Now What: Handling information about Slaves and Slaveholders

Now What: Handling information about Slaves and Slaveholders

David Fryxell offers some tips about handling documents and information relevant to those with enslaved ancestors for those descended from the slave owners.

Q. Recently, to my dismay, I found that my ancestors owned slaves. I’ve come across data about those enslaved that might be useful to their descendants. Is there an appropriate way to share this?

A. In a Q&A with The Root, “Finding Your Roots” host Henry Louis Gates Jr. offers some suggestions. Start with Ancestry.com, which has several relevant message boards, and the forums at AfriGeneas. Next, explore historical and genealogical societies in the area where your ancestor lived. These organizations may have projects that compile this sort of data. FamilySearch is also reportedly exploring ways to incorporate such information in its family trees.

For now, the closest thing we’ve found to a site that is specific to what you describe is the Slave Name Roll Project. It includes user-submitted documents, such as wills, with information on those enslaved.

The Bittersweet Blog shares stories of “linked descendants,” people who have a joint history in slavery—a pairing of a descendant of an enslaved person with a descendant of his or her slaveholder, who have found each other and who are in communication.”

The blog is associated with Coming to the Table, an organization that aims to promote racial healing through national gatherings and training workshops. Among the group’s efforts is a forthcoming book, Slavery’s Descendants: Shared Legacies of Race and Reconciliation (Rutgers University Press).

You can also search the web for state-specific projects such as the Texas Slavery Project, which is compiling a database of Texan slaves and slaveholders during the Republic era (1837–45), and Low Country Africana, which is compiling a database of slaveholders in South Carolina. The Virginia Historical Society has an ongoing project, Unknown No Longer, compiling the names of slaves.

The site Reclaiming Kin echoes Gates’ advice to share your finds with “the library, state archives and genealogical society of the location where the farm/plantation was located.” The site also offers these words of wisdom for descendants of slaveholders: “We are very clear that you did not own any slaves. We do not hold you personally responsible for holding slaves, any more than we hold ourselves responsible for the reprehensible things any of our ancestors did. The past comes with the baggage of both good and bad. It shows us all how human we are.”

A version of this article originally appeared in the March/April 2019 issue of Family Tree Magazine.