I have been researching my family and other African American families for almost 18 years. Six years ago I decided to develop and author a genealogy “blog” based upon my research. While initially I imagined a forum to share my discoveries and document my research, the voice of the teacher in me became louder and transformed the blog into a platform to teach genealogical skills and best practices and to highlight various ways to use records to solve family puzzles.
My interest and experience in the ever-daunting research of slavery and enslaved people remains a key focus of Reclaiming Kin. Slave research is one of the most difficult kinds of genealogical research for obvious reasons. Contrary to popular belief, however, there are tens of thousands of original records that discuss the enslaved. Slaves were valuable property and slaveowners documented their property well. Because of slavery, most African-Americans have much longer histories in this country than they’d imagine, and depending upon time and place, it is not uncommon to be able to trace your enslaved roots to the 1800s and in some cases, the 1700s.
A good friend suggested that I take the content at Reclaiming Kin and transform it into book format. “You’ve got so much material on here over the years, so many strategies and research tips,” he said. Others shared a similar sentiment. Publishing the blog into book form would enable readers to have better access to the genealogical knowledge shared at Reclaiming Kin. New readers would probably not spend the many hours it would take to read the older entries which are spread across previous years. My excitement about the project grew with the possibility of sharing this with a wider audience. With that, I selected over 80 of the best posts on Reclaiming Kin and began the almost two-year odyssey to create the publication.
The 200+ page book is divided into five chapters, with entries categorized by subject matter: (1) Records and Resources, (2) Evidence Analysis, (3) Slave Research, (4) Research Tips and (5) Robyn’s Family History. There is something of value here for all genealogists, whether you consider yourself a beginner or advanced level researcher, no matter the time period or geographical location of your research and no matter your race or ethnicity. The book is unique in that I utilize my own research primarily as a way to teach methodology or introduce the use of various sources.
Another unique aspect of the book is the mixture of family history research with discussion of the impact of little known historical events like the story of Sears co-founder and executive Julius Rosenwald and his seed funding of almost 5,000 schools across the South for African-Americans. Other chapters discuss the thousands of documents created by the Southern Claims Commission, an entity set up to hear damage claims from loyal Southerners after the Civil War. Many of the claimants and their witnesses were former slaves. Readers will learn about the racial covenants found in land records to prevent access to homes for blacks in neighborhoods that did not want them. Few people know that system actually began as a way to restrict Jews from certain residential areas. I also discuss the convict leasing system that developed in the South that entrapped and killed thousands of men for trumped up crimes like “vagrancy.”
A few select examples will best illustrate the content of the book:
Records and Resources discusses the value of little utilized records such as Historic Trust Inventories and Southern Claims Commission records, and new ways to use more common records such as estate inventories and other probate records.
Evidence Analysis discusses how we interpret the sources we find, arguably the most important skill and one that receives little discussion among new researchers. Examples include the importance of examining original records and the value of collateral research. Evaluating marriages and families is detailed in posts such as Is The Wife Really The Mother Of All Those Children? and Phillip Holt is Not Dead After All.
Slave Research is covered in numerous posts where I discuss things such as the origin of slave surnames and little known facts about slavery. Slaveowners are discussed in the Mind of the Slaveowner, and uncovering enslaved ancestors is demonstrated in Mason and Rachel Garrett: Their Enslaved Past.
Research Tips includes topics such as Ideas for Writing Up Your Family History and Using Charts in Genealogical Research. One of my most popular posts bears mentioning here as well: Do You Have an Artificial Brick Wall?
Robyn’s Family History uses my own research to demonstrate a methodology, sources or technique, such as Criminals In The Family: Joseph Harbour, Harriet and Martha: Sisters Reunited and Court Records Rock.
In many ways, genealogists are the keepers of histories in the same vein as professional historians. Although we are primarily interested in individuals while academics typically focus on larger groups of people and larger themes, I see us both as important sides of the same coin. There is nuance, there is context, there is texture that is added when both of those perspectives come into view. I didn’t realize how much the experience of each of our families makes history real and accessible and….well, interesting. It’s one thing to learn about slavery, quite another to see your ancestor’s name on a bill of sale. It’s one thing to learn about the Great Migration, and quite another to realize your grandparents move from Tennessee to Dayton, Ohio was exactly that. There’s a reason why most African-Americans don’t appear on the census until 1870- that little thing called the Civil War. Hundreds of thousands of black soldiers fought in that war, maybe even one of your ancestors. I see the same light of revelation in others when they experience how their family’s past makes history tangible.
There are so many stories, especially in African-American history, that haven’t been told or if they have been told, need to be told from a different perspective. The stories include hope and pain, success and triumph, failure and suffering, innovation and endurance. We have to tell these stories. Those stories are much more than names and dates of birth, marriage and death. Their lives tell us something about ourselves. Our interpretation of our ancestor’s lives and what they experienced continues into our present day. Our country is still arguing about the meaning of citizenship, about rights and about the balance of power between the federal and local governments. We are still fighting battles about labor and wealth and the role of religion. I think William Faulkner was right when he said, “The past is never dead. It's not even past.”
Many of the popular genealogy shows necessarily use celebrities or research those whose families trace back to the extraordinary events in our history and those who are considered “great men.” But I’ve found it’s not the famous, but the everyday, regular people who worked as farmers and laborers, took care of their families, exercised their faith and built communities that impress most upon me. These are the people often left out of our history books and movies; these are the people left out of the popular narrative of who made this country what it is.
I find special joy in uncovering the lives of slaves. Treated as property, so much of their life story has been filtered through the words of their owners, silencing their own voice. But the exciting part is that we can find their names and tell some of their story. New research by groundbreaking historians starting in the modern civil rights era has overturned many of the old assumptions, such as those in the early 20th century by historian Ulrich B. Phillips. His studies were based on white supremacist notions and focused on the paternalist idea that slaveowners treated their slaves well and that slavery was largely beneficial and civilizing for the slaves. His research led popular belief on the subject for several decades.
Though most slaves could not read or write, we have hundreds of narratives written by slaves, thousands of pages of interviews with former slaves, and numerous other original documents (such as court and land records) that allow us a truer glimpse into this most horrid chapter of our history. New archeological studies along with new approaches to slave research have proven the impact of African-American slaves on American culture. We also now know that the African ancestors of American slaves passed down their own cultural practices, and there is a new understanding of these “African survivals” in areas like food, music, folklore, spirituality and mourning.
I believe genealogy is not just a hobby—it is really a calling. Most people who start down this path really never finish. Others will be familiar with the pattern found in my own family: my parents and grandparents migrated away from places (largely in the South) where their roots had been deepest, usually because of work. Because of this, future generations are becoming more and more detached from any knowledge of their family’s past. Children and teens, especially, are fascinated with the tales of their family’s history and it’s a wonderful tool to promote self-esteem and pride in young people.
The Reclaiming Kin blog and book is my humble offering on how to rediscover your family’s past, tell their stories and pass on to future generations the memory of their forebears. The story of your family will be the best “reality” television you’ve ever known. I hope this book inspires you to uncover the mysteries of your family and the timeless wisdom of how these communities, through each generation, survived and thrived. The book can be purchased directly from the website linked below.
Robyn Smith, The Best of Reclaiming Kin: Helpful Tips On Researching Your Roots (Elkridge, Maryland: Robyn N. Smith, 2015); Reclaiming Kin Website, http://www.reclaimingkin.com.
BlackPast.org is an independent non-profit corporation 501(c)(3). It has no affiliation with the University of Washington. BlackPast.org is supported in part by a grant from Humanities Washington, a state-wide non-profit organization supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the state of Washington, and contributions from individuals and foundations.