Dad had a fairly extensive tree built out with no sources. I spent a couple of years working backwards just sourcing his research, correcting the few mistakes I found, and extending his research when possible until I got to the period of time just after the Revolutionary War. It's about this time frame in the U.S.when you need to rely on different record sets with which I was then unfamiliar. So I started learning about the types of records I would need to use to learn about my family before and just after the Revolutionary War. These are primarily wills, property deeds, estate inventory lists, court records (it was a surprisingly litigious society) and old books about family genealogies. I learned my ancestors owned land and grew tobacco or cotton as cash crops. I suspected I would come face-to-face with slavery, which was known by many as the "peculiar institution."
|Image of a watercolor entitled "Old Plantation (Slaves Dancing on a South|
Carolina Plantation) circa 1785-1795 attributed to John Rose; courtesy of
Just as I was sorting through my feelings about finding slave owners in my ancestry, I received a message through Ancestry.com about DNA matches with two people, whose tests were administered by their cousin. He was the one who contacted me. He believed the unknown shared ancestor must be from Bedford County, Virginia. I looked at the DNA matches he referenced and agreed. The geographic "hotspot" was definitely Bedford County, which made it likely our shared ancestors were from my Beard or Mitchell lines. These lines intermarried frequently. I had researched my great grandmother's Beard line extensively. Her mother, my great great grandmother, was Barbara Ann Mitchell (1841-1890), and I had done no research on the Mitchell family.
|Wood engraving entitled "The Inspection of a Negro" originally published|
in Captain Canot circa 1854; courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
I gave myself a somewhat successful lecture about not judging my ancestors by today's moral code and began researching my great great grandmother. As I worked backward to Barbara Ann's great grandfather, Robert Mitchell (1714-1799), the shaky leafs on my DNA results went nuts. Turns out, I'm loaded with Mitchell DNA.
The surprise was discovering William Armstead Claytor, a son of Barbara Ann's second cousin, Harvey Claytor (1800-1871). William was African-American and the likely son Harvey Claytor and the family's slave cook, Letitia. After the Civil War, William moved to Floyd County, Virginia, bought land, and raised a family of 13 children who all went on to become teachers and doctors. I was so moved by the family's accomplishments during a period when many laws were enacted which legalized discrimination that I started thinking about what I could do to help my African-American genealogy colleagues.
|William Armstead Claytor and his wife with 10 of their 13 children;|
courtesy of Ancestry.com member cclaytonarizona
At the same time I was thinking about how to help, Cather Meder-Dempsey, author of Opening Doors in Brick Walls, posted a story about her slave owning ancestor in three parts. Reading her story gave me a brainstorm (at least I think so). I would start a Slave Name Roll modeled on fellow Worldwide Genealogy blogger, Heather Wilkinson Rojo's Honor Roll Project. Heather graciously gave me permission to steal her format and we were off to the races.
The project was launched on the last day of February with links to named slaves of two people. I honestly had no idea how it would be received. I tweeted a link to the page and posted the link on my genealogy bloggers community Facebook page. As you can see by looking at the page nearly a month later, the response has been gratifying. And keeps me incredibly busy keeping up with the contributions. It's a good thing I'm retiring at the end of May! I hope you will contribute if you are able.
The success has started me thinking about the long-term future of the project. Am I the correct curator? Would another group or person be a more appropriate? What else should be done to the foster continuous collaboration between slave descendants and those with slave owners in our ancestry? I'd love your thoughts.