Who are your ancestors? Have you thought about your connection to them lately? Are slavery and freedom a part of your family’s legacy? If so, what impact did it have on your family’s life?
Most of my family history originates from the slave experience. In the pursuit to discover my roots, I intentionally asked questions and listened to elders as they shared stories about our family. I found piecing together my family history involved gathering remnants of information that were scattered, scribbled on note pads, and collected over the years. Much of the data required the help of my husband Melvin, an African American genealogist, to decipher it.
Once we began to unravel the information, it was as if a divine path opened and led us to my ancestors in Edgefield, South Carolina and beyond.
Almost immediately, we realized the challenges of conducting a genealogical study of an African American family. Many African American ancestors (two or more generations ago) were slaves, and some of them may have been mixed race. Records about their lives as slaves are sometimes, incomplete, inaccurate, or non-existent.
How could we move ahead without documentation like birth and death certificates, and marriage licenses?
One way was to listen to, and read accounts of, the descendant oral histories.
Because slaves were considered property, information about their lives often were found with records of the slave owners’ animals, tools, and equipment. So, we researched slave owners’ assets, property records, wills, deeds, appendices, and more.
We visited a former plantation, historical centers, archives, gravesites, churches, schools, and other places of interest.
We read slave narratives and old newspaper articles, and we relied on an exhaustive list of websites.
Our research also explored miscegenation and other components connected with slave ancestry.
My family lineage grew, and each ancestor’s story became so compelling that at times, we had to narrow our focus.
Today, I feel as though I began our 400th Year Commemoration and Reflection decades ago. Researching my slave ancestors has been a very emotional journey filled with tears, sorrow, and joy. I am proud to bear witness as a slave descendant. It’s a testament to one’s faith, strength, and resilience.
African Americans have spent more years enslaved than free. Our history of slavery in America needs to be taught in schools throughout our nation. We don’t need a special day to do so. I hope we use this time to prune and fertilize our soil so that future generations of Americans will be informed about our history. Instead of holding these truths, let us release the knowledge that we are all members of one human fabric that is a coat of many colors, God’s children.
Rev. Cleo Graham is the Associate Minister of Beneficent Congregational Church in Providence, Rhode Island. She and her husband Melvin continue their years-long journey exploring the history of their families.
This reflection originally appeared in a special edition of the Beneficent Church's e-newsletter and is reprinted with permission.
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