Some of you started long ago. I started six months ago. Perhaps some of you will start today. When it comes to the very difficult and incredibly rewarding challenge of documenting America’s enslaved populations, we who descend from slaveholders are the logical ones to do the work. It makes sense at so many levels. Welcome, GEGs, to the Beyond Kin Project.
My blogging has become rather sparse since November, and I told you there was something very special I was preparing. I’ve been working with my colleague Frazine Taylor, an expert on African American genealogy, to create the Beyond Kin Project. The BKP encourages and facilitates the genealogical documentation of enslaved populations. We have adapted the use of existing software and research techniques and cultivated the most vital tool: the association of slaves with the families who held them.
The idea hit me one night when I was co-teaching a beginning-level genealogy class with a colleague. She taught the section on African American genealogy — something with which I had no experience at all. She displayed on the screen the bill of sale for a woman purchased by her own ancestor in Florida many generations ago. For the first time, it hit me: I should be documenting my ancestor’s slaves.
We all should, for so many reasons.
Reason #1: Your story is unfinished.
Would your slaveholding ancestors recognize the all-white household you have created in your family tree for them? Whose hands laid the fire in the hearth as they awoke each morning, rolled the biscuits they ate for breakfast, and washed and mended the clothes they wore? Who nursed them when sick and dug their graves? Who built their houses and cared for their livestock? Who picked the cotton and made them rich? Our ancestors lived in a black and white interconnected environment.
Their story is incomplete without this group of vitally linked, but often genetically and legally unrelated, persons. The segregated world of America after the Civil War was a new invention. Our slaveholding ancestors never knew a fair and equitable world, to be sure, but they most definitely knew an integrated world.
We’re calling these nonlegal, nonbiological, intricately intertwined relationships “Beyond Kin.” We need them to complete our ancestors’ stories. And the descendants of enslaved people need us to fill in the gaps in their ancestral story.
Reason #2: We have the records.
Have you ever thought about the math of descendants? If your ancestor had a single slave in 1850, perhaps as many as 20,000 descendants of that one person are alive today. Twenty thousand.
Now let’s say that only one document remains on this planet that connects their enslaved grandmother by name to the white family who owned her. One document alone can take her story further back. Twenty thousand people could have their heritage except for one thing. The one document is in an envelope, in a box, in a chest . . . in your attic.
Maybe it’s your aunt’s attic or your cousin’s or a relative across the world. But you get the picture. Descendants of the enslaved depend on records often kept by the descendants of those who enslaved them.
Every mention of a slave counts. Every word is a treasure.
And documents disintegrate.
Reason #3: We’re already going through the records.
If we want to do our family history well (and we’re GEGs, so of course we do), we’ll mine every available record, page by page and line by line. If a document mentions a slave, we’ll come across it.
But will we pay attention to it? Will we see it as relevant? Or will we scan past it?
If we want to know our ancestors’ world, we’ll mine the records for all the people who built their daily reality. It may slow us down, but the family story will be all the richer for our effort.
Reason #4: For us, it’s a sure thing; for them, it’s speculative.
As I document my ancestors’ enslaved populations, I’m creating the real story of my family. I never need to question whether I’m wasting my time, because my connections to my ancestors are heavily documented.
But what about the descendants of enslaved persons? They get their family story back to 1870, if the records allow. Everything before that requires speculative data mining until they find confirmation that they have the right person on the right plantation. Will the designated family historians of 20,000 descendants per slave have to do all the work you’re already doing, but do it on speculation that they might, just might, have the right plantation?
For just one nuclear family in my tree, that’s 42 slaves. Let’s say, for argument’s sake that this is actually 21 married couples. Even then, we’re talking about more than 400,000 people.
Or might we descendants of slaveowners do the work once for all?
Reason #5: The genealogical challenge fulfills you in the most remarkable way.
Six months of documenting my family’s enslaved people has offered a brain-teaser like none other — catnip to the GEG. It’s genealogy at a whole new level.
But it’s better than that. It’s enlightening. For the first time in my life, African American history is my history. I’m ordering books on slavery. I want to know this world.
It’s expanding my mind.
You’re convinced, so now what?
If we are to do this work effectively and make it available to others, we must be able to link our slaveholding families to their enslaved personnel in genealogical software. Working with Frazine, we have developed a method of creating these links.
The Beyond Kin method allows you to gather what was once impossible to connect in genealogical software — the scraps of information about slaves. The data that appears in slaveholder documents hints that people lived and worked on that property. But they often have brief, nameless descriptions. We finally have a way to gather and analyze the scraps until they start to take shape as ancestors.
We have boiled down the most effective steps to do the research. And we will be adding strategies and tools as we all work on these projects and learn from each other.
You’ll find expanded justifications, instructions, and guidance at The Beyond Kin Project.
Only for slaveholders’ descendants?
While we are particularly challenging the descendants of slaveholders to take up this project, all are welcome and encouraged. If you do not know of slaveholding ancestors, you can certainly adopt a plantation and get the work done.
If you descend from enslaved persons, this can also be a great technique for you to gather and analyze the essential information. We have a modified set of research strategies that help you wade through the challenges that can surface in genealogy of the enslaved.
Visit our new site, The Beyond Kin Project, to join the adventure.