Why Genealogy Griot?


[ gree-ohgree-oh, gree-ot ]


a member of a hereditary caste among the peoples of western Africa whose function is to keep an oral history of the tribe or village and to entertain with stories, poems, songs, dances, etc. Origin < French, earlier guiriot, perhaps ultimately < Portuguese criado domestic servant, altered in W African coastal creoles

Dictionary.com Unabridged, based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, ©Random House, Inc.

I am not a griot in the traditional sense of the word, right? I am not West African (though my DNA says that some of my people came from there). I do not entertain with songs or dance, though I have been known to write a poem or two. I don’t occupy a formal and special role in my family as an advisor or instrumentalist. Practically speaking, however, I am a griot in the sense that I preserve my ancestors’ history and record their stories in my mind and on paper. I speak their lives through my words and share their struggles and their victories with the children who never got to know them. I am passing along a tradition that I have inherited from my grandmothers and hope to pass on to my children. I am a historian. I am a storyteller. I am a genealogist.

In the summer of 2018, my husband wanted to use our family vacation time to visit some civil war and civil rights sites.  We decided to call our trip Civil Pursuits.  We visited one plantation, two Civil War military parks, and three civil rights museums throughout Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee.  One of the most impactful experiences was going through the Two Mississippi Museums, particularly the Mississippi Museum of Civil Rights.  Walking through the 8 rooms documenting the history of blacks in the United States from the arrival of the first slaves to the present day, I saw my ancestors everywhere!

I wondered about the Igbo tribesmen who were caught and sold into hands guiding slave ships to the coasts of Virginia.  I shuddered to think about my distant grandmother who was bred to provide her master more laborers for the cotton fields of Louisiana.  I mourned for her daughter who screamed as her own family was being wrenched apart for distribution to her master’s children upon his death.  I imagined my great-great grandmother’s brothers’ being lynched because they stood up to an overseer who berated their mother.  I wondered what perils my black, Civil War veteran faced as he fled his plantation to join the Union and how and why he travelled from North Carolina to Texas in the months following emancipation.   I wondered why my white, West Virginia, Civil War-veteran ancestors fought for the Confederacy and how they confronted the defeat and re-established themselves afterward.  My heart swelled with pride to reflect on my great-grandfather’s contributions to his community as a business owner, with his day time corner store and night time juke joint.  What was it like for my grandmother to be the valedictorian of her class at Phyllis Wheatley High School at an age when black-only schools were the norm and a source of pride and joy for our people?  The photos of the 1968 March on Washington reminded me of photos I had seen in my grandparents’ house – had my father been there – what was that like for him?  Remembering my time in college, there was that one march protesting the Hopwood Decision…What was my contribution to history?  What more impact will I have?  

What a wonderful adventure it was to take this Civil Pursuits trip with my own little family and carry my ancestors with me, in a sense.  It made me want to delve even deeper into the mysteries of my genealogy research and contextualize my findings in a meaningful way. With this blog, I intend to present vignettes of my relatives in light of social and historical trends of yesterday and today, and in view of what lies ahead tomorrow.  I also intend to present information about how you can explore your own family history and be inspired by it. I invite you to join me on this story-telling journey.

BookTalk: They Were Her Property, Chapters 3 and 4…Bossing and Better Markets

Chapter 3. Missus Done Her Own Bossing
Chapter 4. She Thought She Could Find a Better Market

I’m winding down, and I have just a few more chapters before I finish the book I’ve been summarizing, They were her property (Jones-Rogers, 2019). I’m really excited about reading and reflecting on Chapter 5 about wetnursing, but I won’t get ahead of myself. To review, the overarching theme of this book seems to be that white women slave owners were just as big and bad as white men slaveowners were supposed to have been, in every way. Not only did they own property, but they managed that property, and in most cases, did so very effectively and authoritatively. Former slaves’ testimonies even support this assertion. In Chapters 3 and 4, the author relates that many female slaveowners took primary responsibility for purchasing and selling slaves as well as for disciplining them.

In terms of acquiring slaves, historians apparently used to assert that women were shielded from the barbarity of the slave market. However, Stephanie Jones-Rogers relates that slave-owning women were well-versed in the world of the slave trade. They may have grown up witnessing transactions between their relatives and slave traders visiting their estates with coffles of shackled slaves, or they may have learned to haggle from their slave-trading husbands or other relatives. Whatever the case is, white slave-owning women knew the slave market well.

