Staring at the computer screen, I could barely make out the letters. But I will never forget what I heard.
Kimberly Seals Allers: "These are likely the slave owners of your second great-grandfather."
The very nice researcher from Ancestry.com had warned me when we sat down that she may have found some slave connections, but I figured, of course you would. But staring at the Census report from 1900 and seeing the nearly illegible names felt a lot different than I expected. My mind was numb, but my body had goose bumps.
Back then, the Census was purely door to door. There was a large white family with sizable land listed as living next door to my ancestors. And then I saw it: Phillip Billy, born in 1861, and his wife, Hagar, born in 1865. My second great-grandparents on my mother's side. And since there were no integrated neighborhoods back then, the fact that they are listed on the same street probably means that the family listed above Phillip and Hagar were likely their slaveowners -- as it was gently explained to me. I stared hard at the handwriting, but didn't bother to try to figure out the name. It started with an M.
The discovery was part of a mommy blogger day hosted recently by Ancestry.com -- a truly great experience in beautiful Salt Lake City! But as the only African American at the event, I couldn't help but notice my experience was very different from everyone else's. There were plenty of stories from the staff of finding long-lost ancestors in ship records, Ellis Island records, and in other countries. People were finding third and fourth great-grandparents and other amazing ancestral connections. My discovery was a lot more sobering.
And the truth is, African Americans just can't trace their roots so easily. There are no records for our existence because we were not considered human beings. If you really want to dig, the researcher also said, sometimes you can find slaves listed in the wills of landowners, often behind cattle and other beasts of burden, she said. And because slaves could be killed for learning to read or write, we were unable to document our own existence.
There was so much that I couldn't find, but was hoping to discover. I hoped to return with great stories to tell my children. That really didn't happen. What I did find was generations of ancestors who could not read or write. Their children could not read or write. I found young babies who were listed in one year's Census but missing from the next count -- they likely died. I saw large families of six or seven children of very young mothers. I saw ancestors who were only 8 years old, but listed as working farmhands.
I wondered what it was like for those mothers whose children were forced to work instead of learn. I wondered what "childhood" meant for young slaves who really never had one. At the end of the event, as I took in the Rocky Mountains all around me, I had to be proud and grateful. Proud of the achievements black Americans have made from a time when we didn't count at all or were only 3/5 of a whole being. I am grateful that my children are growing up in a different time. And I am humbled and inspired by all those black mothers who, without any of the education and resources that we have today, did their best to raise several children under unimaginable circumstances, and still somehow survived.
|Kimberly Seals Allers is an award-winning business journalist and founder and editor-in-chief of MochaManual.com, a weekly online magazine for moms of color. She is the author of "The Mocha Manual to a Fabulous Pregnancy" and "The Mocha Manual to Turning Your Passion into Profit." Kimberly is a divorcing mother of two and lives on Long Island, NY.|