Black People Are Finding Their Ancestors Through Centuries-Old Newspaper Ads
Melissa Harris-Perry: Welcome to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. Thanks for joining us. Last year, the Tony Grammy and Emmy award-winning singer and actor Audra McDonald sat down with Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates for an episode of his PBS show, Finding Your Roots.
Female Speaker 1: Male age 58, female age 45.
Melissa Harris-Perry: The Finding Your Roots research team did for McDonald what they've done for dozens of notable and accomplished celebrities during more than a decade on PBS. They'd found her people. Using census data, public documents, and deep archival exploration, the team uncovers real names, places, dates, and tells tangible stories discovered from the breadcrumbs of family stories.
Female Speaker 1: It's such a mixture of feelings because you want to find them. I was hoping you could give back as far as you guys could and that's wonderful, but then it's like, "Huh." Here they are listed as property.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It's nearly impossible to witness these ancestral discoveries without a lump of swelling emotion. The self-discovery made possible by historical discovery is profound. It's important to remember that the Black American search for our people is not new. It does not begin with this generation.
Male Speaker 1: I would like to find my people. I was born in Somerset County, Maryland, and my master's name was John Anderson of Eastern Shore America.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In the years following the Civil War, thousands of formerly enslaved people placed ads, like the one you were just hearing in their local newspapers. In each, those who were desperately searching for their loved ones, provided as many details as they could.
Male Speaker 1: I left about 37 of them. Mother's name was Peggy. She had her husband named Adam Lengthen. He was my stepfather. My brothers were George, Alexander, Charles, Gore's, Sandy, and myself [unintelligible 00:02:16]. My brother George got drowned in Montgomery, Alabama, in Alabama River. John Anderson, my master died in Baltimore, Maryland before I left, but was brought home on King branch five miles from Princess Anne's County.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You're listening here to professional voice artists. These professional voice artists, they're working with historians and genealogists who are collecting, cataloging, and archiving the ads and messages placed by 19th-century Black Americans who were searching for family after the end of legal American slavery. It's part of the project Last Seen, Finding Family After Slavery an effort out of Villanova University in Pennsylvania. Their researchers have cataloged over 4,500 advertisements.
Each is a testament to the humanity of those who've been treated as though they were chattel. Each attempt to reunite with parents, siblings, and children is evidence of the families and communities forged by Black folk even in the context of intergenerational bondage. Many slave laws disallowed marriage, the economic whims of enslavers were always considered more important than familial bonds, but nonetheless, the enslaved made family.
Male Speaker 1: I would like to find my people.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Some knew the name of the town in which they last saw each other, the name of the former enslaver, or just the name that their loved one had at one time.
Female Speaker 2: Balem was the oldest. Balem was sold to Gilbert Chivers in Sampson County, Mississippi on Silver Creek. I was sold to his cousin, Henry Berry, and was brought to Texas by James Oldman.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In the just over 150 years since the end of legal American slavery, many descendants are still searching for people. Now, these 19th-century advertisements just may help those who are searching.
Male Speaker 2: Information wanted of Rachel. A young mulatto woman who was sold in this city in the spring of 1864 to Mr. Moore by Mrs. Mary Ann Baldwin in Mississippi. Information of her whereabouts left with this will be thankfully received by her father, Taylor Green, and Allen 18 Perry Street, August 25th.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm joined now by Rachel Swarns, a contributing writer of The New York Times and an associate professor of journalism at NYU. Rachel's been reporting the stories of folks who are using archives to find their ancestors who were enslaved. Welcome to The Takeaway, Rachel.
Rachel: Thanks so much for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Also with us is Blair Kelley, Professor of History at North Carolina State University. In January, she's going to become the director of the Center for the Study of the American South at UNC-Chapel Hill. She's working on a new book, Black Folk: The Promise of the Black Working Class. It's due out in June of 2023. Thanks for being here, Blair.
Blair: Hi, Melissa. It's great to be here.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Rachel, can I start with you? You recently wrote a piece for The New York Times about Edward Taylor, a man born into slavery who used newspaper ads to try to find his family. Can you tell us his story?
Rachel: Yes. His story is so typical of the thousands of families who did just that. He was born in Maryland, and separated from his siblings and his family, shipped off to Louisiana. He joined the Union Army, fought in the Civil War, married, had children, bought a plot of land. In the 1880s, he was an example of success in terms of what formerly enslaved people were looking for, for themselves with freedom, but he never forgot what he had lost. That's when he put this ad in a newspaper looking for his siblings, and his parents. He was in his 50s still trying to find his family.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Rachel, why newspaper ads?