The author explains that, although, female slave-owners typically hired agents to manage their slave holdings, at least some female slave owners took the initiative to procure their own slaves and dispose of those they no longer needed or wanted. They negotiated the purchase and sale of their slaves, and they did so, not just in public, slave auctions, but also in the privacy of their own estates. These transactions often occurred low-key between individuals, but in some cases, slave-owners hosted their own auctions on their own property. Jones-Rogers (2019, p. 94) reported, “Hawkins also said that he saw ‘Old Miss sell de slaves what she trained. She made ’em stand up on a block she kept in de back yard, whilst she was a-auctionin’ ’em off.”

Because some of these deals were negotiated in the intimate setting of the home, slaves heard of the economic rationale and motivations for sales and developed their own knowledge base and strategies for anticipating sales and planning to purchase their own freedom. This happened because as the author writes,

For [formerly enslaved people], the slave market was a mobile, spatially unbounded enconomic network that connected urban commercial districts to plantation estates and incorporated boarding houses, rural pathways, urban streets, taverns, and coffee shops, as well as holding pens and auction houses. They also saw slaveholding households – their porches, it hens,d inning rooms, and bedrooms – and the fields and the quarters, along with the pathways and roads surrounding them, as fundamental parts of the slave market.”

Jones-Rogers, 2019, p. 82

That kind of living must have been a unique, constant, and ubiquitous kind of torture.

Regarding the discipline of slaves, certain laws enabled slaveowners to injure or kill slaves as a point of necessity and usually without penalty, unless perhaps it was indisputably and universally deemed cruel. “…decisions to abuse, maim, or kill slaves had…expressive value” in that it reinforced a slaveowner’s power and authority in the view of all enslaved people and thereby ensured their compliance and submission (Jones-Rogers, 2019, p. 79). Even female slaveowners could be exactingly savage in their treatment of their slaves. According to the author, one slaveowner, Elizabeth Sorrell, was described as “de pure debil” because of her particularly cruel way of punishing her slaves through malnutrition and whipping (p. 73). There were reports of seemingly temperate and even caring and compassionate mistresses; however, the author cautions the reader to remember that some or much of the positive treatment of slaves may be viewed as basic but disimpassionate respect for human dignity; passive but obligatory duty to provide food, clothing, and shelter as for a pet or work animal, or “calculated choices” to increase slaves’ value or marketability (p. 75).

Whatever the nature of the acquisition or discipline of slaves, the dynamic of female slaveowners’ wielding power independent of their husbands often caused problems within marriages, especially when there were disagreements over management styles and “in cases where husbands and wives each owned personal slaves or when women `owned slaves over which their husbands had no legal authority,” (Jones-Rogers, 2019, p. 60). For example, some women had rules about how their slaves would be disciplined, and those varied based on a variety of factors, including to whom the slave in question belonged, in which domain the slave worked (e.g., field or home), what the slave’s sex was, who must be present, the extent of the brutality inflicted, and who would be the punisher. When husbands, or anyone else for that matter (e.g., overseers, people to whom slaves were hired out) violated their rules, the female owners acted in accordance with all of the legal options available to them, as explained in previous BookTalks.


Jones-Rogers, S.E. (2019). They were her property:  white women as slave owners in the American South. Yale University Press.

BookTalk Chapter 2: No couverture here…”I belong to de Mistis”

It’s been a long time since I’ve done a BookTalk, and I really need to get a move on so that I can start reading the other books on my list. I like to write about, take notes on, and draw my thoughts about what I read. Lucky you, that means you get to read a few more posts about the book, They were her property (Jones-Rogers, 2019). In my last summary, I shared author Stephanie Jones-Rogers’ description of the developmental process by which white women learned to be slaveholders. In Chapter 2, “I belong to de Mistis”, Jones-Rogers follows up on her assertion that married women were just as engaged and invested in the slave trade as their husbands were by demonstrating how they used the legal system to maintain the wealth they had amassed through slaveholding.

I recently started learning French, but I had never heard of the term couverture until starting this chapter. It looked to me like a cognate of the word cover in English or cobertura in Spanish. Indeed, couverture involved the concept that a newly married woman came under the metaphorical covering wing of her husband and thus forfeited any previously held rights as an independent individual. Subsequently, a wife was prevented from “engaging in commercial endeavors in her own name and without her husband’s permission” (Jones-Rogers, 2019, p. 25). While the rules of couverture established a standard in which a man protected his wife by managing and governing her economic affairs, what really happened in those days was a much different matter. Often due to their incompetence or indebtedness,”not only were many husbands not ‘covering’ their wives under their wings in the ways that [the English jurist] Blackstone indicated, they were robbing their wives, squandering their assets, and violating their property rights” (Jones-Rogers, 2019, p. 43).

