We gravitate to genealogy by its promise to reveal our family’s story. In pursuing my own story, I have noticed with sympathy that my African American friends had a much harder time of it. I was encountering my own brick walls, but nothing compared to theirs. It was unfortunate, but it never crossed my mind that I could do anything about it.
One day, I got my AncestryDNA results back, with the news that I descend from Mali in North Africa – almost certainly from a person enslaved and sold through the Gold Coast slave trade. That was wake-up call number one. Suddenly I had an ancestor I wanted to find above all others. For the first time I realized that I descend from both slaveholders and the enslaved, and my Mali ancestor is the most intriguing branch on the family tree. My nieces and nephews were now enthralled by their heritage and asking if they could get their DNA done, too.
So here I was, face to face for the first time with the needle in a haystack that this was going to be — a familiar predicament for African Americans. I had a renewed appreciation for people like Frazine Taylor, who have mastered and now teach others this special, complicated form of genealogy. And I began to wonder when, if ever, I’d figure out where my Mali ancestor entered my family story. I went back to work on my family tree just waiting for the hoped-for black needle to someday show up in this huge white haystack.
The second wake-up call came one Monday evening when my colleague Susan Reynolds and I were co-teaching a beginner’s genealogy class at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Alabama. Susan was teaching a section on African American research and showed the class a couple of records documenting her ancestor’s purchase of two people. I was moved and intrigued to see this type of record – something I’d never encountered in my own research.
Then, it hit me: I should be researching the people enslaved by my ancestors. All of us who descend from slaveholders should happily take up that comparatively feather-light and wholly fascinating burden. Why had something so completely obvious never occurred to me?
I was so excited by the idea I couldn’t sleep that night. I was eager to dig in and start this work. I knew that it was going to enrich my genealogy in ways I’d never imagined. For the first time, I became conscious of the reality that we cannot say we know our slaveholding families if we don’t know the enslaved people who shared their daily existence –- often the first faces they saw in the morning and the last at night, their nurses when they were sick, their caretakers in the nursery, and the people who made them wealthy and comfortable. My real family story is and has always been a black and white story.
That’s what I could get from this endeavor. We tend to start always with “What’s in it for me?” But how wonderful when we notice that a self-serving idea might serve another.
What might this project give to the descendants of those who poured out their lives in service to my ancestors? If I begin to put names and details to the tallies of the enslaved persons my ancestors owned, black descendants will have a much easier time finding their way to their ancestors. Like mine, their stories are inevitably black and white intertwined. Together, we can bridge the gaps, and start to understand the world upon which ours was built.
My first call that Tuesday morning had to be Frazine Taylor. Would she see this as the right path? Honestly, if she had told me I was trespassing on an African American journey, I’d have shut it down right there. I respect her voice in these things. But, she was way ahead of me. She knew all this long ago. It was just my turn to wake up. And she was thrilled and ready to work with me to put out a call to those still sleeping.
I know, also, that other descendants of slaveholders have been doing this for a while. It’s not my idea — just my wake-up call. Given my career path as a historian, though, if I’m only just now waking up, I know that many others have not awakened to this path yet either. And what a difference we can make, if we get on the path together. We can make the needle in a haystack that is African American genealogy less daunting.
As Frazine and I talked about how to make this work, we knew that there needed to be a technology component, if this is to be truly effective to large numbers of us. We needed a way to link black families and white together in our genealogy tools, reflecting the interconnected lives they lived. Our hope is that the genealogy software companies that support our work will come up with a permanent way to do this, but we have developed an interim solution that should work with most existing genealogy software programs and online trees. We do not have to wait for the years that software development might take.
The more of us who get on board, the more important it will become to the infrastructure creators like Ancestry.com and FamilySearch to provide us the platform. And if we will follow a uniform model in how we do this in the interim, we can more easily transfer to the platforms of the future, when they are ready. We will be each other’s support.
That’s the fantastic news. We can start today. We have a working model, and thanks to leaders like Frazine, we have African American research methods developed and ready for those of us who take up this call. This day, we can all begin to expand our family trees to include the “beyond kin” – the interconnected families.
For those who do not descend from enslaved or slaveholding families (that you know of), don’t feel left out. Open the 1850 Slave Census for your county, adopt a plantation, and get to work. Together, we can revolutionize genealogy.