Rachel: Well, we have to think back to the time, no cellphones, no telephones. These newspapers were carrying these stories, these ads. It was a way for people to try to get the word out, to let people know that here I am in Louisiana. I am still looking for my mother, my child, my father, my brothers and sisters.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Blair, as a historian, helps us understand the value of these ads, both for individuals seeking their own story and maybe for a broader sense of the story.
Blair: As a researcher on the history of the turn of the century south, I began to look at newspapers. This was before digitization. I was looking at them on my first book, by hand and scrolling. The benefit of scrolling through the papers is that you could see all of what was there, not just the thing you were looking for. I would see hundreds of these lost loved one ads, as we call them, and they're really powerful testimony of the way in which thousands of people hoped against hope that they could find brothers, sisters, mothers, cousins, the children that they lost.
They were beautifully collected by historian Heather Williams in her book Help Me to Find My People, which was published in, I believe, 2012. She went through 1,200 of these ads and analyzed them and really explored not only what they tell us about the internal trade, but also what it tells us about the emotionality of the enslaved. So often we think just about the numbers. We think about the many thousands, the millions who suffered under this regime.
To think one by one, about the suffering of a mother having her child taken from her arms and sold away forever, is such a powerful reminder of the humaneness at the center of this terrible economic system. I think it's our job as historians to get back to that humaneness. I'm thankful to the work of Heather Williams, the work of Taya Miles and her beautiful book about Ashlee Sack. These kinds of stories help us think one by one about the families and about the ways in which the suffering must have been unimaginable. These ads give testimony to that.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Blair, you're talking about the humanity, not just millions, but this one and then this one, and then this one. Of course, family trees, always reminding us that the one is right, always connected to this broader system. Even with an archive like Villanova. It's 4,500 ads. Do you have a sense of even what fraction of the total number of ads placed that might be?
Blair: They probably are getting closer to the total number. We have to remember that to place the ad in the newspaper took resources. It took access to a literate person. Remember that the majority of enslaved were not allowed to learn how to read and write. This is probably an elite activity to a certain extent, and we see thousands of them. We can imagine that there are thousands more, tens of thousands more who could not place an ad, who did not live in a community that had a Black newspaper that would reprint their notions about looking for a brother or a sister or a parent.
Yet we know that desire went beyond this individual community who could read or write or place an ad to everyone who wanted to know where they came from who wanted to know if their folks were okay, if they had survived the journeys to these disparate states, that they had survived enslavement and war. It's such a powerful reminder of this is just a subsection of the depth of pain and suffering that individuals had within enslavement.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Rachel, I want to build on this point that Blair was making about the ways that even within the context of recently enslaved people, there's still a level of access that is necessary. I know you've written about this reality that, Frederick Douglas, who was separated from his brother for four decades, they did finally find one another. That notion that Frederick Douglas, we think of this great American statesman that needed to place an ad to find his own brother.
Rachel: That's right. I think the scale of it that there are these thousands of ads, but as Blair points out, sometimes people had to pay something. You had to be able to get a letter to a newspaper and also just the scale. We have about a million people who were forcibly relocated just like Edward Taylor was from the Chesapeake to the deep south. About a third of first marriages in the upper south were broken up by the slave trade, the domestic slave trade, historians saying nearly half of all children in the upper south lost at least one parent to the slave trade.
The scale is enormous. These newspapers only capture a fraction of what was going on. I would say one thing that struck me as I was thinking about Edward Taylor and looking through these ads, these ads do serve as a testament to the enormous suffering that people experienced. To me, it's also a testament to love and the importance of family connections to these formerly enslaved people who are finding their way in a new world. I think for me there was enormous beauty and inspiration in that.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Blair, you work on this new book, did some work to find your own people. Can you tell us about the tools you used and maybe one of the stories you found?
Blair: It's been an enormous joy to get to write about my ancestors and think through their experiences as the working class. My mother was a big storyteller. She loved to repeat over and over again the stories that she'd learned from her father, from her grandfather, from her mother about the things that they survived and endured. I use those as a basis to explore in ancestry.com, which has been an incredible tool to digitize the census records, death records, wills, slave schedules, a variety of different documents.
