My latest blog post, is a Guest Post: A Bonilla Family Tree, is about the reading the larger context of Juan Eusebio Bonilla Salcedo’s life and family. This is one of my prima Teresa Vega’s ancestors, who was lynched in Yauco in 1890. Radiant Roots Boricua Branches is her blog. Appreciate this opportunity to delve into her Boricua branches!
As part of Black ProGen Live’s project, Ep. 83b Stories from the National Institute for Peace and Justice, I’m researching the family history of Claude Neal (1911-1934), who died barbarically at the hands of a white lynch mob in Marianna, Florida in October 1934. Retaliation did not end there, as the event was also an excuse to burn down the homes in the black section of town. The goal here is not to revisit how Mr. Neal left this earth, but to help find his ancestors and extend the path back in time.
There are studies of the events that surrounded his torture and murder, but what I am trying to do here is to place his family against this larger, deeper history of Jackson County to make clear the outlines of the weight of living the transition from enslavement to a relative freedom. It was their labor that made places like the grand estates of Marianna and its wealth possible. My condolences to the family, as they have had to bear so much, without seeing justice, as theFBI closed the case in 2013, thanks to decade long silences among the perpetrators and their descendants.
If you do not know who Claude Neal was, Professor Carol Anderson of Emory University provides an overview of that tragedy, called ‘the last spectacle lynching’ in America.
This blog post is focused on building a context and tracing the lines further back. Part of this work benefitted from the work of descendants with family trees on Ancestry.com, such as Orlando Williams and others, whose efforts to illuminate what happened to his uncle continues. To them I give thanks.
A backdrop for racial terror
Understanding the context of Claude Neal’s family history is to engage the history of post-Civil War Jackson County in the Florida Panhandle, so one can also honor the resilience necessary to pass through these experiences. Florida, as recent research clearly shows, ranks fifth among the states with the highest rate and largest number of terror lynchings. Part of healing from these crimes is to call their names across time and space.
And this too is the history of the state I presently call home. By the time of Claude Neal’s murder, 1934, Jim Crow laws, eugenic ideals, an unacknowledged history of enslavement, intensive cotton cultivation with extractive sharecropping arrangements, shaped the state’s legal contours, honed further still by blind followers of the ‘Lost Cause’. In 1834 Andrew Jackson authorized the displacement of the Five Slaveholding Tribes, with the Seminole concentrated in the region. Despite the evacuation of many Native people, not everyone went to Oklahoma, and some managed to remain in the area. Within the decade, white planters moved thousands into the Florida panhandle and into the peninsula.
T. Thomas Fortune’s autobiographical newspaper series, “After War Times: A Boy’s Life in Reconstruction Days” published in the Philadelphia Tribune in 1927 speaks of his childhood in Marianna. The complexity of the family history he relates defies the binary categories of black and white, and points to deeper tri-racial ancestries that also resulted within Marianna, shoehorned and hidden under the designations of ‘W’ or ‘B’ or ‘M’:
Fortune’s female ancestor, Sarah Jane was sold south from Virginia, and “Emanuel, who begat us, was never a father but always a friend and companion. He was an extraordinary man, and played a conspicuous part in the Reconstruction politics of Florida. He served as a member of the Constitutional Convention and the first four sessions of the legislature. He was born of an Indian mother and an Irish father. His mother was the wife of Osceola, who was stolen from Micanopy and taken to West Florida by Thomas Fortune… after his mysterious death she was taken as a wife by John Pope, who was also of mixed Seminole blood…. The family picture I have drawn is a familiar one produced out of the loose morality of the system of slavery. In my family there was the African, the Indian and the Jewish women and the Irish and half breed Indian men, with the Jewish father guilty of selling his daughter by a black woman into slavery in the same village where he was a judge… 
“The people responsible for the cross of the black, white and red races in this country are in very interesting and questionable business when they draw the color line on the sisters and brothers whom their fathers and brothers mulattoized…” – T. Thomas Fortune, “After War Times”, 1927
Post-Reconstruction violence: a resistance to change
“Satan has his seat; he reigns in Jackson County.”
— Senator Rev. Charles H. Pearce, Founder of the AME church in Florida, testifying on the KKK in Florida 
The events of the Jackson County War (1869-1871) is a history untold until the 1960s, nearly a century after the events of the late 1860s. From early 1869 to the end of 1871, some one hundred to an estimated two hundred persons were killed, making Jackson County, Florida’s most violent county under Reconstruction. What was at stake was power, and the 1867 Florida Constitution aimed to repress African Americans with the Black Codes built into the document, which Congress rejected. They declared Florida had no government until they adopted the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to conform to the Constitution.
Jackson County was the second most populated county in the state, with some ten thousand inhabitants from 1851 to 1868. As the average rate of murder was two yearly, the sudden fifty-fold rise over three years meant much organizing work was needed to stem the violence.  The KKK rode hard in Florida in an attempt to maintain the old social order through racial terror after the Civil War. Even after Reconstruction, those who rallied behind the Myth of the Lost Cause were willing to do anything, including annihilating people in politics and in the field, destroying their homes and businesses in order for the defenders of the ‘Old South’ to maintain power.
In the early twentieth century, historians that retold the history of the Jackson County War diminished the focus on African American struggles by inventing details and dramatizing events that practically absolved the white conservatives who perpetrated the atmosphere of violence that permeated Reconstruction Florida. One study written from this perspective remained the authoritative text on this period for over fifty years.
By 1960s, historians finally delved into resources like the Freedmen’s Bureau Florida records, and by the 1970s a clearer picture of violence and mayhem “arising from organized white resistance determined to drive out black and white Republican leadership” finally came into view.  By the early 2000s, the role of the Klan, violence, intimidation and resistance were on the table. Curiously, a number of the books that focus on this history are not available within the Hillsborough County Library system today, but because of Henry Louis Gates’ recent documentary Reconstruction: America After the Civil War, a number of related titles are available. The Florida Freedmen’s Bureau records however, are in need of a transcription project as some 26 reels of microfilm hold the details for many families across the state before the bureau’s bank failed in 1873.
There’s a tight relationship between this past and its connections to the present- I want to bring attention to the issue of social control via voter suppression and the older history of disenfranchisement post Reconstruction. The Sentencing Project’s 2010 report noted that, “more people were disenfranchised in Florida than in any other state. All of the six states with the most disenfranchised felons are southern states with large black populations. There is a distinct relationship between race and voter disenfranchisement.” On 1 September 2016, The Miami Herald’s headline pointed to this longer history: “Florida has a History of Making it Harder for Black Citizens to Vote.”The poll tax has returned in another guise, and it’s pertinent that historically, Florida was the first state to adopt a $2 poll tax for voting in 1885 (legal until 1937) and by 1940, only 6% of blacks in Florida were registered to vote.. 
A Panhandle County
Jackson County lies near the borders of Alabama and Georgia on the panhandle, and its economy was based on short staple cotton, grown to the exclusion of other crops, worked by gangs of enslaved laborers. Before the Civil War, slaveowners comprised 38% of Jackson County households, and 16% held as many as ten enslaved people.
Non-slaveholding farmers arrived from South Carolina and Georgia and worked small pieces of land barely adequate for sustenance. Prosperous planters owned stately homes that lined the main street of Marianna and nearby Greenwood. Yet, transportation was the main disadvantage, as the county’s location on the Chipola River was unnavigable for the huge volume of cotton to transport, compounded by the lack of a railroad, which terminated a county away. This remoteness added to the difficulty of attempts by those in bondage to emancipate themselves.
Effects of the Recent War, 1863-1865
During the Civil war, many local white men served in the Confederacy, and late in the war, Jackson County was a breadbasket for the south, the Confederacy ruthlessly requisitioning livestock and crops for the war. By 1863 a military hospital opened and the following year, a Confederate military post with training grounds, storehouses and stables was established at Marianna. A blockade by the Union Navy prevented the transport of valuable cotton to European markets; Confederate troops from the area went to armies fighting in Virginia, leaving citizens at the mercy of deserters and guerrillas who preyed on the countryside. By the fall, war arrived as a column of 700 Union soldiers left Pensacola to march across the Panhandle. 
Union troops fought local men (old men and young boys) with fragments of Confederate units at Marianna, overwhelming them and suffering unexpected casualties. Before retreating to Pensacola, Union troops laid waste to the town, looting stores and setting fires, carrying off commissary and quartermaster stores and cattle. Locals blamed acts of violence on the USCT: “[u]nsubstantiated rumors spread of black soldiers from US Colored Troops units committing atrocities on Confederates found in the churchyard.” The raid also liberated some four hundred enslaved African Americans who accompanied the Union troops on their march west. Ninety-six prisoners that included 47 men and boys from Jackson County were sent north, most winding up in an infamous prison camp in Elmira, New York. 
With the announcement of the end of the war in April 1864, the Confederate supporting governor, John Milton, shot himself in the head on his Jackson County estate, and in May, came the formal surrender of all Confederate forces in Florida and the emancipation of the enslaved. Union troops were in the South, such as the fifty soldiers of the 161st NY Volunteers that occupied Marianna in July 1865. The captain of the New Yorkers, John F Little, found favor with residents of Marianna; they also established the first school for African American children in Jackson county. The Jackson County slaves that joined the Union army were in the Eighty-Second and Eighty-Sixth US Colored Troops regimen. Some departed with the withdrawing column. So far, I haven’t found a connection to the extended Neal families, however descendants may want to explore this further.
This commitment to the pursuit of rights continued after the war, with the establishment of the AME Church during the Reconstruction period, beginning in 1866. This consisted of multiple meetings to set up a constellation of parishes across the Florida panhandle. Churches were the engine of development for Black Floridians, making it possible to channel educational, political and spiritual opportunity in a community.  All of these factors- political, social and spiritual- shaped the lives of the Neals, Dickson, White and Pittman families.
Into this landscape, Claude Neal’s grandparents and great grandparents were brought as enslaved labor by planter families from Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia. As the war ended and with Reconstruction, we can see through documents how the older men gained suffrage and registered their marriages. The end of the war, and the arrival of troops that enforced Reconstruction brought a moment of possibility for the Neals and their collateral lines in Marianna, Florida.
Ancestors: Towards a History of the Neal Family
Paternal Ancestor: York Neal
Just weeks or months after the passage of the Reconstruction act of 23 March 1867, all male citizens age 21 or older. They had to swear a loyalty oath, “stating that he had never supported or participated in a rebellion against the United States government, that he had never committed a felony offense, that he had never served as an elected or appointed official of the United States and supported or participated in a rebellion against the United States government, and that he would remain loyal to the government of the United States (Ala. Code,  83-84)” Just as with the history of the Varner family in Wilcox, Alabama, after Reconstruction, newly free men went to register to vote to assert their belonging as citizens, a situation also made possible by the presence of Federal troops. .
York Neal, Claude Neal’s paternal grandfather, was born in 1830 in Alabama, as were some of other family members. In 1867 Neal registered to vote in Sumter, Alabama’s Election District 21, and part of his oath included a twelve month residency window; he was about 37 years old, This may be a clue to where he was before emancipation.  His voter registration is the earliest document for him as a free man.
The 1880 census offers more details for the life of York Neal. Precisely when he gets to Florida isn’t clear, but the census is a start. By the time he was 40 years of age, he was living in Jackson County, Florida by 1870; by 1880, now 50, he worked as a laborer in Bascom, Jackson County, and was a widower. Among the alternative spellings of his surname in records are Neal, Neel or Neele.
On 25 October 1880, Penny Bowls Dickson married York Neal in Jackson, Florida.  At 25 she was half his age, and boarded in Neal’s home along with her three young children, Lizzie 8, Ned 6 and Mattie Bowls, age 2. She worked as a servant. Earlier that year, on 15 June 1880, Jeff Neal was the first child born to York Neal and Penny Bowls and they married four months later. [ 14] Jeff Neal was Claude Neal’s father. Households combined and recombined in effort to maintain stability, with relationships extending beyond simple categories of a nuclear family.
Maternal Ancestor: Washington Dickson (bca.1815/17- aft 1885)
York Neal’s wife, Penny Bowls Dickson was the daughter of Willis Dickson (b. 1829, NC) and Caroline Barnes Dickson (b.1833); she was the first of seven children born to the couple between 1850 and 1864.
Willis and Caroline married 19 Aug 1866 in Jackson, Florida.  Willis Dickson was one of three known children of Washington Dickson (bca. 1815 North Carolina) and two unknown wives: Willis b. 1829, Jennie Dickson (b. Dec 1834) in North Carolina. Jennie Dickson married Anthony Barnes in 1856. Barnes (b.Sep 1834) was also from North Carolina, and their three daughters lived in Marianna County, Florida.  Charity Dickson b. 1873, was a late baby for Washington and his second partner. She married Jonas White (b. 1868) on 26 Oct 1892 in Jackson County, and the couple had a daughter, Emma.  I’ll return to Jonas White’s father in 1870, after discussing Washington Dickson’s time in bondage.