Aware of the risks to wealth that marriage entailed, wives and their family members often took measures beforehand to ensure that their husbands would not misuse, neglect, or abuse their property, including slaves. Some wives prepared prenuptial agreements and contracts before entering a marriage, while others arranged for postnuptial agreements to be signed, in which they outlined how they expected their slaves to be managed and treated. Additionally, family members, both male and female, drew up legal documents stipulating that the bequeathed property could only be managed by the female recipient, regardless of any law that might provide a husband special rights. The donor(s) often instructed that, in the case of the female recipient’s demise, the property be awarded to her children and not her husband.

Far from being as powerless as I had assumed women were in those days, “women acquired and maintained legal ties to enslaved persons, and they were willing to bring spouses, kin, and others into chancery courts in order to protect their economic interests” (Jones-Rogers, 2019, p. 45). Should a husband try to circumvent the intentions specified by legal documents prepared before marriage, the wife either ignored or sued him. Moreover, if a woman risked forfeiture of her personal enslaved property due to a husband’s financial mismanagement of his own debts, she would sue the creditors in order to protect her financial wealth. The author observed that these women not only took men to court over their slaves, they often won.

The portrait hanging over this mantel could be the image of Felicite Nedat Chretien, the mistress of the Chretien Point Plantation and one of the wealthiest and most powerful slaveowners in antebellum Louisiana. (Tebbs, 1926)

The ability of slaveholding women to use the legal system and social infrastructure to assert and maintain their status as property owners prove that society recognized their rights, too. They were able to do a number of things of their own agency, without their husband’s permission, including hiring slave catchers to recover their runaway slaves and placing newspaper ads about the sale, purchase, or capture of slaves. They were recognized as slave owners in census documents and tax rolls; in court when seeking judgments or relief; in the community (e.g., when they sent their slaves to workhouses to be punished for misdeeds); and in seeking advice from relatives and neighbors or appointing them as trustees.

My own curiosity was piqued when the author explained that in Louisiana, married women sometimes sued for a separation of property by proving “that their husbands’ pecuniary affairs, fiscal management, or economic circumstances jeopardized their own property and economic well-being” (Jones-Rogers, 2019, p. 35). I remembered that one of my ancestors of color, Silesie Pierre-Auguste, used this strategy when she took her husband, John Chevis, to court in 1841. According to Race and Slavery Petitions Project (Petition 20884114 Details, n.d.), Pierre-Auguste was not a slaveholder when she first married, but she did own horses, horned cattle, breeding cows, and household furniture. Alleging that Chevis’ financial practices endangered her own financial security, Pierre-Auguste requested that her property be separated and that she be allowed to manage her “paraphernal property free from [his] constraint or interference” (Petition 20884114 Details, n.d.). Celeste’s petition was dismissed in 1844, but obviously she had rights that she was compelled and felt entitled to exercise.

This chapter was a little bit more difficult to push through, I must admit. That’s probably one reason it took me so long to write about it. Ultimately, I was glad to learn about the legal doctrine of couverture and how white, slaveholding women were able to undermine its practice and use the social, cultural, and economic realities of the slave trade to their benefit.


Jones-Rogers, S.E. (2019). They were her property:  white women as slave owners in the American South. Yale University Press.

Petition 20884114 Details. (n.d.). Race and Slavery Petitions Projects. https://library.uncg.edu/slavery/ petitions/details.aspx?pid=8161

Tebbs, R. (1926). Chretien Point Plantation [Photograph]. Louisiana Digital Library. https://louisianadigitallibrary.org/islandora/object/lsm-rtc%3A218

Reconstructing the Life of George Wheaton: Part I

 Extract from the Reconstructed Constitution of the State of Louisiana with Portraits of the Distinguished Members of the Convention and Assembly; Lithograph, 1868; The Historic New Orleans Collection, 1979.183. Retrieved from

Recently, my family and I took a vacation that we called our “Civil Pursuits Trip”.  We visited Civil War and Civil Rights sites in Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee.  It was quite an education even though I had heard about and/or studied many of the historical events before.  All I could think about was what it was like for my ancestors during those time periods.  Could my paternal ancestor George Wheaton (or his parents) have been transported on one of the slave ships depicted in the museums?  Under what circumstances did he and his brother move from Virginia to Louisiana, and which, if any, of Claiborne Parish’s citizens had owned them?

