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African-American Ancestry: Memories of Slavery

We started out writing this blog post planning to talk about the life of a man who lived in Virginia at the time of the Civil War. The man was from a prominent Virginian family, had ties to George Washington himself, and was the owner of enslaved people. The post was rewritten three times, thrown away each time after we reread the draft. Then we realized something. We didn’t want to write about a Confederate man and his illustrious family. We wanted to write about the 37 people who were enslaved on his plantation in 1860.

1850 Federal Census: Free Inhabitants

Who were those people? What were their names? Where were they from and where did they end up?

Unfortunately, we don’t have answers to those questions or any others about those people. The records of the time didn't contain the same information about the enslaved people as they did about the white residents of that household. The white family is a font of information for anyone interested in their genealogy. There is record after record to tell us where they were born, who they married, what their occupation was, even how much they paid in taxes in a given year. Yet, where we can learn so much about them, we are at a loss with the black people who also lived there.

In comparison, the only records that even confirm their existence are “slave schedules” and censuses, which only tell us age, sex, and “color”.

1850 US Federal Census: Slave Schedules

Tempie Herndon Durham, Age 103

Some plantations kept better records. Some African American genealogists have even been able to surpass the brick wall that the Civil War usually presents for those researching ancestors who were enslaved people in the US. For this particular household, however, for now we can only imagine what the enslaved people living there might have been named. Resources like the archives of the Library of Congress are invaluable for hearing those voices. Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers Project is a project that includes writings and photographs of and about these people. Voices from the Days of Slavery is a collection of audio recordings from interviews with ex-enslaved people.

These are the memories that matter.

Sarah Gudger, Age 121

These are the faces we should be seeing and the voices we should be hearing when we discuss America’s terrible past as a slave-owning country. So take a moment and listen to what they had to say. Think about who these people were and what was taken from them and from their descendants because of slavery.


Links to the mentioned collections below:

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