Some Resources (and a New Roadblock) in African American Research

On 19 June 1865, Major General Gordon Granger and his regiment landed at Galveston, Texas, to announce that the war had ended and the previously enslaved were free. “Wait,” you might think. “Wasn’t that 2½ years after the Emancipation Proclamation took effect?” Yes; yes, it was. Texas had not had a significant enough Union presence in the intervening years to enforce that executive order. So the enslaved of Texas knew nothing of their freedom until that June 19th and the arrival of Granger. Since that date, “Juneteenth,” as it came to be known, has celebrated the ending of slavery in the United States.[1]

To commemorate Juneteenth, even belatedly, I wanted to publicize a few new and/or important resources in African American research, as well as a recently created roadblock that significantly impacts researchers. I’ll start with the bad news first. It’s not insubstantial.

You may or may not have noticed, but in recent months your search results on Ancestry have changed: they no longer include the 1850 and 1860 US Federal Census Slave Schedules. The change wasn’t publicly announced (and to my understanding, wasn’t intended), but some researchers stumbled upon the problem the hard way.

In Black Perspectives, the award-winning blog published by the African American Intellectual History Society, Adam H. Domby wrote about these changes and their impact:[2]

When searching for an individual’s name, Ancestry.com stopped including results from the 1850 or 1860 United States Census Slave Schedules. This means that someone searching for ancestors might discover a wealthy progenitor with no record of the foundations of that wealth, making it all too easy to claim, as many privileged white American families do, that their individual family earned its fortunes outside of slavery despite the central role slavery had in shaping the nation’s politics, economics, culture, and society. . . .

The search engine functions to hide both slave ownership and enslaved people from the eyes of contemporary genealogists. . . . Even if a casual observer did suspect a family history of slave ownership and had the inclination to then search the slave schedules themselves, they found the schedules no longer searchable by name on Ancestry.com. As difficult as it already is to trace African American genealogy, this new programming made it all the more challenging to trace Black families from the margins of historical documents. . . .

Alerted to this issue, Ancestry representatives noted in March that a keyword search could help researchers find individuals in the 1850 and 1860 Slave Schedules[,] but this only worked if the name was spelled and transcribed correctly. . . .

Unlike with name searches, keyword searches do not detect similar results. Any misspelling, transcription errors, or the use of initials instead of a first name can cause a keyword search to miss results that would previously have been discovered. . . .

In early March, Ancestry promised to work on fixing the issue. Though it took about two months, Ancestry updated their search engine again [the first week of May 2019]. If you go to the 1850 or 1860 censuses, you can now search by slave owner name. While this is a improvement, issues remain. For starters, the search engine still lacks much of the capability to find similarly [mis]spelled names that the old name search held. More importantly, when a general name search of all Ancestry databases is done, the results from the slave census are still not included. Only those in the know, who go seeking information of slave ownership, will learn of their family’s ties to slavery. While Ancestry asserts the change was in response to complaints that under certain conditions saving a document to a family tree overrode data, the consequences, intended or not, was to make it harder to discover slave ownership.

Linda Stufflebean also blogged about her experiences and frustrations in a series of three posts that helpfully illustrate the problem with specific examples and screenshots.[3] Stufflebean followed her series with “Ancestry.com Answers: My Problems with the Search Engine.”[4] In that final post, Stufflebean relays the tips and pointers provided to her by Ancestry’s Crista Cowan. Cowan’s guidance is a big help, to be sure, but tips for circumventing a fundamental problem do not represent a lasting solution.

This disappointment notwithstanding, there is plenty to celebrate in the realm of African American research and resources.

Kimberly Powell recently updated her “10 Databases for Slave Genealogy.”[5] Not all the databases she discusses are new, but some are certainly new to me (like the Slavery Era Insurance Registry!). She also briefly discusses a few localized projects and websites created to record African American slave data hidden in traditional records. A fine example is Forever Free: Slave Deeds of Buncombe County, NC, in which the County Register of Deeds office worked with local teachers and students to extract, compile, and present data from deeds of sale of enslaved people in the county, 1776–1865.