In addition to these wonderments, I realized that our race-based conflicts today are not new.  They always have been more complex than what we typically discuss in every day conversations.  For example, in the past when I’ve thought about the Civil War, I focused on it as a fight about slavery and who were the good actors and who were the bad ones.  Rarely have I considered the economic motivations for such a war, the toll of human carnage, and the deep divisions that occurred within families and communities as a result of divergent loyalties.  The Civil War was about something much deeper than just black and white and who was allied with the Confederacy or loyal to the Union.  At its core, it was about the ugliness of human nature playing itself out in skin color and politics. 

In broadly examining America’s cultural landscapes after the Civil War ended, it is evident that this traumatic event had a great impact on society.   The economies of the Confederate states were devastated; not only was much of the land ravaged by the Union’s scorched earth strategies, but the fuel for their economic might was burned up with the emancipation of their slaves.  Moreover, in order to participate fully in the political process, southern Whites were expected to take an “ironclad” oath affirming their rejection of the Confederacy, denying any prior involvement in the Confederate cause, and pledging current support of the Union.  Many Confederate veterans harbored feelings of resentment and anger about this, but they concealed them in front of voting registrars who ignored obvious signs of registrants’ true sentiments and reinstated them anyway (Dyer, 1977).

Black southerners, though elated with their new status as freedmen, had to figure out how to co-exist peaceably with former masters and neighbors and simultaneously learn to be independently responsible for their own affairs and to take advantage of the benefits afforded to them by the government.  Many freedmen bought land, pursued educational training, and sought to vote and hold office in their local and federal governments.  Clashes were bound to occur!

During the Reconstruction era that some historians say spanned from about 1863 to 1877, Blacks used their newly won right to vote and to engage as leaders in the political arena.  Republicans had secured control of Congress in 1866 and began a “Radical Reconstruction” in which programs like the Freedmen’s Bureau (formerly known as Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands) were implemented and civilian governments in the South were placed under the authority of the federal government.  Republican sympathizers (both black freedmen and white, southern “scalawags” and “carpetbagging” Northerners), flooded the southern states with their radical policies to form biracial (but not necessarily bipartisan) governments, raise taxes, and initiate public improvement projects.  

In response, vigilante groups like the Ku Klux Klan developed in order to halt these efforts; group members often attacked and intimidated supporters of the Reconstruction efforts, no matter what their race was.  In fact, the first sitting member of the U.S. Congress to be assassinated, White Representative James M. Hinds (R-Ar), was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan right before the 1868 presidential elections because of his support for Ulysses S. Grant and voting rights for former slaves.  

More Murders, 1868

In Louisiana, the Knights of the White Camelia organization was more prominent than the Ku Klux Klan and was more effective in its political manipulations (Dauphine, 1989).  The Knights of the White Camelia warned both white and black Republicans to desist from participating in their political activities; refusals usually resulted in floggings, harassment, and murder.  Approximately 1,000 murders occurred from November 1867-1868 in Louisiana, with as many as 784 of them occurring in the three months preceding the Presidential elections.  Given Vandal’s (1994) research on the approximate 3,999 homicides occurring in Louisiana during the period of 1865-1884, those murders were likely committed by Whites against Blacks.  Vandal found that at least 61% of total murders reported in Louisiana involved black victims, and of those, 71% were perpetrated by whites (in 13% of the cases, the race of the perpetrator was unknown). 

According to Dauphine (1989), U.S. Congressional and Louisiana Legislature investigational committees determined that these acts of violence occurred mostly as a result of political motivations rather than responses to criminal offenses.   For example, Louisiana’s Republicans won the gubernatorial race and a Republican-backed constitution was ratified; however, only seven months later, the Republican presidential candidate, Ulysses S. Grant, lost his race unexpectedly and decidedly.  The only way it made sense that Grant was outpolled so effectively in 2/3 of Louisiana parishes when “nearly all Negro voters were Republicans and…they outnumbered white voters by about two to one over the entire state” was to consider fraudulent activity and intimidation (Dauphine, 1989, p. 176).

