Friday, November 4, 2011

Genealogy Serendipity Moment - Slavery

I grew up in Portland, Oregon and for the first few years of my life I had very little awareness of black people. African American might be a correct term, but the black population is from various backgrounds. Then I met my first African American friend when she joined a group of students who were integrated into our high school from another part of the city. After high school I attended a community college, in the middle of the African American community where my friend was from. I am sure others were frightened to be in "that part of town", but I felt very comfortable. When my youngest son was in second grade he asked me who were black people. We live in a community where there are very few shades of color in people. In our home we welcome people from many cultures.

In working on a project today I came across some people who were slave owners in Maryland.  This was a serendipity moment for me, as I had truly never fully considered what it would be like to see lists of people in the U.S. Census Slave Schedules. Really, they are hardly recognizable as people, only lists of males and females given by age and color. For color they are either black or mulatto. The ages amazed me, for many were young children. The Slave Schedules are available for 1850 and 1860, were used to get a count of the slave population before the Civil War.

Of the one surname I was examining, in 1850 there were 9 slave owners with 86 slaves. In 1860 there were 17 slave owners with 87 slaves. The most unsettling part for me were the young children 10 and under. In 1850 there were 39 with 11 who had no one of age to be their mother and in 1860 there were 22 with 8 who had no one of age to be their mother. It is hard for me to imagine children as young as one not living with their mother. Maybe she died in childbirth, but more likely the mother was sold off to someone else.

Looking at these lists has changed my perception of slavery. We might hope the slave owner was caring and kind, but the opposite is just as likely. Understanding history is so much more than what we learn in schools from textbooks and glorified movies. As genealogists we need to be open minded about the people we study and the cultures they come from. Preconceived notions will not help us to know the full history of the families that we study. So, to my African American friends, a heartfelt apology for my shallow notions of history. I am not sure how the client will feel about knowing their ancestors were slave owners, but as the researcher I have an obligation to help them understand this part of their family history.

For further information there are several good websites. Please share if you know of others.

No comments:

Post a Comment