Before the Civil War: The Estate of James M. Long, 1858
Washington Dickson’s long life spanned pre Civil War to post-Reconstruction in Marianna; the last document he appears on is the 1885 Florida State Census. He is the individual mentioned in the estate division of planter James Madison Long of 2 January 1858. . No other Washington came up in search results and the additional 55 names included in the estate have other potential family members listed.
The slaveowners were members of the James M. Long family, who moved their business from Alabama to Washington County (also in Florida) and then to the outskirts of Marianna in Jackson County, Florida. Long, born in 1810, died in 1857 and was buried in Riverside Cemetery in Marianna. [ Briefly, Long was married twice (M1 Elizabeth Ann Russ of NC & M2 Harriet Rebecca Long) and had six children with Russ, who are named in the will. In between the lines of the will are judgements about values and subdivision of humans that denies familial ties and focuses instead on fractions of a dollar. For example, Matilda was valued at 950.50; the notation ‘Pays Oliver’ appears for three siblings, who paid their brother Oliver Long $100 on a share of a person, along with other amounts, $62.50, $37.50. Down to the half dollar.
The probate index for the Jackson County Courthouse on FamilySearch lists several entries for various family members involved in the subdivision of the property, human and material. The work of cotton production depended on a brutal enforced labor system, and Jackson County was among “the heaviest concentrations of plantations, slave populations and cotton production centered in Jackson, Gadsden, Leon and Jefferson and Madison counties” in the Panhandle.  This development of Florida’s own Black Belt for cotton cultivation began intensifying almost two decades earlier, in the 1840s. Long and his family was already in the area by 1850, as shown by the US Federal Census.
Apparently, Long did not die insolvent, as everyone they owned apparently were subdivided among the children rather than sold at market. Still, what this future meant for the persons in the document after January 1858 is unclear without additional details— at the moment the age of the Long children, from ages 20-9, and their locations in the census, show that they remained in Marianna, and while an overseer continued to manage the plantation in Jackson County.
Subdividing people in Marianna, January 1858
A summary of the petition appears in the Race and Slavery Petitions Project, transcribed in 1996 from documents in the Jackson County Courthouse, Marianna, Florida, Book D Record of Estates.  The abstract reads:
John P. Lockey, guardian of the children of James M. Long, deceased, asks the court to appoint commissioners to divide the slaves of the estate equally among the heirs. The plaintiff states that the deceased, during his lifetime, deeded his slaves and land to his children, reserving “the right of possession & enjoyment” but desired upon his death to have his estate “equally divided between his children share & share alike.”
I’ve transcribed the estate subdivision in full below:
To the Honorable Robert S Dickson Judge of Probate of Jackson County
The undersigned commissioner appointed to divide certain slaves between the children of James M Long by leave to expert That they appraised said slaves & having ascertained what each child was entitled, they placed them in lots which were Drawn with the following result
Lot one by Edwin Long, the following slaves viz Sara 600.00, William 800.00, Walter 675.00, London 625.00, Letitia 375, Daniel 325.00 [F72] Emily 200.00, Matilda 950.50 & pays Oliver 139.50
Lot two by Oscar Long the following slaves viz Letty 225.00, Louisa 850.00, Ben 700.00, Amanda 325.00 Susan & child Peter 950.00, Annette 325.00, Prince 200.00, Oscar 1000.00, Pays Oliver 100.00 & Laura 62.50
Lot three by Mary Long the following slaves viz Polly 350.00, Lewis 475.00, Mahala 300.00, Walker 225.00, Eliza & child Patsey 1100.00, Solomon 400.00 Josephine 250.00, Sally & child Palmyra 1050.00, Pays Oliver 100.00 & John 37.50
Lot four by John Long the following slaves viz Robin 500.00, Binkey 375.00, Charlotte 950.00, George 700.00, Harriet 375.00, Madison 500.00, Isaac 550.00, Rinah 200.00, Receives of Mary 37.50
Lot five by Laura Long the following slaves viz Argent & child June 1000.00, Vandy 225.00, Warren 500.00, Redding 1000.00, Levi 675.00 & Julia 950.00, and Receives of Oscar 62.50
Lot Six by Oliver Long the following slaves viz Washington 350.00, Mary Ann & child Beckey 850.00, William 900.00, Amy 550.00, Frank 375.00, Charity 300.00, Rose 250.00, Levi 675.00, Receives of Edwin 137.50, of Oscar 100.00 and of Mary 100.00
Respectfully submitted Jan’y 2/58
Jos B Roulhac
Florida Probate Records, 1784-1990 Jackson County Florida, Estates 1857-1860.
The total value of human beings was $26,025. The total comparative value of 26,025 has a relative value today of $819,000.00. In terms of a relative wage or income, an equivalent in unskilled wage is 5.840,000 or in terms of Production Worker Compensation, the number jumps to $11,100,000.00.  This one number for this group of people should give pause when considering the transformation of blood and sweat into the wealth of planters; it is the fulcrum of inequality in this country.
The three men who provided the values in 1858 listed above, later appear as agents of the Confederate Army. Isaac Widgeon served as the commissary Agent for the District of Florida, with Joseph Roulhac and John J White as sub-agents working for Widgeon.  At least one of the Long sons served in the Confederate Army.
Long’s second wife, Harriet R. Long eventually left Marianna and moved to Atlanta; her ancestry was registered with the DAR. Researching the group of people they sold to each other however, is not revealed so easily. From 1858 to the 1870s, we see the Dicksons, Pittmans, Whites and Barnes live in proximity as they go from numeric counts under enslavement in 1860 to named farmers and farm laborers in 1870 and after. Yet their value tied to their labor sits like a rock in my craw. One son, John Long, for instance, holds some $6,000 in Personal Estate, while the head of household has over $16K listed. To what can we ascribe the increase in value from $4150 to $6000? Compare this to Jonas White, who had a mere $50 in Personal Estate in 1870; we can’t find him before that because he himself was property.
A cursory look at the census shows that two years after the estate division in 1860, each of the Long siblings are living in different households, apart from their stepmother. Precisely how the arrangements impacted the families involved is unclear; Washington Dickson for example, who was in the lot assigned to Oliver Long, did not live in close proximity to the family by 1870. More questions remain.
The AME Church: a different space of possibility
The years after the war saw the expansion of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the Florida Panhandle, with the establishment of the Marianna Station giving a foothold in the new political environment. This was a move towards self determination, as the church became a guiding force for civil rights and political activity in the state. Unlike the Methodist Church, the AME church offered opportunities unbridled by white control, along with the opportunity for education and literacy.
This excerpt from Jerold Shofner’s Jackson County Florida — A History offers a view of what the African Americans had to contend with to practice religion in nearby Greenwood. The church was itself a staging ground for various punishments. This was no space of refuge for Black people:
“The records of the Union Academy Church, which became Greenwood Baptist in 1855, have frequent references to its black membership, including punishments meted out for misbehavior on the plantation. Blacks were admitted to membership as soon as the church was organized in 1845. Winnie, belonging to Richard Long was the first slave to join the church. During the next nine years, however, at least 22 other blacks became members. Typical of them were Mary, the servant of Elijah Bryan, Charles, the servant of Nicholas Long, Austin, servant of Martha Pittman, and Sarah, the servant of Ethelred Philips, all of whom were “received by experience.” Apparently the blacks simply joined the whites in their Sunday worship until July, 1854. Then, M.T. Embry, “with as many white males as present, was authorized to hold conferences regularly for the benefit of the black members.” The blacks had church on the third Sunday of each month after that. Whether they were still allowed to attend other services is not clear, but the third Sundays were reserved for them with the supervision of Embry and the other “white males.”…. [ 21]
Jonas White, (Charity Dickson’s father in law) appears as James White in the 1870 census, with the occupation of AME Preacher. This meant White was a regarded member of the community, someone who was an important resource in the area. By the time of the next census however, times had become more difficult. In 1873, the Freedmen’s Bank failed, and by 1880, Jonas White Sr.’s occupation is listed as Laborer. Note that White’s value of his Personal Estate is only $50. Still, the occupation represents a link to many people and possibly the rise of black fraternal organizations in the region that would support local efforts.
Perhaps more light can be shed on the networks of connections across community that made survival possible. Despite the constant threat of erasure, family members knew that even though faced with threats and the need to suddenly flee their homes, they too seek justice. Neal’s death was not in vain, as the NAACP deployed his image as a fundamental moral and political question about the right to live in America, versus the postcards of his lynching sold in Greenwood & Marianna as a souvenir for 50 cents apiece.
In 1939, John and Ruby Lomax traveled the South recording songs and folklore. Tt the Women’s Dormitory of Raiford, Florida, Gussie Slater and Clifford Reed sang ‘Trouble is Hard.’ Listen to the unspoken pain that slips between words, a creation that comes from love, pain and survival of so many troubled times, that can lead to a way out of no way .
The struggle for equality continues. Listen to Bryan Stevenson’s observations on identity and the implications of a society with mass incarceration and its connection to the past. As he has said, “the opposite of poverty is justice.” May this country keep walking ahead towards this goal. Speak their names.
 T Thomas Fortune, After War Times: A Boy’s Life in Reconstruction Days. Philadelphia Tribune, 14 Jul 1927, 9. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Black Newspaper Collection.
 Daniel R. Weinfeld, The Jackson County War: Reconstruction and Resistance in Post-Civil War Florida. University of Alabama Press, 2012.
 Seth Weitz. “Defending the Old South: The Myth of the Lost Cause and Political Immorality in Florida, 1885-1968,” 82-83.
 The recent changes to Amendment 4 is considered a modern version of the poll tax as a result of the Florida Senate’s changes to Amendment 4, in which Floridians voted to restore voting rights to 1.4 million felons, a group disproportionately POC. “Florida has a history of making it harder for black citizens to vote” Miami Herald, 1 Sept 2016. https://www.miamiherald.com/news/politics-government/election/article95105602.html
 Weinfeld, The Jackson County War.
 Weinfeld, The Jackson County War.
 Larry E Rivers and Canter Brown, Jr., Introduction, Laborers in the Vineyards of the Lord: The Beginnings of the AME Church in Florida, 1865-1895. University of Florida Press, 2001
 York Neal. Ancestry.com. Alabama, Voter Registration, 1867 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015. Original data: Alabama 1867 Voter Registration Records Database. Alabama Department of Archives and History, Montgomery, Alabama.
 York Neal. Ancestry.com. 1880 US Federal Census, Jackson, FL.
 Ancestry.com. Florida, County Marriage Records, 1823-1982 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2016.
 “Florida Marriages, 1830-1993,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:23H6-3SG : 7 December 2017), Willis Dickson and Caroline Barnes, 19 Aug 1866; citing Marriage, Jackson, Florida, United States, Liberty County Clerk of Courts, Florida; FHL microfilm 931,954.; “Florida Marriages, 1837-1974,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:V5CB-591 : 10 February 2018), Willis Dickson and Caroline Barnes, 19 Aug 1866; citing Jackson,Florida; FHL microfilm 0931954 V. A-C.
 Ancestry.com. Florida, County Marriage Records, 1823-1982 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2016. Original data: Marriage Records. Florida Marriages. Various Florida County Courthouses and State Archive, Tallahassee, Florida.
 Year: 1900; Census Place: Precinct 13, Jackson, Florida; Page: 2; Enumeration District: 0060; FHL microfilm: 1240171 Source Information Ancestry.com. 1900 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2004. Ancestry.com. Florida, County Marriage Records, 1823-1982 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2016. Original data: Marriage Records. Florida Marriages. Various Florida County Courthouses and State Archive, Tallahassee, Florida.
 James M Long, 6 Oct 1810-16 Feb 1857. Ancestry.com. U.S., Find A Grave Index, 1600s-Current [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2012. According to the 1891 Atlanta City Directory, his widow was living on 57 Marietta Street, Atlanta.
 Julia Floyd Smith, Slavery and Plantation Growth in Antebellum Florida. University of Florida Press, 2017, 10-11.
“All that I know of my ancestors was told to me by my people.“
The words of William J. Edwards, educator and founder of the Snow Hill Normal and Industrial Institute in Wilcox Alabama, are from his autobiography, Twenty-Five Years in the Black Belt (1919). The book both explains how he received knowledge of his ancestors, and shows what they, and by extension, the Varner and McDuffie families were up against in the nineteenth to twentieth century.
Born in 1869, Edwards was born on the cusp of Reconstruction, and his perspective is firmly turned towards a brighter future of uplift. Given the centrality of oral history to this experience, it is worth reading the opening pages of Chapter 1. Childhood Days, as the Varners and McDuffies shared a similar history:
All that I know of my ancestors was told to me by my people. I learned from my grandfather on my mother’s side that the family came to Alabama from South Carolina. He told me that his mother was owned by the Wrumphs who lived in South Carolina, but his father belonged to another family. For some cause, the Wrumphs decided to move from South Carolina to Alabama; this caused his mother and father to be separated, as his father remained in South Carolina. The new home was near the village of Snow Hill. This must have been in the Thirties when my grandfather was quite a little child. He had no hope of ever seeing his father again, but his father worked at nights and in that way earned enough money to purchase his freedom from his master. So after four or five years he succeeded in buying his own freedom from his master and started out for Alabama. When he arrived at Snow Hill, he found his family, and Mr. Wrumphs at once hired him as a driver. He remained with his family until his death, which occurred during the war. At his death one of his sons, George, was appointed to take his place as driver
As I now remember, my grandfather told me that his mother’s name was Phoebe and that she lived until the close of the war. My grandfather married a woman by the name of Rachael and she belonged to a family by the name of Sigh. His wife’s mother came directly from Africa and spoke the African language. It is said that when she became angry no one could understand what she said. Her owner allowed her to do much as she pleased.