Claiborne Parish, Louisiana, where some of my ancestors lived, was not immune to this sort of violence.  In 1868, Republican William R. Meadows was elected to be one of the Parish’s delegates to Louisiana’s Constitutional Convention; he was one of 49 Black delegates elected across the state.  A review of a few reports that I have uncovered shed light on what happened to Meadows prior to the Convention.  Notice the different tones of the following selections.

The Ouachita Telegraph reported:

A rumor has reached us of the death of W.R. Meadows, the negro candidate to represent Claiborne parish at the recent election. He was shot a few evenings ago, by some unknown party, one ball taking effect in the head and one in the side. Meadows was formerly a soldier in the Yankee army, and made himself quite obnoxious to our citizens while clothed with a “little brief authority.” He was afterwards elected to represent Claiborne parish in the Black and Tan Convention.  Minden Sentiment. (“W.R. Meadows Murdered,” p. 2)

The Claiborne Advocate (Peppers, 2008) reportedly wrote the following:

The Jury of Inquest returned on Thursday evening last, from the cabin home of W.R. Meadors, F. M. C., where they found his lifeless body. Upon examination, they decided that he came to his death by violence. He was shot three times, and the shots took effect in three different places. One in the arm, another in the breast, and the other in the head. This sad outrage occurred on Wednesday evening, the 6th inst., about dark, while passing from his horse lot to his yard, by some one unknown. No clue as to the guilty party. Some strange man had been about his place for some time, and which rather inclines to the opinion that he was killed by some one who was not known in this parish. We are proud to know that no suspicion rests upon any of our own people.”

Finally, the New Orleans Republican published:

We are reliably informed that the Hon. W. R. Meadows, of Claiborne Parish was killed a few evenings since near his own door by disguised men who claimed to belong to the Ku Klux Klan. He left his house for the purpose of feeding his stock, was shot, and died immediately. Mr. M. had been a soldier in the United States Army, and represented his parish in the Constitutional Convention. He was an intelligent, quiet peaceable gentleman but had excited the enmity of the rebels of his neighborhood by being active in favor of the ratification of the constitution. (“More Murders,” p. 2)

Despite claims that the killers’ identities were unknown, Meadows’ wife, one of the only two eyewitnesses of the event, reported shortly after the incident occurred, that she knew exactly who committed the crime (Voogd, 2012).  She told William Stokes, Assistant Sub-Assistant Bureau Commissioner in Claiborne Parish that a white man named Newton Glover previously had threatened to kill her husband and that he and John Taylor looked to have been the two white men dressed in black who murdered her husband.  

It doesn’t appear that anyone was prosecuted for the crime, and murders like these were commonplace in that time period.  According to Pfeifer (2009), “collective violence” and lynching, in particular, became increasingly popular throughout the 1870’s, and was used as a method of social control even once the Reconstruction Era was “complete”.  By 1890, Jim Crow laws had been enacted by predominately white state legislatures which ultimately disenfranchised many Blacks and allowed violence and terrorism to flourish with impunity.  It is in this context that my ancestor, George Wheaton, lived as a young and middle-aged man. In my next post, I will present my research findings about his life to demonstrate how legal documents can confirm and/or disconfirm your own family’s oral traditions.


Dauphine, J.G. (1989). The Knights of the White Camelia and the Election of 1868:Louisiana’s White Terrorists; A Benighting Legacy. Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association, 30(2), 173-190. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4232730

Dyer, S.P. (1977).  The Iron Clad Oath.  Historic Claiborne ’77.  Claiborne Parish Historical Association. Retrieved from http://files.usgwarchives.net/la/claiborne/history/parish/hc77.txt

W.R. Meadows Murdered. (1868, May 20). The Ouachita Telegraph, Page 2 Column 1.

More Murders. (1868, May 14). New Orleans Republican, Page 2 Column 3. Retrieved from https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83016555/1868-05-14/ed-1/seq-2/

Peppers, L. (2008, September 17).  Obit:  W. R. Meadows, Claiborne Parish LA.  United States Gen Web Archives.  http://files.usgwarchives.net/la/state/newspapers/afriamer/meadows.txt

Pfeifer, M. (2009). The Origins of Postbellum Lynching: Collective Violence in Reconstruction Louisiana. Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association, 50(2), 189-201. Retrieved February 3, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/25478643

Vandal, G. (1994). Black Violence in Post-Civil War Louisiana. The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 25(1), 45-64. doi:10.2307/206111

