Friday, March 12, 2010

Slave Records and Genealogy Research

There’s a new Carnival on the Geneablogger block. It’s one to which I likely wouldn't have contributed until just a month ago.

It’s the Carnival of African American Genealogy, and the theme for the first edition is: Restore My Name: Slave Records and Genealogy Research.

Five questions are asked, from which the blogger can choose to respond.
1. What responsibilities are involved on the part of the researcher when locating names of slaves in a record?

2. Does it matter if the record(s) are related to your ancestral lines or not?
When I see these questions, my first thought is to drop the two words “of slaves." What’s our responsibility when seeing any name in a record? If the person is a part of our family history, our first and foremost responsibility is obvious – write the information down. For me, this responsibility applies equally for those related by blood, marriage, or property. (At least with female slaves, we don’t know if their names might not become more important in our research down the road. And while less common, there’s a possibility with male slaves as well.)

What responsibility do we have to share the records? This is a fascinating question. I look up an ancestor’s obituary in newspaper microfilm. Their obituary is surrounded by other obituaries. I’m certainly not responsible for sharing all those obituaries on various surname message boards, or wherever.

There are people who do. There are people who photograph and transcribe cemeteries. It’s a wonderful thing. But a responsibility? No.

While I am unaware of recent African ancestry (Mankind originated in Africa), I have experienced, I feel, a small sliver of the frustration those of African American heritage feel in their research. My maternal grandmother’s known ancestry stretches back to the 1500s. The ancestry of my three other grandparents end abruptly in the mid-1800s. Not all, but many of the records from the shtetls in which they lived were destroyed by the Nazi or Communist regimes that overran Eastern Europe in the mid 20th century. Some of the records that survive are being entered into online databases, but it’s slow.

How would I feel if I learned a European genealogist came across records detailing the names of those killed in a pogrom, and decided not to release the information?


I think it's a rare occurrence, but if a researcher comes across records
A) They know are scarce
B) in a manner unavailable to most genealogists
And they intentionally hide those records, they are performing a disservice to the genealogical community.

However, if the records are readily available to others, that responsibility disappears. All of our time is precious, and there is no reason we need to spend it resharing information that can be found easily by someone else -- Unless that is our desire. Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness are always welcomed.
3. As a descendant of slave owners, have you ever been pressured by family not to discuss or post about records containing slave names?
Up until very recently I had no idea I was a descendant of slave owners. When I made the discovery, I discussed with my mother how we felt about the information. The ancestor lived in 17th century New York, and there are indications he may have freed the one slave he’s known to have had. Neither of us felt the information needed to be kept private. (It really couldn't be, since it already appeared in print in several places.) So I wrote about it in a blog post. I didn’t give any other family members time to weigh in on the matter. If I had, I would have had to ask a whole lot of people, since the ancestor goes back ten generations for me, and I'm sure he has a lot of descendants.
4. As a descendant of slaves, have you been able to work with or even meet other researchers who are descendants of slave owners?
5. Have you ever performed a Random Act of Genealogical Kindness involving slave ownership records? Or were you on the receiving end of such kindness?
I haven't had the opportunity yet. Some people might consider my blog post, Labors of Hercules, such an act, though I don't. It contains very little if any genealogical information on my ancestor's slave. However, the blog post is likely to help any descendant of the slave owner researching their roots to make the discovery a lot quicker than I did.


Luckie. said...

Hi John!

Thank you for contributing to our 1st CoAAG & offering-up an insightful post on the subject matter at hand -- slave data & how it's dealt with inside the genealogical community.

A few observations, if I may:

* In the example of your responsibility when viewing multiple obituaries, the difference between the 2 types of information is that one is easily accessible and the other (family slave data) not.

My initial challenge to the community was not to go out & find data to report on but to share the slave data that was being encountered every day via their own personal genealogy research.

Slave Ancestors did not voluntarily have their names lost/hidden & family lines fragmented -- this was a by-product of the chattel system.

For me, that lends to a different responsibility for the descendant who discovers that persons identity/presence in a record.

* I'm not sure, so please correct me if I am wrong, are you saying the instances of this vital information NOT being shared is rare?

If that is the case, you would be greatly mistaken. The subsequent responses to my call to action speak to the level at which these documents have been shared freely -- rarely.

* I do see your post of Hercules as a RAOK because it is something you chose to do that could benefit another researcher.

I appreciated that gesture & have seen many such acts across the genealogy community as of late.

Finally, I agree, time is precious. Please always keep in mind that neither my Ancestors nor I chose this path, chose this history.

I wholeheartedly believe that anyone whose Ancestors had a hand in creating history, should be involved in the effort of healing it, to the degree to which they are capable.

Thanks for allowing me to share my thoughts & for your support.


John said...


I agree that the difference is accessibility. This applies both to slave records, and the comparison I drew to records on European pogroms. We both have ancestors who in different ways didn't choose to have their records lost.

I would like to think it is rare for this information not to be shared intentionally. Actively hiding the information is different from having the information and it not occurring to you that you should share it beyond your own individual family. Or not knowing how to share it further.

But that is something education can change.