My grandfather had ten children, my mother being the oldest girl. She married my father during the war and, as nearly as I can remember, he told me that it was in 1864. Three children were born to them and I was the youngest; there was a girl and another boy.
I know little of my father’s people, excepting that he repeatedly told me that they came from South Carolina. So it is, that while I can trace my ancestry back to my great-grandparents on my mother’s side, I can learn nothing beyond my grandparents on my father’s side. My grandfather was a local preacher and could read quite well. Just how he obtained this knowledge, I have never been able to learn. He had the confidence and respect of the best white and colored people in the community and sometimes he would journey eight or ten miles to preach. Many times at these meetings there were nearly as many whites as colored people in the audience. He was indeed a grand old man. His name was James and his father’s name was Michael. So after freedom he took the name of James Carmichael.
One of the saddest things about slavery was the separation of families. Very often I come across men who tell me that they were sold from Virginia, South Carolina or North Carolina, and that they had large families in those states. Since their emancipation, many of these have returned to their former states in search of their families, and while some have succeeded in finding them, there are those who have not been able to find any trace of their families and have come back again to die. 
Edward’s account traces the movement of families, their sale and separation across states, the role of faith that was a path for his grandfather becaming a preacher, those who heard the voice of his African great grandmother who spoke an African language and through these traces, he makes the outlines of his community visible. All of these details were handed down via oral history, and made a document through the pages of his 1919 book.
The photo of Uncle Charles Lee standing before his home, supported by two canes, begins to tell of the conditions that Edwards sought to address after attending Tuskeegee and returning to Snow Hill to establish the first institute for Black education in Wilcox. The powers that be had little interest in seeing those who labored in bondage literate, educated and successful. And when they did gain it, threats intensified.
Violence &The Social Landscape of Wilcox County
A barometer of the low regard that people of African descent were held in is evident in this article “Extension of Slavery” from the 1862 issue of The Southern Cultivator, originally published in the Wilmington Journal. It evinces a line of white supremacist readership stretching from the middle to southern states, and the intent to keep the enslaved as a permanent unfree eternally laboring underclass.
What is telling is the absence of a name for the author, which speaks to fears about the power and potential of those fighting for their freedom from bondage. It is also an example of a proto-eugenic logic of an inherent, biological inferiority circulated via print media by the descendants of enslavers and their cohorts that later blossomed in the early twentieth century as eugenics. This reductionism still circulates in the present, as we struggle with 21st century issues of prison abolition and the returning semblance of debt peonage.
In case you can’t read the image:
A correspondent of the Wilmington Journal makes the following prediction: “I am not a prophet, nor am I the son of a prophet, but I now predict that one of the consequences of this war will be, that in three years from the end thereof there will not be a free negro in America; that our institution of slavery will be established on a more firm basis than ever; that the Northern States Rights party will get into power as soon as the elections roll round; the abolitionists will be hunted down like mad dogs, and the whole civilized world will become satisfied the our slaves are in the very condition for which nature designed them. Mark the prediction.”
In 1860, Wilcox County held only 26 ‘free colored’ and 17,797 enslaved people, with 6,795 whites, proportions that cast light on the nature of social and political life before the Civil War. By 1870, the ‘colored’ population increased to 21,610, a 21% increase, yet the white population remained at 6.795. 
Benson Seller’s Slavery in Alabama (1950) while remaining the main study of enslavement in that state, never addresses the humanity or “soul value” of Blacks held in bondage. Instead, the emphasis reflects the concerns with production, so that there are entries such as the following regarding planter James Asbury Tait’s management of overseers and their counsel to them. Violence and terror are the means of control, yet the text is in denial; we know that details of mangled, murdered and lynched bodies are omitted from this volume, instead we hear about ‘efficiency’:
First glimpse: 1866 Alabama State Census of Colored People
Only three generations back, the story of the Varner family that Della McDuffie Varner descends from has its first outlines in the documents issued during Reconstruction. On the Alabama Black Belt, Wilcox County borders Marengo County, and it is there in the 1866 Alabama State Colored Census for Marengo County that three Varners appear: King Varner, Matilde Varner, Haig Varner.
Making it official: Haig Varner & Fannie Varner
Haig Varner (b.ca 1820) and Fannie Varner (b.ca 1825) are Della Varner McDuffie’s great grandparents, the furthest back in the tree we can go at present. What we can’t tell from the data in the 1866 AL state census is how close these Varner families lived, and whether they were family or kin, as this is not spelled out. What is evident is that one to three generations lived across these households, and as this remains stubbornly opaque when compared to later census, now further documentation is needed to flesh out the details as to where exactly they lived in Marengo, who they were enslaved by, and how long they were in Alabama. Information from later census can vary as to origins of parents noted across the Federal census.
The Civil War ended, and the passage of The Civil Rights Bill of 1866 and the ratification of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments offered up citizenship and the start of Reconstruction offered hope for change. Alabama Voter Registration records were created as a result of the Reconstruction Act passed on 23 March 1867. 
Just months later, as a free man, Haig Varner registered to vote in Marengo County in 1867, an arrangement made possible by the presence of Federal troops; King Varner also appears in Volume 13. Other Varners appear in another volume of Alabama voter registrations, with Henry Varner in Volume 11, Alfred Varner and Anthony Varner in Volume 7 .
Beyond the census, the total search results yield 16 Varners in Marengo County Alabama for the 1866 AL Register of Voters on Ancestry.com. The results are actually 8, as the page was shot twice on the microfilm:
Haig and Fannie Varner’s son, Richard ‘Dick’ Varner (1847-1920) took the opportunity to officiate his marriage vows, and have them recognized by the state on 25 March 1867. That they could marry and have their union officially recognized was also made possible by the Federal, rather than state government.
The Will of Samuel Varner, Marengo County, 1848
The names of some of these head of households—, Matilda Varner, Benton Varner also appear in the 1848 will of Samuel Varner, which I transcribed below. 22 enslaved people are listed. I found no appraisal documents online to determine age, but perhaps this post can help descendants locate further information. Another earlier will for John Varner contains the names of a smaller number of those he enslaved. Tharin’s Marengo County Directory for 1861 has three white Varner men living on M’Kinley: Benton Varner, mechanic, Ransom Varner, planter and James Varner “(deaf and dumb)” planter.
Note how the young girl Emely is selected to be an enslaved assistant for Varner’s mute children, so disability is yet another permanently assigned duty. Or were there additional services intended, given Varner’s words at the end of his will: “Should there be an increase in property before my death…”?
Will Record A, F291 Will of Samuel Varner 
Will of Samuel Varner, Decd
In the name of God [ ] I Samuel Varner of the county of Cahaba and the State of Mississippi, considering the certainly of life yet being of sound and perfect mind and memory do make and publish this my last will and testament making all others heretofore made no manner and form following (that is today). First I do give and bequeath to my two daughters Sara Bevel formerly Sarah Varner and Martha Lassater formerly Martha Varner the Sum of $2 each — Second I do give and bequeath to my Sons Joseph Varner, James Varner, John Varner also my said daughter Mahala Varner and Minerva Jane Whitley formerly Minerva Jane Varner the following and all Estate to wit one tract of land [Selnato?] lying and being in the County of Marengo in the State of Alabama, Consisting of one hundred and twenty acres, to wit — adjoining the now named Bevel tract of land which Said land the [Datoso?] road sent through the East corner of the same Also twenty two negroes to wit four negro men Nat. Ransom, Dave and Alfred & the following negro women and children, Emily and her six children to wit: Candis, Caroline, Norton, Emeline, Adaline and Mary Frances Courtney. Matilda and her two children, Levi and an infant girl[;] Fanny and her four children: Allen, Fairchild and Mariah and an infant and Mary and her child Spenser together with all my stock of every manner and description whatsoever with all my farming tools waggons carts plows and every manner of implement or thing needful and necessary for the carrying on the same and all my household and kitchen furniture Saving the beds and furniture with all monies, debts due to me owning in any manner or description whatsoever to have and to hold to my Said Children of the Second Bequest mention to them and items forever Subject to the following hereafter restrictions. I desire that when I depart this life that my remains be buried in a decent and Christian like manner and that all my just debts be paid before a division of my estate, and it is my desire that at my death the negro girl Emely shall belong to my daughter Mahala at her appraised value and shall answer So much to her portions of Said Estate in a final division, and it is my desire ^that Mahala have one bed and furniture and also James and Minerva Jane Whitely take the Same as Specific legacies and not come with a general division— and as my Sons Joseph Varner, James Varner, Mahala Varner are unfortunate being deaf and dumb and it being somewhat doubtful that no law whether they can take by the will. I do hereby constitute, nominate and appoint my son John Varner and my son in law Decator Whitely trustees for them and on their behalf to receive their intended portions of my estate for them & their use and benefit and in case one or both of said trustees should die or refuse to act then it wish that a proper count should be applied to competent to protect them and their property. – It is further my will and request that often deducting Specific Legacies and paying off funeral expenses & debts on a division of said Estate. Should any one depart this life without heirs the portions of said child it is my will should lapse in common to the equally divided will contained in the Second – bequest and it is further my will and request Should my life be Spared by providence and should there be an increase of property before my death, My desire is that it lapse in common to the equally divided with those contained in the Second bequest and in case of one’s death his share to his or her children — And I do lastly appoint John Varner and Decator Whitely Executors of my Estate in this my last will and Testament. Witness my hand and seal the 18 day of July 1848
Signed Samuel (his X) Varner, Seal, Signed Sealed and delivered
The Estate of James Varner, 1827
The earlier 1827 subdivision of “The Estate of James Varner” includes mention of a son also named Benton Varner and several minors. There was a writ for Letters of Administration and Lorian Tibbs, Elizabeth Moon with Wright Moor and Matilda Varner appear as heirs; Martha Lindsay was named as James Varner’s wife.
Four persons enslaved by this Varner family were:
.”.that there are slaves name by Nancy, Ben, Isom and Peter cannot legally be divided and on motion of the Administration it is therefore ordered, by the Court that an order of sale do to sell” 
As additional papers were not included in the court records, and as it is a collection which is not complete, additional documents may exist, dispersed across the Special Collections of colleges and universities. There are two collections that feature Varner family papers, one at James Madison University, and the other, Campbell and Varner family papers at Virginia Military Institute . From the overview and information provided here, perhaps an interested descendant can take it back further through a combination of research and DNA testing.
A call to the libraries can confirm if there is relevant material. For the Varners of VA, while it is said there was no ownership of enslaved people at Stony Man Creek, unlike the remaining areas of the district in 1860. Robert H Moore’s post “Page County’s Appleberry/ Applebury men in the USCT.” notes some 30 men who served in the United States Colored Troops were born in Page County. 
Click on the bold link to see the Finding Aids for each collection:
Varner Family Papers -1774-1933 SC 0129 – Page County, VA James Madison University:
“The Varner family of Page County, Virginia was of German descent, and their name appears as early as 1801 on records of the Antioch Christian Church near Stony Man Creek, Virginia… Despite wide-spread anti-liquor sentiment in the Shenandoah Valley in the nineteenth century, the Varners operated a distillery.”
Campbell and Varner Family papers MS-0282 – Lexington, VA Virginia Military Institute 
“Robert Henry Campbell of Lexington, VA; shoemaker; served with Rockbridge Rifles during Civil War (1861 only); discharged due to illness (tuberculosis); Clerk, Quartermaster and Treasurer at the Virginia Military Institute, 1864-1870; d. 1870, age 28, Lexington, VA.
Charles Van Buren Varner, b. Lexington, VA. 1838; served with Rockbridge Rifles during Civil War; cabinetmaker; carpenter at VMI; d. 1907, Lexington.
The families were related through the marriage of R. Henry’s sister, Augusta, to Charles V. Varner.”
Emanuel Montee McDuffie: from AL to NC
Mrs Della McDuffie’s husband, William ‘Snowball’ McDuffie’s uncle– Emanuel Montee McDuffie — was among the people that left Snow Hill, precisely because of the efforts of William J. Edwards. After graduating from Snow Hill Normal and Industrial Institute, like his mentor, he became Principal of the Normal and Industrial Institute in Laurinberg, North Carolina, where he lived the rest of his life, until his death in 1953. This is not to say he escaped experiencing or knowing the potential violence of Jim Crow. His photo is on the upper left of the group, and appears in William J. Edwards’ Twenty-Five Years in the Black Belt. (1919)
A Change is Gonna Come
I can think of no better way to end than to leave you with Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come. These posts were written to honor the resilience and the survival of these ancestors, and to help write them back into history. “The arc of history is long but it bends towards justice.”