Voogd, J. (2012, March 12).  Research Briefing No. 6: Who Killed William Meadows, 1868?.  Historical Amnesia, Without Remedy, Becomes Cultural Slippage:  Recovering lost stories of triumph over injustice .   https://janvoogd.wordpress.com/2012/03/24/research-briefing-no-6-who-killed-william-meadows-1868/

I Know You Are, But What Am I? Race, Identity, and DNA

When I mentioned my idea for this blog post’s title, my 12 year-old daughter looked at me quizzically. She had no idea what I was referencing and chalked it up to “lame”, 1970’s speak. But, if you are somewhere in the vicinity of my generation, you might remember giving this playground retort to other children’s assessments of what you looked like or something you did. We don’t say “I know you are, but what am I?” or talk about the rebound effects of rubber and glue anymore, but what we think about each other still matters. For example, historically, people’s racial identities have been determined by how they look, which is an expression of their DNA, their genetic make-up.

No one ever was puzzled by the shade of my skin or the texture of my hair. Saying “She’s black” would be too easy to say. My parents considered themselves Black, and so did all of my family members at least 2 generations back (ethnic identity is a different story, as I have some ancestors who identified as creoles, people of color, and “Frenchmen”, as well as or instead of as black). My blackness is a given, and a large part of that is due to how people have interpreted my and my relatives’ appearances.

Tameka S. Miller

Although things are changing, it is still the case that, in many places in America and elsewhere, if your skin color is brown enough and/or your hair is kinky enough, you tend to be considered Black by others no matter what you, yourself, actually think or feel that you are. Thus, one’s own identity develops in the context of (but not necessarily as a consequence of) the verbal and behavioral expressions that others make based on your appearance. And so, race can be viewed as a social construct rather than only as a biological fact. In other words, society (individuals and their social infrastructures) and culture (what society believes and endorses) define what race is.

DNA and Society

In today’s world, society and culture have provided an outside-of-the-DNA-box experience for people. Whereas DNA traditionally has led to phenotype-based conclusions about race, now it is having a novel impact on how we perceive ourselves and how we discuss race and ethnicity. Because of the proliferation of DNA testing, people have had more access to data about their ancestral origins than ever before. This has enabled people to make more informed and/or self-directed decisions about how they identify themselves. Some DNA results have reinforced identities, while some have resulted in complete identity changes. A person can be whatever race he or she wants (even no race or some other race) rather than be confined to what others say that they are.

According to my favorite online encyclopedia, DNA testing started after decades of exploration with blood typing and serological testing when, in the 1980’s, scientists began using DNA testing to answer questions related to biological relationships, primarily in medical and forensic settings. DNA testing did not become available to the general public until the turn of the latest millennium. Gene Tree was the first company to provide direct-to-consumer genetic DNA testing, but, in 2000, Family Tree was the first company to establish the trend of marketing this service to genealogy researchers. In the genealogy research community, there seemed to be a noticeable boom in DNA testing around 2018, when companies vied for the public’s interest with rock-bottom prices. In fact, after the year was over, we discovered that more people bought DNA test kits in 2018 than all other years combined!

My DNA Journey

I ordered my first DNA test kit about five years ago. I don’t think I knew exactly what to expect, but I had some ideas. Prior to taking the test, I had presumed that I had Senegalese heritage because of reports that most of America’s slaves had come from West Africa and that many of Louisiana’s slaves had come from Senegal. One of my deceased cousins was named Ebo, which hinted at African heritage related to the Igbo tribe of Nigeria. In terms of my Old World roots, I figured that I had British and French ancestry. My great grand-mother Ida was very fair-skinned, and her maternal grandfather was one of the prominent, Cajun Guilbeau men in the Lafayette, Louisiana area. My dad’s great-grandfather was a white man whose family was reputed to have originated in Shropshire, England before settling in Virginia. My genealogy research on several other family lines gave me good reason to guess that I was at least 16% white, and that was before DNA testing became widely available to the masses.

Did you know that, according to one study, among self-identified African-American DNA testers, the average percentage of African ancestry is 73% while the average European ancestry is about 24% (there are some geographical variations)?


When I finally received my DNA results from the two companies I used for testing, I was excited to see “all” of my racial and ethnic parts. I discovered that there was a general correspondence in results between the two companies: 74% of my heritage was of Sub-Saharan African origin, while 25% was a hodgepodge of European origins, and 1% was of Asian origins. The companies also reported more specific results related the countries and/or tribes that are associated with my DNA. I was intrigued by the information the DNA testing companies provided about my ethnic make-up and my ancestors’ migration patterns in the United States.

