Every week Sharon Morgan sits at a table and checks documents on property, deeds and wills that draw a clear line from her computer in Knoxby County, Mississippi, to her ancestors who were enslaved on a nearby plantation.
Sometimes the 71-year-old Morgan still has to climb the shaky stairs in the district court building to get the heavy books of the 1800s, but the Internet and other technologies have increasingly changed the hard work of rebuilding the past she has been doing for decades.
Handwritten government documents after the emancipation are now available for free online. Distant relatives, whose ancestors were separated by slavery, can be reached with a few clicks. And the descendants of people who profited from slavery, digitize important records, long buried in attics and basements.
Through mass groups, private genealogy firms, and social networks, the descendants of 19th-century Americans have never been easier to find and confront their stories. At the same time, the education of American history and the legacy of slavery is becoming an increasingly political issue, and Republican-led legislatures in several states are passing laws restricting what can be taught in schools.
As these arguments occupy state and school boards, descendants continue to unearth family histories, and in some cases meet each other.
“I think genealogy is a tool to achieve healing because we need to go back in time,” Morgan said. “And if you reunite those parts that were ruined because of slavery, that’s the way forward.”
She created the group Our Black Ancestry to try to connect these parts. The nonprofit serves as a forum for sharing documents, discussing reparations, and co-tracing history. Another organization, Speaking Truth, was founded in January by the descendants of people who profited from slavery and who are now trying to recognize their family history and make amends.
Crowdsourcing is a family tree puzzle
Tracking family histories can be difficult for the descendants of enslaved people because the most basic details of their lives, such as names and birthdays, are usually recorded by the people who enslaved them. Basic documents, such as wills or deeds, can be hidden in a book, state archives, or in the attic of someone whose ancestors enslaved people.
“When you compile your family tree, it’s not just writing your name, date, place; it creates a person, ”Morgan said. “You are, in a sense, rehumanizing people.”
The discovery of family records in which men, women and children are listed as property has motivated some descendants to try to make up for what their ancestors did.
Great-grandfather Rhea Bennett owned 15 slaves. As part of a broader plan to reconcile this story, she helped create the Speaking Truth, which aims to catalog the family stories of descendants. Participants are also asked to share how they plan to act with this story. The archive will eventually be transferred to a museum or educational institution, the 80-year-old Bennett said.
“I don’t want to leave this world without restitution,” said Bennett, a retired university administrator. She said she and her sister could also try to find descendants of people enslaved by their ancestors.
Mass groups looking for “a kind of common ground”
Speaking Truth is the latest of several online portals recently created by descendants to help them act on their family history. In 2019, two descendants of enslaved people and people who profited from slavery together launched the Reparations 4 Slavery website, which serves as a resource for family research, and in 2020 another couple created The Reparations Project, which provides scholarships to historically Black College students and universities as well as land grants to help prevent black land loss.
Both groups have been influenced by Coming to the Table, which since 2006 has been gathering descendants to tell their common story. Tom DeWolf, executive director of the nonprofit and a descendant of a large family engaged in the slave trade, said a surge in interest in the group was observed during the 2016 presidential election, when there were only 10 local branches. Today, there are more than 50 local offices in 18 states and the Virgin Islands.
One of the most famous genealogy services, Ancestry, has made some of its records related to slavery free for users and published video guides to help people search for documents.
Anne Bailey, a professor of history at New York State University in Binghamton, said personal stories and acts of reconciliation are important because they show what can be achieved on a small scale, and emphasize what cannot be corrected by individuals.
“You don’t need to feel guilty about what you didn’t do, but you may think it’s an opportunity for me to help level the playing field today,” she said.
Part of that work, according to Bailey, is to combine personal action with national efforts to pay reparations to recognize the atrocities of slavery, which the United States has not done on a large scale. She said other countries have tried to counter the violence of their past, including the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up at the end of apartheid, and the decade-long process of recognizing the Holocaust by Germany.
The effort did not erase racism or anti-Semitism, but they established official records of what happened, which is a crucial step in addressing the current consequences of historical atrocities, Bailey said. The Harriet Tubman University Center for Freedom and Justice, of which she is the director, has launched its own Truth and Reconciliation Forum in 2020.
“The truth establishes a kind of common ground from which you can begin to rebuild your society,” she said.
Search for “Perseverance” five generations ago
Some genealogists suggest even more individual projects. Olivia Dorsey, 30, is relatively young for the field she was interested in when she was about 11, searching the internet when adults didn’t want to take her to the court building archives.
Today, Dorsey, who is also a technologist, can turn for help to YouTube channels like BlackProGen Live, and connect with other young black genealogists on social media. She also created the Digital Black History website to help people with research.
Dorsey, who was able to trace her own family tree to the early 1800s, found her great-great-great-great-grandfather, Rufin Stewart, listed in the 1840 census as a “free-colored person.”
She said about half of her research is still conducted offline using books such as Foxfire 5, a chronicle of the Appalachian life published in 1979. The book has interviews with her great-grandmother, Minnie Carrie Ann McDonnell Stewart, who lived to be 107. McDonnell Stewart spoke of several relatives, including her father, James Marion McDonnell, who she said recalled being sold. on the site ”as a child before he was released and became a farmer and homeowner.
Dorsey said she was still “silent” about the discovery, and she acknowledged how the “response” to slavery continues to be felt today. But she added that there is strength in acknowledging what her ancestors went through.
“My ancestors have the perseverance and perseverance to say that slavery does not define us and what we do,” she said. “All these terrible things have happened, but we will still endure, we will still succeed, even if we start further than other people.”