“…There been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long But now I think I’m able to carry on
It’s been a long, a long time coming But I know a change gon’ come, oh yes it will”
William J. Edwards. Twenty-Five Years in the Black Belt. Electronic Edition, Documenting the American South.
“History”. Alabama 1867 Voter Registration Records Database. http://archives.alabama.gov/voterreg/index.cfm
These last eight weeks, Black ProGen Live panelists are researching the genealogies of people who died by lynching. Among the cases is that ofMrs Della McDuffie, who died almost 66 years to the day on 23 April 1953. Witnesses state that this resulted after being beaten to death with a length of industrial hose by Sheriff Percy Columbus ‘Lummie’ Jenkins and his staff during a raid of the small cafe she owned with her husband William McDuffie in Wilcox County, Alabama. She died within the hour. The supposed crime was playing music after midnight on the Sabbath.
The Trouble I’ve Seen
The Trouble I’ve Seen is a film produced at Northeastern University that includes interviews on three cold cases, the first, being that of Mrs. Della McDuffie.
In the film, Mrs. McDuffie’s nephew, JC Varner’s gives an account of the event:
“J.C. VARNER, Nephew: So he walked in and hit her told her get up old lady, go to bed. So she told him she couldn’t get up so he hit her across her arm on her knees, then he hit her on the head. And he shot down by her feet a couple of times, at her feet.
“WILLIAM MCDUFFIE: Doctor seen him striking at one person and another with a hose-like weapon. I saw a number hit with the weapon in Sheriff Jenkins hand. BOND: But Dr. Robert E. Dixon’s statement reads… DR. DIXON: I can definitely state that the cause of death was not brought on by any injury to the head, such as a blow. FIDDIMAN: This case essentially was a cover up and it never went to court. BOND: A year into the investigation, her husband William was found dead by his 2 grandchildren. WILLIAMS: I found my grandfather and it had appeared that he had been killed by way of drowning. They killed him because of the intensity of this investigation. They tried to get him to change his mind and change his statements like everyone else did. He refused to do that. And they took care of it. “T
The High Cost of Inequality
Wilcox County is one of the poorest counties in the country, beset by “high unemployment, poor access to education and medical care, substandard housing and high rates of crime.”  Despite a population comprised of African Americans in the majority, voter suppression tactics facilitated a continued disenfranchisement. That is not to say there is no strength and beauty in the resilient lives there. The spaces for these ancestors opens as their stories are written back into history.
It’s a largely rural county, with cotton farming shaping its history within the state’s Black Belt. Rather than state or interstate highways, a network of county roads connect the county to other areas. You may have heard of Wilcox County, as it’s also home to Gee’s Bend, home of the women’s quilting collective.  Its legacy of slavery, sharecropping and tenant farming is a testament to extractive economies that leaves next to nothing for the majority of the population that made its fortunes. That same dynamic bleeds into the present.
Today, Alabama’s Black Belt is home to toxic landfill sites that dot these predominantly African American counties, continuing the disregard for the descendants of those who tilled that land in cotton cultivation before and after the Civil War.
The Why: Restorative Justice
Beyond the civil rights stolen from Mrs. McDuffie, there is a need to see more than this moment, and so we bring our skills to expand their family trees and tell other stories about those who came before them. I’ll bring together some of what I learned about her ancestors, before turning to contemporary issues involving the threat of erasure.
An issue with lynching is the potential for the carnage to occlude recognition of this violence as not only systemic, but ingrained into a community’s institutions. Is there a recognition that there’s a parallel between this past and the people who were accounted for under Congress’ Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2013? 
Is there a recognition of the parallels between now and Reconstruction in the sweeping attempts at voter suppression across several states? Can laws that disproportionately affect those living in poverty help rather than set people up for prison in a system that is the 21st century version of a debt peonage system? How do we heal from this— on a familial, interpersonal, social and institutional levels? With 2.4 million prisoners in the US means a high chance this is part of your family history too. These accounts are part of the process of restorative justice.
Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project
One important way to do this work is through newspaper research, seeking coverage that can supply details for the initial steps of genealogical records search. Thankfully, there are the case files by Northeastern University School of Law’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project led by Professor Margaret Durham. The video, The Trouble I’ve Seen, includes the law student, Bayliss Fiddiman, who worked on the McDuffie case and family members speaking to their experiences.
These cases, available on the Northeastern University website, are basically the cold case files that law students research and compile to begin a process of restoration and recognition. Through them, the families are contacted, files requested from Federal and state agencies and a review of the material conducted towards a process of restorative justice. How this outcome manifests depends on the community’s needs and resources marshaled for address and memorialization.
Ultimately this recognition serves to confirm and establish the events of racial terror that happened, a counter to the silence and denial that surrounds acts of lynching. What happened to the McDuffie family happened to almost five thousand people in this country who died at the hands of white lynch mobs.
The denial of events was buttressed by the denial of civil rights and the ability to vote. A decade after Mrs. McDuffie’s death in 1953, not a single African American was registered to vote in Wilcox County Alabama, despite being in the majority of the population there. When Civil Rights groups peacefully marched over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Sheriff Lummie Jenkins was there to turn the marchers back as police attacked with dogs, tear gas and smoke bombs. 
An Active Erasure: 1953-2019
A search on Newspapers .com gives 184 results for Sheriff or PC Lummie Jenkins, yet there are no search results for Mrs. Della McDuffie, the woman he allegedly beat to death in 1953, or her husband, William McDuffie. According to the article’s prominent headline in The New York Age, the FBI was investigating the case.
Yet the divide that splits into acknowledgement and disregard during those years also has its resonance in the failure to index her name into their database. Perhaps this is most starkly illustrated by screenshots of the article shown here.
The results are starkly different when searching for “Della McDuffie”:
In these articles, the Sheriff’s name appears just one line above hers, yet there is not a single search result for Della McDuffie- despite the headline “FBI Probe Murder of Ala. Woman” — which specifically references McDuffie’s murder. As these two images show, a page search brings up one name, yet not the other. A year later, her husband was drowned and left lying across the doorway of their home, having refused to change his story about how his wife died from the beating given during the raid. The indignity is compounded by their death certificates, which read that they died from cerebral hemorrhage.
How exactly are newspapers indexed? Is this an algorithm, and if so, what are the parameters?
If we have ancestors who suffered injustice, how then, is one supposed to find that information on this site?
It seems much like the US itself, Newspapers.com is in need of revisiting such events and address how they are indexed, especially as we are tasked to find and write our ancestors and families back into history.
Sheriff Jenkins has a long history in Wilcox County, serving as Sheriff from 1939-1971, using racial terror as power. One memory of Jenkins suggests what kind of person he was: “When I ask Lola Pettway, 77, if she remembers Lummie Jenkins, she recoils and shudders. She shares a memory of Sheriff Lummie standing at the edge of a field, watching her family pick cotton. Nancy Pettway, 83, tells me about how, just before she was married, her fiancé shot a dog that had attacked him. Mr. Lummie, she said, came to the Bend, arrested her fiancé, and threw him in jail for killing the dog….he was not an anomaly in the Jim Crow South, where sheriffs were considered more powerful than the American president. ” See Alexandra Marvar’s “The Two Faces of Lummie Jenkins”. Topic Magazine, https://www.topic.com/the-two-faces-of-lummie-jenkins
“The Trouble I’ve Seen” Campus Perspectives, New York, NY: NBC Universal, 01/22/2013. Accessed Sat May 30 2015 from NBC Learn: https://archives.nbclearn.com/portal/site/k-12/browse/?cuecard=65676
“Gee’s Bend residents also remember Dr. King’s visits in 1965, the rallies in Camden, and the march on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. They remember marching to Camden as children and teenagers, being blockaded by Lummie and Mayor F. R. Albritton at the town’s edge, being pummeled with tear gas and smoke bombs, getting arrested, reaching the courthouse, kneeling in the street, and refusing to leave. They remember the songs they sang. Some remember what happened to David Colston, what happened to Della McDuffie. Some would rather not remember that time at all.” Marvar, “The Two Faces of Lummie Jenkins.” Topic Magazine, https://www.topic.com/the-two-faces-of-lummie-jenkins
While in Puerto Rico over a decade ago, I bought copies of old photographs at Tienda Cesto in Aguadilla. Part of the store was given over to tables with sets of binders, each containing photographs from different municipalities. There were a small number of images of Moca that I bought. Looking for items for the next Black ProGen Live (Ep.72 – join us!), I pulled my small binder of photographs as I remembered an image with a coffin. As I’d soon learn, my connections were closer than I could’ve imagined.
Near the end of September 1929, a group of men and children stood in the midday sun before a coffin for a photographer, in Moca. According to the notation on the photograph, it was Balbino Gonzalez’ father and the location was in Barrio Plata, a rural location some 5 miles away from the center of town.. Recently finished, the shiny coffin, painted a dark enamel color and embellished with stamped metal decorations sat on a frame that was to shortly transport Gonzalez to his final resting place in the Viejo Cementerio Municipal de Moca in what was popularly known as Calle Salsipuedes . Given that the son’s name appeared with a date, I used that as a guideline to find Balbino Gonzalez’s father in the Registro Civil. The death actually occurred ten days later.
Acta de defuncion: 29 September 1929
Balbino Gonzalez Jimenez was one of five children of Jose Manuel Gonzalez Perez (1863-1929) and Juana Bautista Jimenez Soto (1868-1926). He is the young man in the suit at the center of the photograph. He was single at the time of his father’s death on 27 September 1929. He came from Santurce where he was a teacher, to report his father’s death to the Registro Demográfico. His suit, tie and hair speak to fashion in the metropolis of the San Juan metropolitan area, a self awareness already honed by his profession. The other men in the photo wear looser fitting shirts, and the straw boatera hat is a respectful nod to artesanos and locals that decades later became part of the dress of Los Enchaquetaos, a fraternal group founded by Pedro Mendez Valentin. Here the stiff hat functions much like the formal top hats used by funeral staff.
Jose Manuel Gonzalez Perez, was an 82 year old widower, who worked as a professor. He lived on Calle Nemesio Gonzalez, and died the morning of 27 September 1929 of cardiac insufficiency. It’s likely that as his condition worsened, family was contacted as his time neared. His son Balbino Gonzalez Jimenez was summoned home, and he was the informant for his father’s death record above. While he was unable to report the names of his father’s paternal and maternal grandparents, he gave the names of Jose Manuel’s parents: Jose M. Gonzalez (ca 1814-bef 1899) and Juana Perez Guevara (1819-1899)  Jose Manuel was one of three siblings from Barrio Plata, a long narrow municipality that borders San Sebastián on its eastern border.
La ultima parada: from workshop to cemetery
A 1947 map of Moca shows the former location of the cemetery at the end of the street that leads from the Plaza in front of the church to the Cementerio Municipal.
Among the group standing in the photograph on the right, is a tall pale man, who may in fact be Alicides Babilonia Talavera, my great grandfather. Later, his son, Alcides Babilonia López also made coffins in a nearby workshop.
Calle Nemesio González in Moca ran through Barrio Pueblo, and this is the street that Jose Manuel Gonzalez Perez lived on; my great-grandfather Alcides Babilonia Talavera and grandfather Alcides ‘Alcidito’ Babilonia Lopez lived in homes next door to each other on Calle Juan B. Huyke. This is the backdrop of the 1929 photograph. As this was before the establishment of a funeral home, many people had a wake at home, and the Gonzalez family probably did the same. Given the heat, it lasted a day, with ice piled beneath the coffin and a plate piled with salt placed on the chest of the deceased. The lid may or may not have a glass window, so that the case can stay closed and the deceased could still be seen.
The man on the far right
Among the group standing in the photograph there on the right, is a tall pale man, who may in fact be Alicides Babilonia Talavera, my great grandfather. Later, his son, Alcides Babilonia López also made coffins in a nearby workshop.
According to my cousin Diany, Alcides was known for his coffins. When he was younger, he had a room with samples where people could choose fabrics for the inside of their coffins. There were always stories with a touch of the supernatural about them. He had an order from a man who needed a coffin, and worked on making it with a hammer. after midnight, he couldn’t find the coffin. Another coffin was tossed through the window, so he picked it up and finished the job.
Finish & detail: 1929
The details in the photo give an idea of decorative funerary practices in rural areas, which ran from the simplest unadorned box to a highly finished coffin with stamped metal cherubs holding a garland inscribed with ‘Que en paz descanse’. Clearly then, this was top of the line and the maker stands at the head, arms folded behind him, separating him from the family next to him.
