Wednesday, 25 March 2015

The Slave Name Roll Project

February is Black History Month in the United States. It seemed an appropriate time to write about DNA matches to two fourth cousins twice removed, who happened to be African-American. Here's how it all came about.

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
Wikimedia Commons

Just as I was sorting through my feelings about finding slave owners in my ancestry, I received a message through 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 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.


  1. I'm proud to have been a part of the reason that you began the Slave Name Roll Project and appreciate your mentioning me in this post. I was also very surprised that so many people have collaborated during the first month and hope that you will continue to be flooded with links. I realize that this is a very time consuming project and have wondered if there may be another venue for the project. Unfortunately at the moment I don't have any ideas and hope that this post may spark a new discussion concerning the long-term future of the project. ~ Cathy Meder-Dempsey

  2. I think it's a great project.

  3. Schalene, thank you for the mention. I am so proud that my blogposts for Black History month were one of the reasons you started the Slave Name Roll Project. The success is unbelievable and I hope that people will continue to flood you with links in the comments and per email. I know that this is a very time consuming project and I respect you for your determination to make the names accessible to the descendants. Unfortunately I don't have any ideas on the long-term future of the project. ~ Cathy
    P.S. My first comment yesterday did not get posted and I hope that this one will be.

  4. A wonderful,project and I wish you every success.

    1. Thank you, ScotSue. It's a far cry from the Scots side of my Dad's tree, I can tell you that. And oh do I miss those post-1855 Scottish records when I am in the U.S. and Canada for that matter.

  5. Schalene, I'm trying to post a comment. It's not posting. And it doesn't say it's pending moderation. ??

  6. Schalene, due to the early success of the project, I saw this coming. I just didn't realize it would

    be this soon! This is "your baby." So I hope you intend to maintain a hands-on

    approach in your search for a curator. I can't speak for these two organizations. I just consider

    them both to be reliable sources in the African American Genealogy community. I'm listing them

    alphabetically. I highly recommend them both; but I favor one because it may be more readily

    adaptable to take on the project.

    I'm sure you're familiar with Afrigeneas. I've

    known about them since I began my research back in the 1990's. Their organization has stood the test

    of time. Their primary focus is African American genealogy. But they offer general resources as

    well. I'm a member of their facebook

    . Angela Walton-Raji is at the helm of this organization; and she is one of the top-notch --

    if not THE top-notch -- personalities among African American genealogists. She is well-respected

    throughout the community.

    You might ask them if they would consider adding the Slave Name Roll Project to their

    Resources tab. That's just a thought. Once you visit the site, you may have a better idea.

    You may be familiar with Genealogy! Just Ask!

    . I learned of them when I was looking for African American facebook groups to join.

    It's run by Jan Mitchell and Robin Foster. Robin has a remarkable presence in the AA Genealogical

    community. They recently announced they are developing smaller groups by location. I joined each

    group for my locations; and was very happy to see they've also formed an Enslaved Ancestors -

    Genealogy! Just Ask!

    Their facebook page reached 9,000

    members this month. I realize The Project is more geared toward a website or blog instead of

    a facebook page. But I'm wondering if they would be more open to incorporating the Slave Name

    Roll Project
    into development of their site, blog since they're just starting out.

    Now that I've put them out here like this, I guess I should let them know you might be contacting

    them. What do you think? If you're looking for something on a smaller scale in mind, I might be able

    to come up with some names. Let me know.

    Best wishes. You're doing an amazing job. If I were retired, I might consider helping you. :)

    1. The comments here are moderated so that's the reason for the delay. You've given me two great contacts and much to consider. I'll be reaching out to both of them this weekend once I've had a chance to compose my thoughts on what I would like the future of the project to be. I know it in my head and and have articulated it to my husband, but I've never put them down on paper. I am quick to act, a virtue and a fault. I don't want this project to languish because of my inexperience of lack of understanding. I want it to succeed. If all I turn out to be is the birth mother, that's more than OK as long it's remains useful to others. I've been involved in a lot of start-up companies where the owner had a great idea but didn't have the skills to succeed; they just wouldn't give up control and ran it into the ground or kept it smaller than it could have been. I don't want to be like that.

  7. I know how much this project means to you. Take all the time you need. I hope my suggestions at least helped you prompted ideas regarding your direction for the Project. And if you have ANY reservations, by all means, heed them. I have great respect for you and admire your level of commitment. And I do realize this may take time. But I'll definitely keep an eye on the project and watch for your announcement.

  8. There is a closed Facebook group called Coming to the Table. Your genealogy notes have helped me to better understand Dr Archie Adams Claytor, a doctor in Saginaw, MI.

    1. I'm sorry I didn't see this comment until now. Dr. Claytor was murdered by a young man to whom he gave birth (he was an OBY-GN). I'm sure the young man didn't know that at the time. I have some articles about it on my family tree, but feel it is too recent a tragic event to blog about as Dr. Claytor still has children who are living.

    2. I'm sorry I didn't see this comment until now. Dr. Claytor was murdered by a young man to whom he gave birth (he was an OBY-GN). I'm sure the young man didn't know that at the time. I have some articles about it on my family tree, but feel it is too recent a tragic event to blog about as Dr. Claytor still has children who are living.


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