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How to trace ancestors who were slaves
By Jasmine Taylor-Coleman BBC News, Washington DC 11 September 2016
says it will give preferential treatment to applicants descended from slaves
who once had a connection with the institution. But how easy is it for
Americans to find out about ancestors who were slaves?
In 1838, Jesuit
priests sold 272 men, women and children who had been enslaved on plantations
in Maryland. The sale, worth about $3.3 million (£2.5 million) today, helped
the prominent Catholic university known as Georgetown College pay off massive
debts and secure its survival. Now the world-renowned Georgetown University
wants to atone for the mistreatment of both those slaves and an unknown number
of others forced to work for the school. It is creating an online archive of
information and working with genealogists to track down descendants.
Prospective students who've been able to trace this lineage will now get
preferential treatment when applying, the university says.
The Jesuits kept
unusually detailed records of the slaves on their Maryland plantations, which
may help their descendants establish a connection - but for millions of African
Americans, the majority of whom are believed to be descended from slaves, the
process is notoriously difficult.
That's something that
Shonda Brooks experienced first-hand when she began researching her roots three
years ago. "It seemed as if I hit wall after wall," she says.
Brooks started her
inquiries after her grandmother fell ill with cancer, and she decided she did
not know enough about distant relatives. "I didn't know who I should be
telling that my grandmother was ill," she says. So
she began asking those relatives she did know to her to tell her as much as
they could about their family's past.
members and friends, when you begin to talk about slavery, you have this
immediate sense of anger and offence," she says. "But I wanted to
focus on the big picture of who my family was and who they are today. "I
was eager, I was open - I didn't mind what I found out."
First though, Brooks
would have to turn her search to historical documents and paperwork. Surviving
census records, birth certificates and marriage records provide many clues for
genealogists, but anyone looking for information about people enslaved on plantations
and in homes in North America between the 17th and 19th Centuries will be
disappointed. African Americans were only recorded by both first name and
surname in the first census after the abolition of slavery in 1865. Before that
slaves were not properly identified in records, says Meaghan Siekman, a senior researcher for New England Historic
"Most people hit
a brick wall around 1870 and don't know where to go from there," she says "People are
usually limited to identifying slaves by slave owners' accounting records and
Finding the identity
of the owner can be difficult, Siekman says,
especially because slaves were often a "commodity" passed down to
daughters and nieces as an inheritance or as wedding gifts. It's a common
assumption that African-American families carry the slaveholder's name, but in
fact slaves were given names, or chose them, for a wide variety of reasons, she
says. And when the slave owner is finally identified, deeds, wills and bills of
sale may provide only basic information, such as a slave's age, gender and skin
tone. Because of the scant amount of information, researchers are often forced
to make "logical deductions" about family connections, says Sharon
Morgan, founder of Our Black Ancestry, an organisation that provides advice and
material for African-American genealogical research.
"It's really hard
because your ancestors were listed as property in these deeds, and you can only
Terse as they are,
these documents can also make extremely emotional reading, Siekman
and Morgan say. "It makes you cry mostly," says Morgan. "It's
the awareness of what people went through in order for you to be here, that
they experienced such awful conditions in order to survive.". Morgan
learned that her own great-great-grandmother had given birth to 17 children in
a period of 38 years with the nephew of her slave master. "I just can't
believe that was a loving relationship," she says.
On the other side of
her family, she found one great-grandfather had been sold for $1,000 while his
mother had been valued at $400. "That slaps you in the face - it's like
they were a dining room set.".
While stories such as these
can be painful for some families, they should also command respect, says
Morgan. "We should be proud that our ancestors survived this experience.
They were incredible people," she says.
Shonda Brooks, who is
now 32 and has three children of her own, says she became obsessed with tracing
her family's slave ancestry, and has even been disowned by some family members
who do not want to know about her discoveries. But by sifting through records
and taking numerous DNA tests, she found the woman she believes was her third
great-grandmother - a slave named Hannah born in Georgia in 1828.
She found deeds
stating that in 1840, a white slave owner called Edward Covington gave
"one certain yellow Negro Girl about eleven years old named Hannah"
as a wedding gift to his niece, Ann Culifer. Ann
married Perry Daniel Radney, who consequently became
Hannah's master. He went on to father several children with his slave girl,
Brooks says. But Brooks feels no bitterness towards the people who had a hand
in Hannah's servitude. "My family had such a negative outlook about who
the slave owner was," she says. "But I wanted to stand up and say,
I'm not going to be negative about this.
"Even if there
was no love between Hannah and her owner, at least I can show love by reaching
out to other members of my family."
Brooks is now planning
a trip to visit relatives in Georgia and to see her family's cemetery.
Not everyone has been
so successful in unravelling their family history. Deandra Givens, a computer
programmer from Arkansas, has come to a halt at the "brick wall" so
many researchers refer to. She has spent $1,000 this year alone on DNA tests,
which have shown she has West African, European, and Native American heritage
among others. But she has not managed to find any documents that piece together
how and when these strands of her story came together..
Her greatest indication that many of her forbearers were
slaves is the lack of information available, she says. "I figure most of
my ancestors were because they were so hard to find."
But she remains
determined to keep searching for details, in order to fill in the
"gap" in her family history. "I feel like I'm going to have to
spend a lot more money or time - or both."