Center Left: identifying Lorenzo Caban Lopez, Sepulturero de Moca
The identity of the man in the flat top hat is Lorenzo Caban Lopez, who was married to Lucia Alonso Font (1874-1956).  In 1901 he was appointed by the municipal government as a Sepulturero y conservador (Gravedigger and caretaker) and as a Celador (Maker of grave markers and crypts) for the old Cementerio Municipal, which he did for 23 years until August 1936. after his death, his son Feliciano ‘Chano’ Caban, who stands to the left, became Sepulturero.  He and his family lived on the edge of Barrio Pueblo, on Calle de la habana. As it happens, I share many connections with this Caban line.
Lorenzo was the father of Domitila Caban Lopez (1902-1982), my grandfather’s last partner before his death in 1948. She was a tejedora, a lacemaker and I exhibited some of her lace work at UPR Mayaguez along with that by other tejedoras, some who are no longer with us. Like lace, weaving these details together give us a recognizable pattern as we work through the questions.
By the 1940s
In the 1940 census, Alcides Babilonia Talavera was a divorced widower, and it is not until then that his occupation is listed as a maker of coffins. in the 1910-1930 census his occupation is Agricultor- finca de cafe (Farmer- coffee farm). By 1920, his ex-wife, Concepcion Lopez Ramirez (1863-1925) lived next door to him and had a business as a ‘modista’ a dressmaker, living with several of her children while Alicides lived next door with children as well. In January 1925, Concepcion died suddenly. His reaction was to call a photographer for one last image, altered to evoke the life of a portrait. It merely succeeded at lending an uncanny gaze emanating from her painted in eyes. I am not sure how much this experience shaped his funeral avocation, but he was likely well acquainted with the steps of caring for the dead, as people still arrived and departed from their homes.
My grandfather, also named Alcides, made coffins, and in 1940 appears as a “ carpintero – propio taller” a carpenter with his own workshop. It was the year he married my grandmother Felicita, who later died that year of tuberculosis, which took many family members. By 1948, knowing he was going to die, he made a simple pine box for himself, but that’s another story. He worked making coffins with his friend Rito Vargas, husband of Maria Lassalle, the lacemaker of Moca. Out of death comes a refashioning of self, family and the ways we decide (and are able to) to honor their lives.
Unexpectedly, a photograph brings me closer to the past and to even more relatives, as I learn more about the work of Lorenzo Caban Lopez and Alcides Babilonia Talavera. QEPD.
Acta Defunción, “Puerto Rico, Registro Civil, 1805-2001,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:QVJD-J3PV : 17 July 2017), Jose Manuel Gonzalez Y Pérez, 26 Sep 1929; citing Moca, Puerto Rico, oficinas del ciudad, Puerto Rico (city offices, Puerto Rico).
 Acta Defunción, “Puerto Rico, Registro Civil, 1805-2001,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:QVJD-FTL3 : 17 July 2017), Juana Perez Guebara, 17 Oct 1899; citing Moca, Puerto Rico, oficinas del ciudad, Puerto Rico (city offices, Puerto Rico).
 Lorenzo Caban Lopez’ death certificate lists his occupation: Celador- cementerio, Gob Municipal hasta Ago 1936, 23 anos; Acta Defunción “Puerto Rico, Registro Civil, 1805-2001,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:QVJD-NJMT : 17 July 2017), Lorenzo Caban Lopez, 14 Nov 1936; citing Moca, Puerto Rico, oficinas del ciudad, Puerto Rico (city offices, Puerto Rico).
 Antonio Nieves Mendez, Historia de un pueblo: Moca . Lulu.com 2008, 49.
 Victor Gonzalez, “Los Cuentos de Chano Caban” Mi niñez Mocana y algo más…. Segundo edición, Impresos Ideales, 1990, 19-21.
My career has differed materially from that of most women; and some things that I have done have shocked persons for whom I have every respect, however much my ideas of propriety may differ from theirs. Loreta Janeta Velazquez, (1876) The Woman in Battle.
On our recent Black ProGen episode on Civil War Pension files had me wondering about Caribbean ties to the Civil War. As I learned, there were some 3500 soldiers and officers in the Civil War who were Latino, 2500 of them served the Union, while 1000 served the Confederacy with the number rising to 10,000 by war’s end.
I came across a Puerto Rican born Union officer, and a Cuban born woman with a remarkable story… and a mustache and goatee.
My aim here is not to do a Civil War blow by blow of her military service, but to weigh in on genealogical details concerning her identity based on what I could find in various archival databases. I also want to express my thanks to Nicka Smith, Bernice Bennett, Shelley Murphy and Teresa Vega for discussions about the Civil War, pension files and the great city of New Orleans. This is excerpted from a longer work.
Loreta Janeta Velazquez published her exploits in her 1876 memoir, The Woman in Battle. She was known for crossing many lines, ultimately serving the Confederacy as Lieutenant Harry T. Buford. The book’s title page and frontispiece are designed to first assure the reader that the author is indeed a female, while luring the reader with the excitement and experiences reserved for white men across the country and two continents. There is innuendo, as suggested by where she lived and who she loved by the end of the 118 word title. It has everything packed into it for 1876- spying, violence, money, and sex.
The full title reads like a film summary:
THE WOMAN IN BATTLE: A NARRATIVE OF THE Exploits, Adventures, and Travels OF MADAME LORETA JANETA VELAZQUEZ, OTHERWISE KNOWN AS LIEUTENANT HARRY T. BUFORD, CONFEDERATE STATES ARMY. IN WHICH IS GIVEN Full Descriptions of the numerous Battles in which she participated as a Confederate Officer; of her Perilous Performances as a Spy, as a Bearer of Despatches, as a Secret-Service Agent, and as a Blockade-Runner; of her Adventures Behind the Scenes at Washington, including the Bond Swindle; of her Career as a Bounty and Substitute Broker in New York; of her Travels in Europe and South America; her Mining Adventures on the Pacific Slope; her Residence among the Mormons; her Love Affairs, Courtships, Marriages, &c., &c.
C. J. WORTHINGTON,
The dedication lets you know right away what side she was rooting for:
Comrades of the Confederate Armies,
WHO, ALTHOUGH THEY FOUGHT IN A LOSING CAUSE,
SUCCEEDED BY THEIR VALOR IN WINNING
THE ADMIRATION OF THE WORLD,
OF MY ADVENTURES AS A SOLDIER, A SPY,
AND A SECRET-SERVICE AGENT,
WITH ALL HONOR, RESPECT, AND GOOD WILL.
Velazquez is very much the rolling stone, moving from one location to another across the United States, Caribbean and Europe between the time she was born throughout her adulthood. I’m working on a longer version of this essay, and wanted to share some of the aspects of her story that go well beyond oral histories and memoir. What’s also fascinating is that she is a self made woman who basically studied men; whose genealogical presence failed to produce a tree with descendants, but instead gives us an opportunity to weigh what it means to tell and retell her story in different contexts.
Narrative, genealogy and hidden stories
Reading this text as a genealogist, there’s a big red flag at the outset of Velazquez’ memoirs— the loss of notes paired with a pressing need for income (emphasis added) for a book 376 pages long:
“… The loss of my notes has compelled me to rely entirely upon my memory; and memory is apt to be very treacherous, especially when, after a number of years, one endeavors to relate in their proper sequence a long series of complicated transactions. Besides, I have been compelled to write hurriedly, and in the intervals of pressing business, the necessities I have been under of earning my daily bread being such as could not be disregarded, even for the purpose of winning the laurels of authorship. To speak plainly, however, I care little for laurels of any kind just now, and am much more anxious for the money that I hope this book will bring in to me than I am for the praises of either critics or public. The money I want badly, while praise, although it will not be ungratifying, I am sufficiently philosophical to get along very comfortably without.” [WIB 6]
She worked with an editor, CJ Worthington,, a Naval veteran, who ‘although during the war was on the other side… has shown a remarkable skill in detecting and correcting errors into which I had inadvertently fallen.”
For Worthington, however, the importance of the book is not her gender crossing but spy craft:
In the opinion of the editor, however, the most important part of the book is that in which a revelation is made, now for the first time, of the exact manner in which the Confederate secret-service system at the North was managed. There is no feature of the civil war that more needs to have light thrown on it than this; and, as the story which the heroine of the adventures herein set down recites, is an exceedingly curious one, it is deserving of the special consideration of the public, both North and South.
The South was mistaken, but one couldn’t ‘doubt their sincerity or honesty of purpose.’  He calls Velazquez ‘a typical Southern woman of the war period’. Oh, right.
Worthington says of the manuscript (emphasis added):
“The manuscript, when it was placed in his hands, was found to be very minute and particular in some places, and rather meagre in others, where particularity seemed desirable. Having undertaken to get this material into proper shape, correspondence was opened with Madame Velazquez, and a number of interviews with her were had. A general plan having been agreed upon, it was left entirely to the judgment of the editor what to omit or what to insert,–Madame Velazquez agreeing to supply such information as was needed to make the story complete, in a style suitable for publication. From her correspondence, and from notes of her conversations, a variety of very interesting details, not in the original manuscript, were obtained and incorporated in the narrative. The editor, also, in several places has corrected palpable errors of time and place, and has added a few facts not supplied by the author.” 
“Owing to the loss of her diary, Madame Velazquez was compelled to write her narrative entirely from memory, which will account for the errors to which allusion has been made. Indeed, considering the multiplicity of events, it is very remarkable that she has been able to relate her story with any degree of accuracy. It is possible that, despite the pains that have been taken to make the narrative exact in every particular with regard to its facts, a few errors may have been permitted to remain uncorrected. These errors, however, are not material, and do not in any way impair the interest of the story.” 
Velazquez herself admits to generating ‘alternative facts’ as needed, which was frequent while she served as a spy or officer in drag and for excuses to the young ladies who find themselves drawn to the ambiguously gendered officer:  “… I made up a story that I thought was suited to the occasion and the auditor; and, among other things, told her that I was the son of a millionnaire, that I had joined the army for the fun of the thing, and that I was paying my own expenses.”
Later in the book she takes on blockade running, purchasing supplies, donating money and scamming funds for the Confederate cause during and after the Civil War. Still, her argument for the national fight is the win, not the economic structure that locked so many in, and built the structure of inequality based on race. One could argue that she is an example of working with family histories that present a particular point of view that can bring into question ideas of self fashioning with a basis in forms of systemic inequality. It is the polar opposite of Abolitionist writings.
Velazquez’ book begins with two genealogies— one of women in war that culminates in her being the ideological heir of Joan of Arc, the other, is of a nobility clawed out of the Caribbean, belied by newspaper articles of mid-1863 that spoke of her exploits in the service.
According to her, she was born on 26th of June, 1842, the last of six children on Calle Vellagas, just outside the walls of Havana, Cuba, Loreta Janeta Velazquez states that her father was a Spanish Ambassador born in Cartagena, (implied) Spain, of noble descent. Her mother was from France, daughter of a French naval officer and an American heiress. Her mother’s only brother resided on St. Lucia, but this is not explained in more detail until much later in the book.
Her parents had three sons and two daughters born in Madrid before her birth in Cuba, but in between the time of his appointment to the time of her birth in 1842, the family moved across continents and oceans. Her father is an aristocrat, a learned ambassador who spoke at least three languages, and ultimately supported the Southern cause. The weight of his experience and wealth serve to anchor any charge regarding class in terms of Loreta’s social standing and wobbly gender identification in her memoir. She mentions her brother Josea and a family reunion in St Louis, but is careful not to name her parents in any detail beyond that of moral standing until 1891, when a New York newspaper article quotes her saying that father’s name is Joaquin Velazquez.
For her ancestral lineage, she invokes a conquistador of the New World, Diego Velazquez de Cuellar, (1465-d. 1524, Santiago de Cuba), an interesting choice: Velazquez led the conquest of Cuba with 300 men in 1511, noted for being a particularly brutal episode. Just as with Columbus, those Indigenous people that resisted, if not killed or maimed, were sold into slavery across the Atlantic and to Mexico, Central and South America to work the mines. It did not go as planned, so he authorized the importation of enslaved Africans in 1513, and an expedition to the Yucatan. He lost his governorship in 1521 for the misuse of indigenous labor, facts that never ruffle the lineage.
The other Velazquez claimed as a great grandfather is Diego Velazquez, leading artist in the court of Philip IV, whose full name was Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez (1599-1660) born to Portuguese parents in Seville. Velazquez went to Madrid in 1622 and became the court painter. He had two daughters, one who survived to adulthood and married a painter. She married Juan Bautista Martinez de Mazo, and their children bore the Martinez surname.
