Tag Archives: African American Research

ICYMI: Tracing your African roots at NEHGS

The Old Plantation. Courtesy of Wikimedia.org

[Editor’s note: This blog post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 2 February 2016.]

From tracing free people of color in New England to identifying former slaves in the deep south, NEHGS can help you tell your family story. We have a number of guides and tools in our library and available through our education department and online databases that can help you jump start researching your African American roots all over the United States, not just New England. Continue reading ICYMI: Tracing your African roots at NEHGS

Updating an exhibit

Courtesy of Arlene Ovalle-Child

In 2010 I visited the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. An exhibit that caught my eye was called Within these Walls, which told the stories of five families who lived in a house in Ipswich, Massachusetts for more than two centuries. The period covered ranges from the Choate family as American colonists in the 1750s to the Scott family during the Home Front of the 1940s. The second family covered, under the period of “Revolutionaries – 1777–1789,” was the Dodge family, under the heading “the Dodges and Chance.” The Dodge household included an African-American man named Chance, as noted in Abraham Dodge’s 1786 will, where Abraham left his wife Bethiah “all my Right to the Service of my Negro Man Chance.” At the time I saw this exhibit, that reference was essentially all the show’s curators knew about Chance. Continue reading Updating an exhibit

Strong emotions

Several weeks ago I received an email from an acquaintance of mine, a man I will describe only as a prominent African American personality. Let’s call him Alex. He emailed to say he had read my book, The Stranger in My Genes, and he wanted to discuss something with me. Privately.

My book, published by NEHGS, tells the story of a DNA test I took to help a cousin with his genealogical research. The results were shocking. They revealed that my father was not my father. Since it was released in September of 2016, I have heard from dozens of people – friends and strangers – who have had similar experiences. I assumed Alex was only the latest. Continue reading Strong emotions

A pair of firsts

Bessie Coleman in 1922. Courtesy of Wikispaces.com

Recently, as I was browsing Google, I noticed their doodle for the day.[1] It was honoring Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman, who was born 26 January 1892. She was the first woman of African American and Native American descent to receive her pilot’s license, and she was also the first person of African American and Native American descent to receive an international pilot’s license. Continue reading A pair of firsts

Remembering William Monroe Trotter

William Monroe Trotter

The documentary “Birth of a Movement” – which premiered on 30 January at the Somerville Theatre outside Boston, and airs nationally on PBS on Monday 6 February during African-American History Month – explores D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) through a modern lens. What caught my attention about the film is the documentary’s protagonist, famed civil rights activist William Monroe Trotter (1872–1934). Trotter lived nearly his entire life in Boston and founded the Boston Guardian, an independent African-American newspaper. He also established the Niagara Movement, in 1915, with fellow Massachusetts native W.E.B. DuBois, and participated in numerous other causes for civil rights until his death in 1934. Continue reading Remembering William Monroe Trotter

Accounting for the care of slaves

call-plantation-record
From Florida Probate Records, 1784-1990, at FamilySearch.org.

I frequently contribute to a column on The Root online magazine, where I respond with Henry Louis Gates Jr. to genealogical questions from the readers. Often the questions involve trying to trace families back to the slavery period, which is a daunting and difficult task. Not only are records hard to come by, but the work can be an emotional rollercoaster.

It is mixed with the delight of finding an ancestor listed by name in a probate record, quickly followed by the realization that they are there because they were property. It can be hard to face the realities of the past when seeing children listed with monetary values next to their names, but also rewarding to know you have pieced a family together with the record. Continue reading Accounting for the care of slaves

ICYMI: Family papers

[Author’s note: This blog post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 19 August 2015.]

John Steward boxMy grandfather died almost 25 years ago, and sometime before that he gave me a box of “family papers.” The box itself is rather striking: a metal strong box, easily portable, with my great-great-grandfather John Steward’s name stenciled on top in fading paint. Inside the box are not just family papers, but intriguing (and, of course, unidentified) daguerreotypes and examples of other early photographic processes, along with materials treating the family of my great-grandmother, Margaret Atherton (Beeckman) Steward (1861–1951). Continue reading ICYMI: Family papers

Giving voice to the silenced

Siekman 1a
Figure 1: The Freedmen’s Bureau by Alfred R. Waud in Harper’s Weekly 25 July 1868 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
A very exciting and important project, one creating a searchable database for 1.5 million Freedmen’s Bureau records, is near completion. The database will allow family researchers to locate records of their ancestors at the click of a button and will surely revolutionize the way African-Americans conduct family research. The best part is, you can help!

The Freedmen’s Bureau, officially known as the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, was created near the end of the Civil War to help those needing assistance following the war, namely newly-emancipated slaves and white refugees, as well as to manage and resettle lands abandoned by former owners. Continue reading Giving voice to the silenced

Tracing your African roots at NEHGS

The Old Plantation
The Old Plantation. Courtesy of Wikimedia.org

From tracing free people of color in New England to identifying former slaves in the deep south, NEHGS can help you tell your family story. We have a number of guides and tools in our library and available through our education department and online databases that can help you jump start researching your African American roots all over the United States, not just New England. Continue reading Tracing your African roots at NEHGS

Devil at the crossroads

Robert Johnson full
One of only two confirmed images of Robert Johnson in existence.

Rock and roll icon Eric Clapton once described Robert Johnson as “the most important blues musician who ever lived.”[1] Despite the fact that Johnson influenced musicians decades after his death, his life is shrouded in mystery. Johnson is believed to have been born on 8 May 1911 in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, to Julia (Major) Dodds and Noah Johnson.[2] Julia was married to a prosperous landowner named Charles Dodds at the time of her son’s birth. Charles Dodds had been forced to leave Hazelhurst following a dispute with white land owners.[3]

By 1913, two-year-old Robert Johnson was sent to Memphis to live with Charles Dodds, where he is known to have attended school in 1916 before rejoining his mother in the Mississippi Delta area around 1919. Continue reading Devil at the crossroads