPA narratives, civil war pensions, and freedman’s bank records are examples of types of records where you’ll find slaves mentioning their parent’s entire names.

4.       Don’t expect to always find entire family units owned by one owner. There will be many instances where the enslaved father is owned by someone other than the owner of his wife and child.  Check those neighbors; many slaves found mates on neighboring farms. Young children (under the age of about 10), however, were often allowed to stay with their mothers.

5.     Our image of slaves out farming the plantation is not a complete one. Slaves were employed in every conceivable occupation: they worked in shipyards and wharves, railroads and steamboats, coal mines, iron works, gristmills and sawmills; as maids, seamstresses, tailors, masons, butchers, barbers, and so on. Especially for urban (city) slaves, think of all the ways other than farming they worked.

6.       Understand the impact of the domestic slave trade. The rise of cotton in the early 1800’s and waning need for year-round slaves in the North caused hundreds of thousands of slaves to be sold into the deep south and the expanding southwest. This had a devastating impact on black families. Note the prevalence of the birthplace of “Virginia” or “Maryland” in the 1870 southern states. Consider that your southern slave ancestor may have been sold south at some point.

7.       Slaves were often bought and sold through slave traders. Many of these auction –style purchases will not have any existing records or receipts, as these were private organizations. There are a few localities, however, which have records of former slave traders. Also, many slaves were purchased from the estate sales of local slaveowners when they died.

8.       Researching slavery will expand your vision of what it meant to be a slave. Some slaves in cities were allowed to live as virtual freedmen, work for pay and give their owners a monthly fee; others were allowed to earn wages to buy themselves or family members. Some planters worked their slaves on the “task” system, which meant they were responsible for a certain amount of work every day & when they finished they were free to do other things, like work their own garden plot or hunt for more food. None of that erases the sheer brutality of the institution slavery, but there were differences in their everyday lives. Most slaves whose owners only had a few slaves probably lived in the attic or on the top floor of an outbuilding as opposed to a slave cabin.

9. There were about a half a million freed blacks in the country at the end of the Civil War and a little bit more than half of them lived in the South, mainly because of places like Charleston and New Orleans that had large numbers of freed blacks.

10. Looking at original sources will broaden your mind as to how local whites interacted with the enslaved population. Criminal court records are replete with people being charged with playing cards with slaves and selling them things. That really surprised me. Slaves were plied with liquor by their masters and others. I have a court record detailing the local practice of allowing the slaves to work for pay on their holiday off-days. All these things expanded my view of slave life.

11. Slavery was a negotiated relationship. Yes, the masters had the final and violent upper hand, but you’ll be amazed at how many times the master’s actions were altered by a slave’s threatening to run away, refusing to do work, refusing to be sold to someone, etc. These are shown in numerous entries in planter’s diaries and other documents:
“Salley won’t go without her husband so I’ll have to sell him too.”
“Joe if you come back home, you may have your choice of master.”
“I had to whip Bill today because he would not go with me.”

Our ancestors used every tool at their disposal and sometimes were able to influence the master’s decisions.

Some of the ideas above have been documented by the slavery scholar Ira Berlin and his team at the Freedmen and Southern Society Project. His books and the works of other imminent scholars have changed what we know about slavery.

Tell me, what things have you learned during your research about slavery that surprised you?

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  1. niya8089's Gravatar niya8089
    December 8, 2011    

    interesting website. family history, especially when being black, is intriguing. the most surprising thing i have learned was when i discovered the “natural laws” & the treaty that declares blacks “sovereign” – accoring to the constitution; back in the 1700’s. It surprised me that my ancestors where not slaves from africa, but where indegenious to south american land.

  2. December 8, 2011    

    I, too, am surprised about what I’m learning from genealogy. A friend of mine once said that all Black people come from Mississippi. Well, slaves outnumbered free whites by more than 100,000 persons in 1865 Mississippi. The descendants of this large slave population migrated across the nation and today many find their family history research touching Mississippi.

  3. gj's Gravatar gj
    December 9, 2011    

    As always, you give excellent information, suggestions and/or advice. Your commitment, tenacity, and devotion to researching your family is to be commended, and serves as an inspiration to all of your fellow Af-Amer, researchers. Finally, the quality of your work meets or rather greatly exceeds that of all but a very few professional genealogists. My best wishes to you for your continued success in your endeavors.

  4. December 10, 2011    

    These are discoveries I have made also, through my journey. I know, it’s funny, the main books I read now ARE biographies and informational history texts, most of which have to do with Black history. But I love it!!

  5. December 24, 2011    

    I always love your posts, but this is the best one I have read in quite some time. Merry Christmas!

  6. December 26, 2011    


    This is a great post. I’ve learned many of the things you have pointed out.

    Even though as best as I can determine to date that my ancestors were slaves, the biggest realization was that my ancestors were more than likely here when the US became a nation, making us just as American as anybody else.

    Other thing I’ve learned is that most slaves were probably on small farms as opposed to huge plantations.

  7. October 27, 2014    

    Dear Robin…thanks so much for this enlightening article! I am a 60 year old educated white man raised in Mississippi. I spent the 1st 9 years of my life in Germany, as my dad was in the US Air Force. Humans, as children, are susceptible to being “conditioned” by their parents; I thank God my dad was not a prejudiced man in spite of his being raised in southern Georgia during the 1920’s – 30’s. Although it is NEVER right for one human being to ever own another, it does give me some sense of consolation knowing that many (I hope) slaves, based on your writing, had some sort of freedom (if you can call it that) and peace in their lives. God bless you and continue to spread the truth, good or bad.

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I blog, teach, write and lecture about family history research and it's just as rewarding today as it was when I began 18 years ago. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my past and I've taken back--reclaimed- my kin and some of that lost memory.  

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"The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past."
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