by Kenyatta D. Berry, JD, Genealogy Roadshow (PBS)
How did you get started in genealogy? What is the most interesting thing you have discovered about your ancestors? These are the top two questions I receive from fans of Genealogy Roadshow. I got my start in genealogy while in law school. Unlike most professional genealogists who start by researching their own families then moving onto friends, I began this journey by researching the family of a former boyfriend whose ancestors were prominent members of the African-American communities in Atlanta, Fayetteville (NC), and Philadelphia. Spending long hours at the State Library of Michigan in Lansing, I roamed the stacks looking at biographies and reviewing various online databases. During this time, I developed an interest in genealogy and quickly discovered it was my passion!
I had heard that my maternal great-grandmother Esther Lewis Kendrick was from Le Roy, New York, near Rochester. I wrote to the town historian in Le Roy requesting information about her and other family members. The Le Roy historian put me in touch with my first cousin three times removed, Marion Sellers Phillips. Marion informed me that my third great-grandmother Emily Carter Sellers (Esther’s grandmother) migrated to Livingston County, New York from Culpeper, Virginia around 1886 or 1887.
Emily Carter, a former slave, was emancipated at the end of the Civil War. She lived in Madison and Culpeper Counties in Virginia before migrating with her family to New York. Like most African-Americans with enslaved ancestors, my research hit a brick wall at the 1870 census. In 1870, my fourth great-grandfather Lewis Carter (Emily’s father) resided in Madison County, Virginia with personal property valued at $1,150 and real property valued at $4,700.1
How did a former slave have so much real and personal property in 1870? To answer this question, I focused my research on the Freedmen’s Bureau2 records at the Library of Virginia in Richmond. I located a labor contract for Lewis Carter and Dr. John W. Taylor in Madison County, Virginia dated January 8, 1866. The term of the contract was for one year.3 Further research indicates that Lewis Carter renewed his agreement with Dr. Taylor every year until about 1871.
To learn more about Emily’s life before migrating to upstate New York, I traveled to the Culpeper County Court House. During my visit, I came across a book called Some pre-1871 Vital Statistics on Colored Persons of Culpeper County, Virginia, by Robert Allen Hodge.4 At the time, I did not realize this resource was a compilation of cohabitation records.
Years later, I decided it was time to focus on my paternal family. Early in my genealogy journey, my father gave me a copy of a lawsuit from the Supreme Court of Arkansas. After reviewing this document, I was surprised at what I learned about my paternal family history. My fourth great-grandfather “Old Joe” Edwards was a slave in Union County, Arkansas. According to a distant cousin, Old Joe was a basket weaver who was allowed to leave his owner’s plantation and sell his baskets in the county. Old Joe had a family on the plantation where he resided and a family at the neighboring Gantt plantation. Old Joe had thirteen children by three different women. His son Jim W. Edwards died in 1946 with two oil-producing wells on his land. When Jim died, half of his estate went to his widow while the Supreme Court of Arkansas ruled that the other half should go to the descendants of ten half brothers and sisters. One of those half siblings was my fourth great grandmother Patsy Gantt. The Arkansas Supreme Court recognized the validity of a slave ritual known as jumping the broom as a legal family bond. I was able to identify all of the half siblings and most of their descendants from one case!
This journey has been remarkable, overwhelming, and deeply satisfying. I enjoy the challenge of slave ancestral research, and I look at every document as a piece of evidence whether it is direct or circumstantial. Understanding my heritage gives me a greater sense of self, a connection to my ancestors, and a hope for my future. Everyone has a story, and it’s important to tell these stories in a historical context. African-American voices need to be heard, and family connections should not be lost in the basement of a courthouse, on the pages of a deed, or as inventory in a probate case.
1Lewis Carter household, 1870 US Census, Madison County, Virginia population schedule, Locust Dale Township, Madison Court House post office, page 74, dwelling 482, family 490.
2Freedmen’s Bureau was a government agency established in 1865 to aid former slaves with education, employment, labor, and other disputes.
3Record of the Proceedings of the Freedmen’s Court – December 26, 1865, Freedmen Bureau Records, Madison Courthouse, Madison County, VA.
4Hodge, Robert Allen. Some Pre-1871 Vital Statistics on Colored Persons of Culpeper County, Virginia. 1978.
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