As mentioned, she describes visiting various Caribbean islands, and at Saint Lucia, states that this is where her mother was born:
The connection to Saint Lucia, with its family cemetery and vault, a stone cottage that she describes, now owned by her cousin. The house itself, like the family, is a hybrid site, ‘a stone house built in the English fashion’ with ‘ancient furniture of Spanish make.’ Both her unseen sister and brother are entombed in the family burying-ground, together with other relatives in St. Lucia. No further details regarding which port she entered, what parish the family once lived in, is given for locations she mentions before 1868.[WIB 566]
The Many Names of Lorena Janeta Velazquez
Another flag in the text and in newspaper accounts are the various aliases she used over four decades (if not longer). It’s an unusually long and overlapping set of identifiers:
Loreta Janeta Velazquez
Mrs. Alice Williams
Mrs. Alice Tennent
Mrs. ST Williams
Mrs Major De Caulp
Mrs Loretta De Caulp
Mrs DeCaulp Buford
Mrs Loretta J. Beard
Mrs Sue Battle
Lieutenant HT Buford
She was married to:
ST Williams, army officer,
Major Jeruth DeCaulp
Major Wasson, confederate officer, married in New Orleans
‘Col.’ W Beard
Perhaps the person that can be confirmed in her account is DeCaulp. ‘Major’ Jeruth DeCaulp was born in Edinborough, arrived in 1857 with his brother, and they traveled the US until 1859, and signed up for the confederacy when the war broke out.“His father was of French descent, and his mother was a Derbyshirewoman. “He was very highly educated, having studied in England and France with the intention of becoming a physician. His fondness for roaming, however, induced him to abandon this design.. He was tall in stature, with a very imposing presence. His hair was auburn, and he had a large, full, dark, hazel eye.” It is unclear whether that referred to a pair, or the result of wartime injury.
His brother held the rank of Captain and died in Nashville at the close of the war; his wife died in New York. Despite the call to his standing, DeCaulp’s extant letters are full of spelling errors such as ‘cince’ for since, details that cast doubt on his education. Velazquez has elaborate backgrounds for her husbands and her parents, and if its too good to be true, it probably is.
Reviving Loreta Velazquez
Running into a historical figure like Velazquez is both exhilarating and troubling. There’s the fact of her intense, incredulous story that she tells and then there’s the reality of locating information. At first, I came across the image of the goateed Velazquez, and a broader history of the involvement of women in the military. Next, there is the documentary, Maria Angui Carter’s Rebel (2013) which establishes Velazquez’ existence, but does not really suss all the details regarding her ancestry. Instead, it’s presented as fact, because it was published, which has a circular, closed kind of reasoning. There’s no argument that Velazquez worked to further the aims of the Lost Cause. Then there is historian William C Davis’s book, Inventing Loreta Velasquez: Confederate Soldier impersonator, Media Celebrity and Con Artist. (SIU: 2016). Davis strains through newspaper accounts and establishes that it is likely you couldn’t trust what Velazquez has to say about family, lineage or history.
Whose side are you on?
One of the things I found disturbing was no real engagement with what it meant to identify with a supposedly light skinned Latina who fought for the Confederacy, without really unpacking the weight of that affiliation. What Loreta discovered was that her ‘possessive investment in whiteness’ had a pay off. People could deal with a Cuban better than say, a mixed race child from New Orleans or Mississippi, instead a Cuban with alleged ties to minor nobility and foreign governments was much more appealing. Ultimately, nostalgia is what Velazquez supplies, full of the dream of the South’s ‘hotel civilization’, where dirt, mess and disorder were disavowed and left for the enslaved help to deal with. What of 18 year old Bob, the young man she bought and enslaved to serve her in the field, who ultimately ran off to the North to claim his freedom? Why the silence on the enslaved help who would have served her family?
This newspaper featured an article on Velazquez, and note the date: 1875. The masthead is rather telling, and perhaps a little startling given where the US is today:
But look more closely at the central image:
The image reads: “White Men Must Rule America: The Constitution of Our Fathers” Ultimately, this image of white femininity upholding white masculinity as the ultimate arbiter of order in the world is what Velazquez puts her faith in. Regardless of her crossing gender, her allegedly West Indian origins, to not acknowledge the fundamental bias at the heart of her project is to ignore the weight and moral failing of justifying enslavement.
She either died in Austin, Nevada in 1897, her grave conveniently destroyed by development, if it ever existed, or, according to Davis, the author of Inventing Loreta Velazquez, she died in 1923 in an insane asylum in Washington DC.
In case you’re wondering about ‘hotel civilization’: It’s a great term that Cornell West coined in the 1990s. “We live in a hotel civilization,” said West. “A hotel civilization is a civilization in which people are obsessed with comfort, contentment, and convenience, where the lights are always on. [We] don’t have time for questions. We don’t have time for such interrogations.”
Frankly, America always has been a hotel civilization. This is no joke. West continues: “To escape the pull of the American culture of denial, West urged individuals to examine and question America’s “night-side” – the dark under-belly of society. He added that part of this process of enlightenment is acknowledging real death and violence and also experiencing metaphorical death.
“We must come to terms with the forms of death in the midst of the American past and present. Education itself is a learning how to die. Every time you give up an assumption. it’s a form of death so you can mature,” said West.
If you’re doing Latinx genealogy tied to the Spanish empire, you’ll eventually hit a version of the Registro Civil, the Civil Register for births, deaths and marriages that keep track of the population. Depending on the country, these volumes of vital records begin in different years, and are incredible sources of information… depending on how well the person reporting the death knew the family.
Once you become more familiar with these volumes, you’ll notice shifts in the formatting as it goes from completely handwritten (for better or for worse) to progressively printed forms for entry. The forms evolve as the legal system evolves, with different requirements specified and vetted over time. Ok so stay with me– while this is an example from Puerto Rico, there’s a bigger lesson about details here for you to think about.
Variations, Forms, Changes…
Recently, someone asked me about an ancestor tied to the Muniz line, and if you do genealogy, you know one person is never enough. So here’s an example of two 1917 death certificates, with significant differences in the information given by the Declarante (Informant). It’s a great example of the variations in registering information on life passages.
On the left, is the certificate for Petronila Aviles Gonzalez ( -1917), and on the right, Faustino Muniz Mendez (1877-1917). For Petronila, the informant is the child of the deceased. Basically her son, Basilio doesn’t know the names of his grandparents (pink arrows). For Faustino, the informant is a sibling of the deceased. His brother Casimiro knows the wife, her age, the names of their seven children and… and this is a big one, the names of his paternal and maternal grandparents.
In Petronila’s certificate, her son, Basilio Soto Aviles, is the informant, and his relationship comes later in the document. “Los abuelos paternos y maternos no lo conoce el declarante segun informa.” Translation: “As the informant states he doesn’t know the names of his paternal and maternal grandparents”
On the right, in Faustino Muniz Mendez’ certificate, his informant is his brother Casimiro Muniz. Casimiro is able to name Faustino’s wife, his seven children, his parents, his mother’s parents and his father’s parents. There are 16 people listed on his death certificate, and only 3 are listed in the transcription on FamilySearch. Good luck finding it by search- Muñiz is spelled Muñez.
In case you can’t read the image for Faustino’s certificate above, the red arrows point to significant information:
1. Casimiro Muniz mayor de edad, casado, de profesion labrador natural de Moca, PR y avecinado en el barrio de Cuchillas de Moca, PR…
2. Que era casado con Maria Hernandez, natural de Moca, blanca, de treinticinco anos de edad de cuyo matrimonio tuvieron siete hijos, seis que viven Amador, Martina Muniz y Hernandez, Toribio, Lauro, Telesforo, Francisco, Eulogio, los que residen en el barrio Cuchillas y este llamado Pablo difunto.
3. Que era hijo legitimo de Eusebio Muniz y Paula Mendez, hoy difuntos
4. Abuelos Paternos: Manuel Muniz y Felipa Perez, naturales de Moca blancos y hoy difuntos
Abuelos Maternos: Juan Mendez y Maria Perez, naturales de Moca, hoy difuntos
So we know how old his wife was, that they had some 7 children, one no longer living, and where his grandparents on both sides were from.
It pays to go beyond the transcriptions on FamilySearch and Ancestry. That way you can avoid situations like having a parvulo (infant) listed in your tree as your great grandmother because you didn’t take the time to read the original document. Thanks to Casimiro’s statement, we have three generations on one document, and the information brings us closer to the early 1800s. Don’t take the notations for race literally, use it as a prompt to learn more about how people are categorized by official services.
notice patterns in family names
find different barrios (wards) that the family lived in
determine an end date for grandparents based on mention of whether they are alive or have passed away
another point of origin for your family, either on a local level or internationally
you may also find unexpected details such as additional marriages or living arrangements, recognized or unrecognized children
Most of this information is not transcribed on Ancestry or FamilySearch.
Not every certificate from the Registro Civil has this range of information, it varies by year, with some decades offering up more data than others.
Next for my Geneabuds…
Feel free to watch the upcoming episode #72 of Black ProGen LIVE with hosts Nicka Smith & True A. Lewis— coming up on Tuesday 13 November 2018: Life After Death: Getting More With Death Records – click here to watch liveon YouTube. Tune in & discover the leads you can gather from obtaining, reviewing and distilling death records. I’ll be on the panel!
Oral history, Alex Haley’s Roots and the question of proof
Change takes time. It can feel glacial when looking at the time frame for the development of genealogy for people of color in the US. As Nicka Smith recently reminded us in the video of Ep20b of BlackProGenLIVE on Talks Diversity in Genealogy and Family History, our path is difficult because a fundamental building block is oral history.  As she pointed out, ‘the problem of the color line‘ remains a very real one in genealogy. I’m into understanding that context, and want to take an opportunity to look back at another decade’s work where the push for truth served to reinforce a boundary. The question of proof in genealogy always looms large. For examples of practice, don’t miss the list of blogs at the end of this post.
A quote from a 1983 article that contained a relentless takedown of Alex Haley’s book Roots: The Saga of an American Family, reveals the seams along which professional genealogy developed, some eighty years earlier. This split posits the document against the voice in oral history as the legitimate source of data. Thirty-three years ago, this genealogical work was an endeavor that missed the boat in its insistence on paper as the ultimate proof, and perhaps the location there is significant, as it came out of the deep South.
Facts, Claims and the Logic of Proof
The claim that ‘No ethnic group has a monopoly upon oral tradition or documentation, literacy or illiteracy, mobility or stability' ignores the fact that enslaved people counted for chattel, that various populations were brought to labor in oppressive conditions here, and key is that most people of color were not party to creating documentation on their own behalf reflective of them as equal people with equal rights. This goes well beyond “superimposing racial divisions upon all aspects of life…” and ignores that the struggle for civic recognition reaches back to the founding of the country. The fear expressed then, was that Haley’s book could constitute a ‘…delusion that encourages mediocre scholarship in the nascent field of Afro-American genealogy and relegates black family history to the academic dark ages from which Caucasian genealogy has already emerged…’.
The problem is that this logic of ‘documentary proof as the only valid proof’ is part of the problem of structural racism, inadvertently or deliberately serving ‘to perpetuate social stratifications and outcomes that all too often reflect racial group sorting rather than individual merit and effort.’ To continue to claim this kind of proof as the only proof is an exclusionary exercise, in effect, one that insists on documentation within a context where one side holds the power, and is also one that perpetuates the gap between White Americans and Americans of color.
The following chart shows the interlocking parts of this system:
In essence, what we are witnessing today is a gradual process of desegregation within genealogy practiced in the U.S.
Strategies and Projects: Restoring Visibility & Developing Methodologies
Within the last two decades, genealogists in the field of African American genealogy have developed strategies for working with oral histories and published accounts and have successfully incorporated them within the Genealogical Proof Standard. It follows the growth of historical, sociological and cultural work on various dimensions of the experience and process of enslavement, the development of various communities of color and difference as legitimate fields of inquiry. Now there is a growing awareness of combined efforts that defy simple ethnic or racial classification as with Marronage, those hidden and open maroon communities where people of African, Indigenous and varying admixtures stole themselves to, to gain self-determination. These historic episodes do not fit neatly into traditional genealogy and require new modes of recording, interpreting and disseminating data on the families of these communities.
Given the location, this work has neither a smooth or clear path to acceptance; for instance, one can look at the changes in the narratives offered by Monticello in the 1990s to the 2010s, with the recent Public Summit on Race and the Legacy of Slavery (Sep 2016) and the recent conference (Mar 2018) Interpreting Slavery Also important are the in-place interventions by Joseph McGill of The Slave Dwelling Project, and Michael J Twitty’s rising recognition as a culinary and historical authority with his blog Afroculinaria and his important book The Cooking Gene are gaining wider regard.
The summit, “Memory, Mourning, Mobilization: Legacies of Slavery and Freedom in America” would not have been possible without the oral histories along with the genealogical and DNA data collected by the Getting Word project at Monticello. As a result, descendants now have the opportunity to stay overnight through the Slave Dwelling Project. McGill continues to expand to new sites, to have important conversations as a group participates in a simple, visceral experience of sleeping in slave cabins.
On Episode 315 (Mar 15 2018) of Research at the National Archives and Beyond, Bernice Bennett interviewed genealogist Kenyatta D. Berry, on her work with a consortium of 30 US universities currently researching and dealing with their involvement in slavery. Within their discussion the question of data, access and interpretation by descendants, genealogists and historians is in a process of development. The variety of needs range from establishing a historical narrative to understanding context, creating macro and microhistories that can recombine with documentation to create larger interdisciplinary spaces that can accommodate community. This is a coming to the table on a large scale, that holds the promise of shifting how we see our past and our future as a nation. Our family trees reach long and far indeed, with many finally linking their past to places beyond borders using documents, oral history and DNA.