In fact, very local and personal efforts are cropping up more and more. Stacy Ashmore Cole, for example, recently discovered her 4th-great-grandfather’s will in which she saw for the first time the names of the people he had enslaved: Abram, Andrew, Edwin, Elitha, Siby, Toney, Clayton, Sandy, Frank, Toby, and Saul. After knowing their names, Cole was compelled to begin researching these people, who would prove to be a family. When she realized how difficult it would be for their living descendants to find them, Cole determined to build a public tree for that family. She also created a website to share records pertaining to any African Americans, enslaved or free, in Liberty County, Georgia. Her site, They Had Names: African Americans in Early Records of Liberty County, Georgia, has quickly amassed a sizable collection of wills, estate inventories, deeds, church records, bonds for “colored orphans,” and a list of free persons of color, 1852–1854.

But larger, more concerted efforts are also making a difference. The African American Civil War Museum, Fold3, and the National Archives and Records Administration have joined forces to build a database of African American Civil War Soldiers. Volunteers are still working online to transcribe (or, more accurately, “abstract”) Civil War service records. You can register and volunteer to help here.

The Smithsonian Transcription Center hosts a similar project, wherein volunteers abstract Freedmen’s Bureau records. Volunteers can register and conduct that work here. And I’ve written before about Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery, a project of the Department of History at Villanova University in collaboration with Philadelphia’s Mother Bethel AME Church that transcribes “Information Wanted” ads taken out across the country by former slaves searching for long-lost family members.

Meanwhile the Center for Family History at the International African American Museum, FamilySearch, and BlackProGen Live have launched a joint effort: Restore the Ancestors 2019. That project coordinates volunteers to index FamilySearch records of interest to African American genealogy, particularly those of the former slaveholding states.

Finally, I have to mention Facebook groups, which can be a great help in keeping researchers up-to-date on the latest news and developments in a particular arena. I’m a member of several groups, including “Free People of Color Genealogy! Just Ask!” and “AAHGS NY – Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society,” the latter managed by the Jean Sampson Scott Greater New York Chapter of the national AAHGS. Their frequent and thoughtful posts make it easy to bring my attention to topics I would otherwise likely miss.

In honor of Juneteenth, take a moment to consider what you can do to help shed light on African American families and their stories. If you feel ill-prepared in African American research, head over to NGS’s Continuing Genealogical Studies for the course, African American Roots: A Historical Perspective. But do something. The emancipation of millions of Americans is worth commemorating.

 

[1] “History of Juneteenth,” Juneteenth.com, (https://www.juneteenth.com/history.htm: 14 June 2019).

[2] Adam H. Domby, “Beyond Romantic Advertisements: Ancestry.com, Genealogy, and White Supremacy,” Black Perspectives, 10 May 2019 (https://www.aaihs.org/beyond-romantic-advertisements-ancestry-com-genealogy-and-white-supremacy/: 13 June 2019).

[3] Linda Stufflebean, “My Problems with Ancestry.com Search Engines, Part 1,” Empty Branches on the Family Tree, 11 March 2019 (https://emptybranchesonthefamilytree.com/2019/03/my-problems-with-ancestry-com-search-engines-part-1/: 13 June 2019); “My Problems with Ancestry.com Search Engines, Part 2,” Empty Branches on the Family Tree, 12 March 2019 (https://emptybranchesonthefamilytree.com/2019/03/my-problems-with-ancestry-com-search-engines-part-2/: 13 June 2019); “My Problems with Ancestry.com Search Engines, Part 1,” Empty Branches on the Family Tree, 13 March 2019 (https://emptybranchesonthefamilytree.com/2019/03/my-problems-with-ancestry-com-search-engines-part-3/: 13 June 2019).

[4] Linda Stufflebean, “Ancestry.com Answers: My Problems with the Search Engine” Empty Branches on the Family Tree, 29 March 2019 (https://emptybranchesonthefamilytree.com/2019/03/ancestry-com-answers-my-problems-with-the-search-engine/: 13 June 2019).

[5] Kimberly Powell, “10 Databases for Slave Genealogy Research,” ThoughtCo.Com, updated 1 May 2019 (https://www.thoughtco.com/great-databases-for-slave-genealogy-1421640: 14 June 2019).

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  1. July 22, 2019 7:48 pm
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