I began to pursue my grandfather's line, and I found my father's back ancestor, Henry, who was probably the child of this internal trade or at least brought forcibly or his mother was probably brought forcibly from Virginia to Georgia. I can't find anything about his mother, but I can see from his own records that he's born sometime around 1822 or '24. It's been incredible to be able to get that far back. I know that so many folks have a really hard time finding people, but the one interesting way that we have of marking the history that Black people know about themselves are death certificates.
You get to name where a person is born and their parents, and so that really enabled me to get as far back on that line as I could. We know that the census did not record the whole names of most enslaved people and so it's really difficult. I connected Henry probably to the man that held him in bondage by tracing him, he was listed as mallato in most of the censuses and I had a pretty good sense of his age. He chose the name Rucker and Freedom probably connecting him to, not just the owner, but the community of people held by a man named John Rucker.
It was through those kinds of connections I could look through the slaves senses and see a mallato about that age held pretty consistently over time, and so I could make that connection. I also saw the name Henry and Rucker's will being passed down to a son and with no mention of his family, of his wife or his children being passed to that same son.
Fortunately, he's freed before that might happen to him, but it's a reminder of the violence of dispersal, of being sold away, of a death of an owner can wreak havoc in the lives of the enslaved, and break those important ties of love and familial connection of a people who have systematically suffered from those kinds of dislocations, from the Middle Passage all the way through to the civil war.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Rachel, I want to pick up on this same theme you were working on a new book in which you are writing about the Georgetown University, the sale of enslaved people by Jesuits and trying to understand, again, the depth of the harm done. That it is not just about reparative action for this individual, but for the entire network of community that is harmed. Can you talk a bit about your personal and journalistic work and those connections in a similar way?
Rachel: Well, I think it's important even as these ads show us the individual human stories which are so critical. It's also important to understand that slavery was a system that fueled the growth of many of our contemporary institutions including Georgetown University and the early Catholic church. Edward Taylor, whose story I was describing a bit earlier, was one of the more than 272 people who were sold to help keep Georgetown afloat in 1838. It's important to both keep an eye on the individual stories and the broader structural forces that are at play.
In terms of personal work, and this also plays into the story that I wrote for the New York Times, DNA testing has become a really important tool for many African American families, for Edward Taylor's family, his descendants. The one that I wrote about that was how she realized her connection, she did a test, an ancestry DNA test, and discovered that she had this connection to this community of people who were shipped from Maryland to Louisiana in this slave sale to benefit Georgetown.
That's how she found out about these ads, actually, from a historian at Georgetown University. For me, DNA testing has also been a helpful thing in terms of finding connections. In fact, connecting with people who have been able to provide me with more information than I ever would have imagined was possible. I feel like we are living in a time where all of these tools, the digitization of all of the documents that Blair is talking about, plus these 21st century tools like DNA testing are really helping African American families and individuals helping us find our people.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Blair, you want to weigh in on DNA as part of this?
Blair: I think it can be helpful. The most interesting stories I've heard are people finding secrets about their own families in terms of siblings and half step-parents and things that they did not know prior to it. It's also a reaffirmation of family and connection of far-off cousins. I did my DNA a few years ago after my mother passed away, and I found what I call DNA cousin, who I spoke to and who said that her mother had named her Geraldine after my mother's middle name.
She was so fond of it and my mother's family called her Gerry for short for her middle name, Geraldine. My grandmother and her grandmother were cousins and visited each other in Thomasville, one of the places that they lived along the migration route from South Carolina, and was marked by the story of my mother, a person she never met because they had the same name.
I thought that was so powerful that a person I would never have otherwise known was named after my mom and connected and showed that community of cousins who cared for each other and supported each other as they migrated from one place to another. A reminder of those important networks that people used to support them as they tried to find a better place and a better way, and to contest segregation and the limitations of race all around them, they were still leaning on those family roots to do so. That was probably my most important DNA cousin.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I did not know that story. I did have the pleasure of knowing your mother, at least a little in her life. She is quite a force to be named for. What a lovely story. Blair Kelley is a professor of history at North Carolina State University. In January, she'll become director of the Center for the Study of American South at UNC-Chapel Hill. her new book, Black Folk: The Promise of the Black Working Class will be out in June of 2023. Also, with us Rachel Swarns, Contributing Writer at the New York Times and associate professor of journalism at NYU. Thank you, Blair. Thank you, Rachel, for being here.
Blair: Thank you.
Rachel: Thank you.
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