Also consult the blogs of members of Black ProGen below (scroll down) to see more projects that take on various facets of genealogy to see examples of this broader change, and join us at BlackProGen LIVE twice monthly on YouTube.
Weighing what matters
I’m not saying that Alex Haley’s work cannot be analyzed for the errors it contains, but instead, that the weight of its context and the moment of its production mattered. Cited in The NY Times (and unnamed in a later article) was eminent Yale historian Edmund Morgan, who recognized that Roots was “a statement of someone’s search for identity… it would seem to me to retain a good deal of impact no matter how many mistakes the man has made. In any genealogy there are bound to be a number of mistakes.” Morgan was the author of American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (1975), a title that points to the persistent contradiction in the founding of this nation. Overall, historians were not alarmed. Ultimately, Haley’s book proved more novel than fact, but more importantly, it captured the imagination of millions, inspiring many to pursue their own genealogy and family history. The stakes were high for claiming a rightful place as part of US history.
What Haley achieved at the time of the National Bicentennial was to tell a story of national import from a black perspective, as he hoped “his story of our people can help to alleviate the legacies of the fact that preponderantly the histories have been written by the winners.”. One early reviewer of his work noted, “And so, he did write his entire story from the Black perspective which is sorely needed to connect the institutions and fill the void left by the omission of ‘objective’ white historians, the winners in the war of human degradation—slavery…. it is the cultural history laid bare upon the canvas of time devoid of the misconceptions and misinterpretations of a people rationalizing their sins against humanity.”
Roots and its subsequent miniseries did not omit the range of violence perpetrated on a fully human people and claimed a historical place in the narrative of America. It countered a dominant historical and legal framework of being partially human at best, and defied the weight of stereotypes from popular media. Roots is not a pretty picture of inheritance, but instead one that spoke to audiences the realities of enslavement, resilience, continuity and survival in a vivid, cinematic fashion, from a narrative with an origin in the spoken word. That challenge and denial of oral history as a legitimate basis of the experiences of people of color is slowly eroding…. Slowly.
There is an equivalence in the genealogical field that is beginning to be dismantled, an implicit claim whereby scholastic levels of genealogy equates to whiteness. Yet to paraphrase Audrey Lorde, one cannot dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools. This work is done as the field opens up to POC more broadly, who bring a different set of experiences, lineages and techniques that draw upon contexts both within and outside of traditional genealogy. It is also up to genealogists who are not POC to weigh what that legacy is and how it impacts the who, what and where of their practice.
In order to see the connection between genealogy and the ideology of whiteness more clearly, one has to go back to the 1880s, when genealogy was part of the toolkit for the pseudoscience of eugenics. This was a conduit for previous ideas about racial inferiority from the previous century, now cloaked in respectable ‘science’. It was buttressed by social and institutional dynamics that maintain racial hierarchies and racialized public policies and institutional practices, a shifting framework that is still in operation today.  It is a discourse of social division and superiority emergent after the election of November 2016, thrown into relief by the events at Charlottesville, Virginia.
Eugenics: technologies of segregation, genealogy & policy
At its most basic, eugenics is a set of beliefs and practices about how to improve the human population. There was ‘positive eugenics’ aimed at promoting sexual reproduction among those with desired traits and ‘negative eugenics’, which sought to limit certain populations from reproducing. The movement started in the UK and spread to many countries, including the US and Canada in the early twentieth century. This instigated the formation of programs intent on improving the population, that led to marriage prohibition and forced sterilization programs. These experiences are part of thousands of family histories tied to experimentation, social policies, with roots in settler colonialism.
Genealogy was important to eugenicists, because it was a map that traced the transmission of ‘defective germ-plasm’ through families, which contrasted with the legacy of white western men with genealogies of ‘quality’. This ultimately translated into policies that generated thousands of sterilizations, destroyed families with the fear of miscegenation, and transformed poverty into a problem of the individual, not society. Yet many states passed laws, as did Virginia that led to over 7,000 people being sterilized– and increasingly as archives make these documents available to the public, a better understanding of the high cost of eugenic policy emerges. Many paid, and continue to pay with their lives.
Paul Popenoe & Roswell Hill Johnson’s Applied Eugenics (Macmillan, 1918) is an appalling and unapologetically racist book. In it, the authors suggest that genealogy become the study of heredity and the legacy of traits in a family. It denies the backdrop of colonialism and slavery to blame peoples of African descent, immigrants and those living in poverty for the conditions that result from exploitation. Conveniently, context does not come into their analysis: “The historical, social, legal and other aspects of genealogy do not concern the present discussion. We shall discuss only the biological aspect…” Genealogy was seen as the way to accomplish the goal of identifying certain lineages as social problems to be dealt with via policy decisions.
Consider the backdrop for the publication of this text- in 1915, Popenoe presented his paper on eugenics at the First International Congress of Genealogy, sponsored by the California Genealogical Society and held during the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. That same February that this world’s fair opened, also saw the release of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, 3 hours of racist propaganda that fired up the Lost Cause, the KKK and stoked racial violence. None of this is lost on myself as a colonial subject, a Taino woman of ethnic admixture with a disability, who was elected and happened to be the first POC to become President of the California Genealogical Society just a century later. I worked with the board to change our motto to “Connecting people to their diverse family heritage.” I imagine Mr. Popenoe is spinning in his grave.
Over three decades, eugenic explanations went over big in the US. The authors pointed to the centrality of genealogy in delivering eugenics as a means to controlling populations ‘scientifically’:
“The science of genealogy will not have full meaning and full value to those who pursue it, unless they bring themselves to look on men and women as organisms subject to the same laws of heredity and variation as other living things. Biologists were not long ago told that it was essential for them to learn to think like genealogists. For the purpose of eugenics, neither science is complete without the other; and we believe that it is not invidious to say that biologists have been quicker to realize this than have genealogists. The Golden Age of genealogy is yet to come.” 
Medicine, law, sociology and statistics were seen as the beneficiaries of genealogical information collected at centers in the US. This led to some 60,000 Americans being sterilized in the US between 1907 and the 1970s. 
Popenoe’s book offers justifications for segregation, and falls back on phrenology’s racial hierarchies for explanations of inferiority as intrinsic to the body. In terms of the black body, the book conflates the limitations of resources with a lack of progress, noting that “If so, it must be admitted that the Negro is different from the white, but that he is eugenically inferior to the white.”
Those who did better on the tests were surmised to have “more white blood in them” and proceeds to determine a racial quantum based on percentages as did Thomas Jefferson in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1781), and the eighteenth century Casta paintings of Mexico. . You can revisit some of Jefferson’s ideas about African peoples excerpted here .
It follows that Papenoe and Hill Johnson proposed to prohibit interracial marriage, and their chapter on ‘The Color Line’ culminates with recommendations to put this into law as four states did (LA, NV, SD, AL) by 1918, before turning to immigration. 
Across the text, begins to appear the familiar language that Nazi Germany put into operation— the idea that the colonizers of North America were of the Nordic race appears on p 301, and proposals for implementing sterilization to stop those ‘whose offspring would probably be a detriment to race progress.”  The plan is to remove people to a colony, tracts of land with large buildings to separate out the unwanted  
The idea of separation and segregation was one endorsed by law across the US and funded by various non-profits that discovered ways to ‘elevate’ those with ‘Nordic’ ancestry, while subjecting the poor, infirm, immigrants and people of color to identities and practices such as sterilization that reinforced their subjugation. As historian Edwin Black noted, “California was the epicenter of the eugenics movement” that had “extensive financing by corporate philanthropies, specifically the Carnegie Institution, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Harriman railroad fortune. They were all in league with the some of America’s most respected scientists hailing from such prestigious universities as Stanford, Yale, Harvard and Princeton.”
Charities were paid to seek out immigrants in “crowded cities and subject them to deportation, trumped up confinement or forced sterilization.” The Rockefeller Foundation even funded a program that Josef Mengele worked in before he went on to Auschwitz. It comes as no surprise then, that such organizations propagandized for the Nazis, and funded them in Germany. If one fell beyond the gentrified genetic lines such as those persons who worked, researched and enabled the legal structures of these programs, those deemed weak or unfit were subject to extraction.
In August 1934, California eugenicists arranged for a Nazi scientific exhibit to be shown at the LA County Museum as part of the Annual Meeting of the American Public Health Association. Such exhibits legitimized what circulated in American popular culture through the 1920s and 1930s at state fairs and even world fairs. Similar ideas are circulating today within Far Right channels and from members of the US Government today; internationally, we see the growth of this ideology spread within sites of settler colonialism.
Eugenics hit its nadir within a decade through its association with Nazi Germany, and later testimony at the Nuremberg trials, where human rights abuses carried out as eugenics programs were claimed to be little different than the US.  What is problematic is that wherever such programs are employed, the criteria of selection are determined by whatever group is in political power. 
It is precisely this history that the field of genealogy has to recover from.
As a field, genealogical practice has expanded beyond the accumulation of facts and details to encompass the social histories of those overlooked or at risk of falling into obscurity. Cemeteries are being restored and along with that, the local histories of suppressed, exiled or earlier occupants of towns and cities are coming into visibility- and let us include and embrace our diasporic connections and activities within this circle.
Documentaries, podcast series like those of Angela Walton-Raji’s African Roots podcast and Bernice Bennett’s Research at the National Archives and Beyond help to disseminate new information, findings and work through social media channels. These sources have reached audiences well beyond the journal publications of various genealogical and historical societies.
There is an opening up towards acknowledgement of past harms done to various communities, that acknowledge pain while transforming it into knowledge and sites where people can come to the table and support each other in unpacking the past. This is not a kumbaya moment, but one where the aftermath of enslavement and its social and institutional reach into the present can be faced.
DNA adds another dimension, revealing past relationships that range from the coercive to the consensual that happened, and when augmented by oral history and documents, the process literally brings into visibility parts of ourselves through enslaved ancestors, free and freed people and slave holders. There are many of us who seek the receipts that establish this more contentious family history, fraught with scars and triumphs, that confirms and grounds a movement toward freedom and self determination.
The fears of the last century about the reach of one book that captured the imagination of millions as a faulty model for genealogical research were ultimately unfounded. After Haley’s book was published and the program series Roots aired, “letters of inquiry and applications to use the National Archives rose 40%. General interest in genealogy continues, as it offers a path to situate personal history in the larger context of national history, and to continuing education.
Recently, course offerings for genealogists are focused on writing family histories, and now, genealogical societies are taking it one step further and offering seminars on writing historical fiction based on family history. What the Abolitionist movement of the nineteenth century knew was that an audience had to hear not just facts, but a narrative, conveyed by a powerful voice or on the page, and if possible, to offer visual proof through photographs— all media used to convey their urgent message.
Ultimately, our task is to make visible and thereby end the historical erasure of difference (ethnic, race, gender, class) in the historical and genealogical record, and thereby honor those who came before us, our ancestors and their struggles.
1. BlackProGen LIVE, 11 October 2016. Ep.20b Talks Diversity in Genealogy and Family HIstory. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G1Z7Anc4Fj8&t=2s
2. Nicka Smith, “The Problem of the Color Line”, Who is Nicka Smith?.com http://www.whoisnickasmith.com/genealogy/the-problem-of-the-color-line/
3. Elizabeth Shown Mills and Gary B. Mills. “The Genealogist’s Assessment of Alex Haley’s Roots.” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 72 (March 1984): 35–49. 35-36. Digital image. Elizabeth Shown Mills, Historic Pathways. http://www.HistoricPathways.com : [9 Oct 2016].
4. “Although some Americans have been conditioned to superimpose racial divisions upon almost all aspects of life, such academic distinctions cannot exist in the science of genealogy. It is true, at the same time, that certain procedures in the pursuit of black genealogy do differ from those in the pursuit of English genealogy, that the pursuit of ancestral research among white Creoles of Louisiana is different from that among the Pilgrims of Massachusetts, that research in Virginia differs from research in Tennessee, that research on black families in Alabama differs from that on black families in New York.” Elizabeth Shown Mills and Gary B. Mills. “The Genealogist’s Assessment of Alex Haley’s Roots.” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 72 (March 1984): 35–49. 35-36. Digital image. Elizabeth Shown Mills, Historic Pathways. http://www.HistoricPathways.com : [9 Oct 2016]
5. Gary B. and Elizabeth Shown Mills, “ROOTS and the New ‘Faction’ a Legitimate Tool for Clio?.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 89:1, Jan 1981, 4. Digital image. Elizabeth Shown Mills, Historic Pathways. http://www.HistoricPathways.com : 15 Oct 2016.
