Descendants trace stories linked by slavery


Every week, Sharon Morgan sits at her desk looking through property records, deeds and wills that draw a clear line between her computer in Noxubee County, Mississippi, and her ancestors who were enslaved in a nearby plantation.

Sometimes Ms Morgan, 71, still has to climb a rickety ladder at the county courthouse to retrieve heavy books from the 1800s, but the internet and other technologies have increasingly transformed the hard work of reconstructing the past as she had practiced it for decades.

Handwritten government documents from the aftermath of emancipation are now freely available online. Distant relatives whose ancestors were separated by slavery can be reached with a few mouse clicks. And descendants of people who profited from slavery are digitizing crucial documents long buried in attics and basements.

Thanks to grassroots groups, private genealogy societies and social media, it has never been easier for descendants of 19th century Americans to find and confront their stories. At the same time, teaching about American history and the legacy of slavery has become an increasingly political issue, with Republican-led legislatures in several states passing laws to limit what can be taught in schools.

As these disputes eat away at state houses and school boards, descendants continue to uncover family histories and, in some cases, meet each other.

“I think genealogy is a tool to achieve healing because we have to go back in time,” Ms Morgan said. “And when you reconnect those pieces that have been corrupted because of slavery, that’s a way to go.”

She created the group Our Black Ancestry to try to connect these pieces. The nonprofit serves as a forum for people to share documents, discuss repairs and recount stories together. Another organization, Speaking Truth, was started in January by descendants of people who profited from slavery and are now trying to recognize their family history and make amends.

Tracing family histories can be difficult for descendants of slaves, as the most basic details of their lives, such as their names and birthdays, were usually recorded by the people who enslaved them. Key documents, such as wills or deeds, may be hidden in a book, government records, or the attic of someone whose ancestors enslaved people.

“When you create your family tree, it’s not just about writing down a name, a date, a place, it’s about building a person,” Ms Morgan said. “You rehumanize people in a way.”

The discovery of family records that list men, women, and children as property has motivated some descendants to try to make amends for what their ancestors did.

Rea Bennett’s great-great-grandfather owned 15 slaves. As part of a larger plan to atone for that history, she helped create Speaking Truth, which aims to catalog the family histories of descendants. Entrants are also invited to share how they plan to act on this story. The archives will eventually be turned over to a museum or educational institution, said Ms Bennett, 80.

“I don’t want to leave this world without making restitution,” said Ms. Bennett, a retired university administrator. She said she and her sister could also try to trace the descendants of people their ancestor enslaved.

Speaking Truth is the latest of several online portals recently created by descendants to help them take action on their family stories. In 2019, two descendants of slaves and people who profited from slavery together launched the Reparations 4 Slavery site, which serves as a resource for family research, and in 2020 another couple formed The Reparations Project, which offers scholarships to students of historically black history. colleges and universities as well as land grants to help prevent the loss of black land.

Both bands were influenced by Coming to the Table, which since 2006 has brought together descendants to talk about their shared history. Tom DeWolf, co-director of the nonprofit and scion of a prominent slave-trading family, said there was a surge of interest in the group during the presidential election in 2016, when there were only 10 local chapters. Today, there are more than 50 local chapters in 18 states and the Virgin Islands.

One of the more established genealogy services, Ancestry, has made some of its slavery-related records free to users and released video guides to help people research records.

Anne C. Bailey, professor of history at the State University of New York at Binghamton, said personal stories and acts of reconciliation are important because they show what can be accomplished on a small scale and highlight what is cannot be solved by individuals alone.

“You don’t need to feel guilty about anything you didn’t do, but you can think of this as an opportunity for me to help level the playing field in the present,” said- she declared.

Part of this work, according to Professor Bailey, is to connect personal actions with national efforts to provide reparations to recognize the atrocity of slavery, something the United States has not done on a large scale. She said other countries have tried to come to terms with the violence of their past, including South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, created at the end of apartheid, and Germany’s process of recognition of the Holocaust that has been going on for decades.

These efforts have not erased racism or anti-Semitism, but they have established official records of what happened, a crucial step in dealing with the current aftermath of historic atrocities, Prof Bailey said. Her university’s Harriet Tubman Center for Freedom and Equity, of which she is the director, launched its own truth and reconciliation forum in 2020.

“Speaking the truth establishes a kind of common ground from which you can then begin to rebuild your society,” she said.

Some genealogists offer even more individual projects. Olivia Dorsey is, at 30, relatively young for the field, which she became interested in when she was around 11, searching online when adults were unwilling to take her to courthouse records.

Today, Ms. Dorsey, who is also a technologist, can turn to YouTube channels like BlackProGen Live for help and to connect with other young black genealogists on social media. She also created a website, Digital Black History, to help people with their research.

Mrs Dorsey, who was able to trace her own family tree back to the early 1800s, found her great-great-great-great-grandfather, Ruffin Stewart, listed in the 1840 census as a ‘free person of color “.

She said about half of her research is still done offline using books like “Foxfire 5,” a chronicle of Appalachian life published in 1979. The book features an interview with her great-great- grandmother, Minnie Carrie Ann McDonnell Stewart, who lived to be 107. Ms McDonnell Stewart spoke of several members of her family, including her father, James Marion McDonnell, who she says remembered being sold “on the block” as a child before being released and becoming a farmer and landlord.

Ms Dorsey said she was still “speechless” about the discovery, and she acknowledged how the “reverberations” of slavery continue to reverberate in the present. But she added there was power in acknowledging what one’s ancestors went through.

“There is a perseverance and resilience on the part of my ancestors to say that slavery does not define us and what we do,” she said. “All these terrible things happened, but we will still persevere, we will always succeed, even if we start further than the others.”


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