My DNA Results and a portrait of my great-great grandmother, Elmire Guilbeau Sam.

DNA can be a challenging subject to explore. You might get something a little different than you expect, which can be exciting, disappointing, shocking, or some blend of emotions. For example, my husband found out that he was 89% African and none of the Irish he expected to be. My African-American identifying stepmother turned out to be about 50% European. Even when the results lead to uncomfortable moments and discussions, DNA testing for genealogy purposes still provides beneficial information. One unexpected benefit is that I have been able to give consent for my data to be used for scientific research. In that way, I can contribute to discoveries that advance medical knowledge about diseases like COVID-19. Professionally speaking, I list it as a recommendation in every genealogy research report I write because it can provide critical leads in resolving research conflicts and overcoming roadblocks; assist in developing hypotheses about relationships; and serve as a means of connecting with previously unknown relatives. Personally speaking, because DNA research is a dynamic process, I can keep track or be updated about how my ethnicity estimates change as a result of the expansion of the DNA companies’ reference populations. In fact, based on the most recent updates reported by one DNA company, I am 13 percentage points less Cameroonian (but much more Nigerian), 6 points more Northwest European, and 5 points more Malian than I was a year ago (and there are no traces of the Asian ancestry first reported 5 years ago).

In conclusion, race is a multidimensional concept that is here to stay. How we view race, however, changes according to what is going on in the society in which we live. And today, in America, race can be viewed as biologically based, socially constructed, and scientifically informed. Moreover, for many people, it is a fluid and dynamic concept. DNA testing for genealogy purposes increasingly shapes our conversations about race and ethnicity. While there has been a natural, if not sharp, decline in DNA test kit orders given some of the national crises we are facing in 2020, the demand for DNA-based information about race still exists. Have you ever done a DNA test to explore your ancestry? How has it impacted your view of race and ethnicity? Please share your thoughts in the comments section or our facebook page.

What does the Bible have to say about family history?

Traditionally, people have tried to avoid religion and politics in their daily conversations because, even with the most respectful and friendly participants, attitudes and moods often take a turn for the worst when there are disagreements. In these days of economic and social turmoil, however, people tend to be pretty open about their political opinions. Yet, God continues to be a taboo subject in our talk.

Even though it is not popular to acknowledge them in our discussions, Biblical principles and Judeo-Christian values influence many people, directly and indirectly. Whether native, slave, or immigrant, many of the people who built the foundations of America, assimilated, promulgated, and practiced Christian values. In reflecting on these things, I started to focus on the influence of the Bible on man’s quest to know and record his family history. I’m no theologian or minister, and my aim is not to present a devotional or study. However, I do want to explore with you what the Bible has to say about family history, especially since actual Bibles often serve as useful resources to genealogy researchers.

Based on what I’ve been reading, there are at least 3 classes of references to family history in the Bible: those that mention a person’s immediate relatives for identification purposes; extensive family histories covering multiple centuries of generations; and proverbs and instruction regarding the value of knowing family history. First, there are countless instances in which a person is identified by who his parents are. It’s like the writers are answering that age old question you get at the grocery store in Smalltown, America, “Who are your people?” For example, in Zechariah, the title prophet is introduced as “Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, the son of Iddo the prophet.” There were probably a lot of Zechariahs, Berechiahs, and Iddos, so the author had to make sure its readers knew exactly which one he was really discussing. Later in Chapter 6, the author discusses Zechariah’s work with Joshua. Which Joshua? You know, it’s the one who is “the son of Josedech, the high priest”!

Then, there are lists of genealogies all throughout the Bible. For example, we learn early on in the history presented in Genesis 5 who the descendants of Adam were all the way (i.e., until about 1700 years later) to Noah and his three sons, Shem, Japheth, and Ham. After the story of the flood is presented in Genesis 10, we read a list of the descendants of Shem, Japheth, and Ham and about how they re-populated their new world. Shem’s great-grandson Eber fathered the people known as Hebrews, and one line, in particular, becomes the focus of the rest of the Old Testament. That is, Eber’s 4th great-grandson Abraham becomes a key figure throughout the Bible, as does (perhaps, more importantly) Abraham’s grandson Jacob (also called Israel). Even in the New Testament, the importance of family history is emphasized. One of the first tasks that Matthew and Luke take up in their gospels is to list the generations leading back in time from Jesus Christ, the main character of the New Testament. Matthew lists the ancestors of Joseph (Jesus’ adoptive father), documenting 40 generations from Jesus to Abraham, whereas Luke, in Chapter 3 of his book, lists the ancestors of Mary, documenting 74 generations from Jesus to Adam.