6. “The structural racism lens allows us to see more clearly how our nation’s core values— and the public policies and institutional practices that are built on them — perpetuate social stratifications and outcomes that all too often reflect racial group sorting rather than individual merit and effort. The structural racism lens allows us to see and understand: the racist legacy of our past; how racism persists in our national policies, institutional practices and cultural representations; how racism is transmitted and either amplified or mitigated through public, private and community institutions; how individuals internalize and respond to racist structures. The structural racism lens allows us to see that, as a society, we more or less take for granted a context of white leadership, dominance and privilege.” The Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change, Structural Racism and Community Building. June 2004, 12. https://assets.aspeninstitute.org/content/uploads/files/content/docs/rcc/aspen_structural_racism2.pdf Accessed 9 Oct 2016.
7. See the steps and bibliography for James Ison’s syllabus “Using the Genealogical Proof Standard for African American Research” presented at two national conferences in 2010 https://familysearch.org/wiki/en/Using_the_Genealogical_Proof_Standard_for_African_American_Research Accessed 15 Oct 2016
8. Edmund Morgan quoted in Israel Spencer, NYT, 10 Apr 1977; in Mills, “ROOTS and the New ‘Faction’, 4.
9. Alex Haley, quoted in Nancy Arnetz, “From His Story to Our Story: A Review of “Roots”. Journal of Negro Education, 46:3, Summer 1977, 367-372. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2966780, 367
10. Arnetz, “From His Story to Our Story: A Review of “Roots”. Journal of Negro Education, 367-372, 368.
11. “Without community there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between and individual and her oppression. But community must not mean a shedding of our differences or the pathetic premise that these differences do not exist. Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucible of difference— those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older— know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only means of support.” Lorde’s title and her question remain pertinent: “What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy?” It is important to note that this seminal essay was written in acknowledgement of the lack of participation of Third World women of color at NYU’s Institute for the Humanities Conference. Audry Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Ed. Berkeley Press, 1984. http://muhlenberg.edu/media/contentassets/pdf/campuslife/SDP%20Reading%20Lorde.pdf Accessed 16 Oct 2016.
12. Consider the development of networks of genealogical organizations AAHGS and institutes, such as MAAGI, the AAHGS’ Afrigeneas.org project, the explosion of genealogical groups on Facebook, and efforts such as the transcription of the Freedmen’s Bank papers on FamilySearch among many others that point to the blossoming of the field. There remains more to be done in terms of acceptance and incorporation of difference for genealogy by POC.
13. “Structural Racism Produces Racialized Outcomes.” See Chart, Structural Racism and Community Building. The Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change. June 2004, p12. https://assets.aspeninstitute.org/content/uploads/files/content/docs/rcc/aspen_structural_racism2.pdf
I recently discovered the podcast Uncivil (Gimlet Media) in searching for significant events for discussion on the upcoming episode of Black ProGen Live. Right now, Uncivil consists of 10 episodes so far, spanning different episodes in nineteenth century US Civil War history The latest show ( Ep. 10 podcast, released 27 December 2017) dealt with the myth of the Black Confederate soldier.
Uncivil is hosted by Chenjerai Kumanyika, author, journalist, and professor of journalism and communications at Rutgers University, and Jack Hitt, a Peabody Award-winning journalist, author and radio producer. The programs intend to bring “stories that were left out of the official history of the Civil War, ransacks America’s past and takes on the history you grew up with.” Indeed, we need these reexaminations, and it’s great to have this material available to think with.
The trajectory of this particular story followed an arc that began with unpacking of historical knowledge via a young caller to the show, and culminates with the descendants of Silas Chandler (1 Jan 1837-Sept 1919). They discovered their ancestor being discussed in a photograph brought to Antiques Roadshow in 2009. During the program, the moment to explain enslavement was lost, the myth took over, leading to a division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans placing a metal cross on his grave in Mississippi, and stealing Silas Chandler’s image by reproducing it on various surfaces from t-shirts to films, prints and photos all proclaiming this evidence of participation.
The Weight of Images & Problematic Histories
The photograph is a tintype, and close up, its surface reveals a cracked emulsion with an ornate copper colored metal edge. Notable details are the position of the two men, side by side, visually composed to emphasize their inequality. The younger Andrew Chandler’s hips were elevated to lend height well above Silas, whose seat is tilted back at the hips to make him seem shorter than his slave owner’s. To read Silas’ smile is to read a face weary of waiting for a moment, if not the war and slavery itself, to be over.
Sites that proclaim that they have ‘evidence’ of Black Confederate soldiers, and one features a painting of a Civil War battlefield, no location just a battle scene. Just off center, is a kneeling black man holding the head of a white man wearing the gray uniform of the South. The military serviceman is injured and bleeding into a large handkerchief. It’s white surface creates an area that visually marks and makes central for the viewer, the tableau with a enslaved adult man at the center. He has no arms no gun, no rifle, he simply serves and tends to the white master, an ideological composition that seeks to deny historical reality by providing a romanticized tableau. This same idea was extended to the photograph, a plain effort to define Silas Chandler as a soldier. He was not.
As Myra Chandler Sampson (Silas Chandler’s great-granddaughter) and Kevin M Levin note, “Interest in Silas’ military career has been fueled by a desire to affirm that Southern blacks were just as eager as whites to fight back against the invaders— an attempt to validate the belief that the war did not ignite over slavery but over predatory Northern acts.” They go on to ask: So what role did Silas really play in the war, and why did he choose to fight for the South—if he actually did? One thing is clear: Ever since the SCV posthumously ‘honored’ Silas, an enslaved body servant who accompanied his white master into service, accounts of black Confederate troops have surged in popularity, with some now claiming that upwards of 100,000 blacks fought willingly in Southern ranks.
While there were a small number of enslaved black men who served in the Confederacy, but they comprised less than 1% of those who served. A 2015 article in The Root, goes into further details about this controversy. In a nutshell: “How many supported it? No one knows precisely. But by drawing on these scholars and focusing on sources written or published during the war, I estimate that between 3,000 and 6,000 served as Confederate soldiers. Another 100,000 or so blacks, mostly slaves, supported the Confederacy as laborers, servants and teamsters. They built roads, batteries and fortifications; manned munitions factories—essentially did the Confederacy’s dirty work.” Note that African Americans were unable to enlist in the Confederacy until an order was issued in March 1865, the last month of the war. In contrast, almost 187,000 African Americans joined the Union Army over the course of the war, with numbers rising for the last two years.
Details That Matter: The move towards freedom
Why does the story matter? Because this was a myth fed to fourth grade children in social studies texts and museum exhibits organized by descendants of the confederacy. There’s potential for these scenarios to be incorporated and disseminated into some family histories and genealogies, effectively casting the shadow of confederate myth over a lineage while declaring a white nationalist identity.
Silas was born into slavery on 1 January 1837 in Virginia and two years later, his slaveholder, Roy Chandler moved him and 39 other enslaved people along with the Chandler family to Palo Alto in Clay County, Mississippi. As an adult, once freed, Silas kept his owner’s surname.
Roy Chandler claimed a land grant after an 1831 treaty that displaced thousands of American Indian peoples in the area, and gave white settlers some 11 million acres of state land. Silas became the body servant to Roy Chandler’s son, Andrew born in 1844. Silas sits alongside Sergeant Andrew Chandler, the white man in uniform in the photograph. Yet the fear of armed black men ran rife through the Confederacy, and they supplied no guns, nor permitted combat roles for African Americans until the final weeks of the war; add the fact that thousands of African Americans were supportive of the North, to the point of escaping to Federal lines, and the desperation to legitimize the myth of participation becomes evident.
Silas weighed his situation, and “likely gained even more freedom of movement when Andrew was wounded and captured at Shiloh in April 1862 and imprisoned… Deemed human property he was legally bound to Andrew.” Although Silas returned and helped his master return home after injuries at the Battle of Chickamauga. Extant correspondence shows Silas’ return would be to his wife and newborn child. Silas served again in 1864, going with Andrew’s younger brother Benjamin, who served in the 9th Mississippi Calvary.
Why Silas Chandler’s Story Matters
Silas Chandler was a carpenter and helped found the first black church, Mount Hermon Baptist Church in West Point, Mississippi. He married Lucy Garvin about 1860, “daughter of a house slave named Polly and an unnamed plantation owner.” They had 12 children, 5 who survived to adulthood, and one son was the great-grandfather of Myra Chandler Sampson. Silas lived to appear in the 1910 US Federal Census, where a glimpse of the life he built with his wife Lucy can be seen, some nine years before he died. In contrast, Palo Alto, MI, where he first lived in bondage, became a ghost town. It’s worth noting that the Wikipedia article on Palo Alto mentions that “In 1876, Palo Alto was the site of an incident in which a group of heavily armed white men brought a piece of field artillery and broke up a meeting of the Republican Club in order to suppress black voters.” This is just one of myriad examples of retaliation committed against people of African descent that numerous whites committed after Reconstruction and the passage of ‘black codes’ in 1865 and 1866. Despite their efforts, Silas Chandler raised his family and contributed to his community.
What I appreciate about the Uncivil podcast is the content, and the website’s clear layout and availability of transcripts, allowing one to easily search for subjects. As an adjunct to genealogical study, it helps bring to the table some of the issues that POC genealogists and their families face when working on family lines that head straight into terrain already complicated by locating material. Understanding documentary context helps with document analysis, and depending on one’s location, its easy to see how details can be used and misused to serve very different needs. Hearing voices waver, be insistent, vulnerable or firm, reminds one that this history still matters enormously. The events in Charlottesville last summer speaks to the urgency of projects that seek to unpack the historical pain and experience of those populations born or taken into slavery who made this country possible from its inception, and this foundational fact can no longer be ignored. We are still navigating this past.
In this case, the attempt to hijack family history for an ideological purpose was foiled, precisely because these descendants pressed on to tell their stories, writing, broadcasting and, Myra Chandler Sampson continues to speak truth to power. May we all find the strength to bring our ancestors into the light.
Following up on BlackProGen LIVE’s Episode #31: People of Color in the Northeast and New Jersey, I offer a brief compilation of archival websites that can be helpful for locating additional details for genealogy and family history of Latinx & Caribbean POC in New York and New Jersey.
First, a little background….
Over time, as archives develop along with the growth of communities, a variety of materials can be located within state and city library systems, universities and institutions. New York and New Jersey have a number of significant archival repositories, of which some collections can be searched on line, and to gain the most, arrange for an in-person visit. Plan to check them out after exhausting initial sources such as census and vital records.
Why this matters for your family history…
Migration occurs in waves: interviewing elders and others within your family network may ease the process of where to look for records, and determining when ancestors turn up in a given location. During the nineteenth and early-mid twentieth centuries, voluntary migration began, and metropolitan areas offered opportunities for work, housing and education that many moved to, in hope of bettering their family’s situation, if not simply to resolve issues of flat out survival. This cycle was driven by the needs of labor and industry, and people clustered in small overlapping ethnic communities. Upheaval of a system, whether due to war, political instability or economic collapse can be part of the larger context of why ancestors moved to New York, New Jersey and other locations.
Understanding this larger context will help you as you write your family history.
As Jie Zong and Jeanne Batalova note in their article on “Caribbean Immigrants in the United States”: “In 2014, approximately 4 million immigrants from the Caribbean resided in the United States, accounting for 9 percent of the nation’s 42.4 million immigrants. More than 90 percent of Caribbean immigrants came from five countries: Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Haiti, and Trinidad and Tobago”[1.] Some movement to the states was due to restrictions on immigration instituted by British government on former colonies. The Haitian diaspora began in the 1920s-1930s, and New York City has the largest and oldest concentration of Haitians in the US. 
Each country’s history varies in terms of who and why different groups of people arrived and departed its shores. The reasons why can give additional clues for tracing your family’s movement across the globe.
Note that diasporic movement of populations means potential family connections can extend worldwide. Take a look at the interactive map on Migration Information – it provides information on contemporary migrations by country, depicted on maps, along with reports on different populations.
A Preliminary Guide for Historical Records Sources on Latinos in NY State (2002)
Although dated, this 112 page guide provides details on archival holdings around the state. Also has appendices organized by topic, includes correctional facilities, various institutions. Check against more recent listings as a number of collections were augmented since it was compiled, and may also have websites.
As discussed on the program, if there are activists among your ancestors, then it’s likely that there are records from government agencies such as the FBI.
Also at Centro: FBI and Puerto Rico
Ramon Bosque Perez’ testimony before Congressional Briefing gives an overview of the archival material held at Centro, which covers four decades. (The URL is long, so you may have to cut and paste into your browser.)
NYPL- Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture,
Manuscripts, Archives Rare Books Division
515 Malcolm X Boulevard (135th St and Malcolm X Blvd) New York, NY, 10037
“The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of The New York Public Library is generally recognized as the world’s leading research library devoted exclusively to documenting the history and cultural development of people of African descent worldwide.”
Toll-free: 1-866-840-1752 or 212-401-1620Has historically relevant archives for federal agencies and courts of New Jersey, New York, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands dating from 1685 to the present.
Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Aruba, Bahamas, Barbados, Cayman Islands, Cuba, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Jamaica, Martinique, Montserrat, Netherlands Antilles, Puerto Rico, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, Turks and Caicos Islands, Virgin Islands