Finally, the Bible instructs parents to teach their children about God’s laws and Israel’s history. It also encourages children to seek knowledge about and to learn from the nation’s and their family’s experiences. There is evidence of these expectations from the many scriptures that exhort families to value the elders, spend time with them, and discuss and read about family history and what it means to and for them. There is a good overview of that concept in Psalm 78:2-8, but here are a few scriptures that illustrate my point.

  • Psalm 77:5. I have considered the days of old, the years of ancient times.
  • Deuteronomy 32:7. Remember the days of old, consider the years of many generations: ask thy father, and he will shew thee; thy elders, and they will tell thee.
  • Job 8:8-10. For enquire, I pray thee, of the former age, and prepare thyself to the search of their fathers: (For we are but of yesterday, and know nothing, because our days upon earth are a shadow:) Shall not they teach thee, and tell thee, and utter words out of their heart?
  • Romans 15:4. For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.
  • Proverbs 17:6. Children’s children are the crown of old men; and the glory of children are their fathers.
  • 1 Corinthians 10:11. Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come.

Research Tip: Find that family Bible! Your (or someone else’s) ancestor’s Bible may contain a trove of information that will be helpful to you in your research. You might discover dates of birth, death, and marriage as well as obituaries. For example, my Grandma Farrell recorded in her Bible the birthdates of her siblings as well as their deaths and marriages. A photo of her father lying in his casket was even stuck in its pages!

In conclusion, researching family history is a valuable endeavor, and the Bible is a big proponent of it. Maybe that’s why so many people used the Bible as a place to record their family history. Not only were they ensuring that they followed the instructions contained in it, but they were using it to educate future descendants and, so, preserve the bonds that promote unity within a family and within a society.

I’d love to hear from you! Please share your or your family’s use of the Bible or Bible records in passing on family history in the comments section or @facebook.com/genealogygriot.

Chronologizing and Chronicling Your Ancestors: A Case Study of John Rem

I read an article that NGS tweeted several weeks ago in which the author, Aaron Goodwin, discussed this idea of exploring a particular ancestor by documenting their life events year by year. As a side note, I was surprised to discover that the word “chronologize” is apparently a legitimate one to describe this valuable research tool. I’m going to go with my inner linguist and go with “chronicle” instead, which is, to me, easier on the ears and tongue. The author shared that the benefits of such a strategy include identifying gaps in their lives that need more research and documentation as well as differentiating them from other individuals with similar names and backgrounds. I’ve chronicled some of my people’s lives in this way informally, but I love the idea of being intentional about outlining my ancestors’ whereabouts and activities year by year. I recently wrote about my ancestor, John Rem, and I’d like to continue studying his life by featuring him in this week’s post.

timeline template

1846. John reported on military documents that he was born July 27, 1846. My Rem cousins and I found a transcription of a Bible record owned by the Nobles Family that lists John among the 13 children of his mother, Ann. His birthdate is listed as July 24, 1846 (Nobles Family Bible).

1846-1864. Based on John’s responses on military forms, it can be deduced that John and his family worked for Jesse Nobles as slaves (Pension File).

1864. On August 29, 1864, John enlisted as an 18 y/o private in the Rear Rank of Company K Regiment 37 United States Colored Troops (USCT) Infantry in New Bern, North Carolina. In terms of his physical description at the time, he was reported as 5’6” and dark complexioned, with dark hair and eyes. His reported occupation at the time was rafting logs (Pension File).


  • John mustered out and was honorably discharged from the USCT on September 12, 1865 (Pension File).
  • On November 04, 1865, John Rhem (colored) married Harriet Morris (colored). The bondsman was Bryant Wiggins (colored), and the witness was James C. Morrison. (retrieved from Ancestry.com’s North Carolina, Marriage Records, 1741-2011 [database on-line]).

1866. Reportedly, in August 1866, left his wife Harriet Morris before later heading to Texas Pension File).

1867. On February 09, 1867, John signed a one-year contract in which he pledged to work for Natt Holman in Fayette County, Texas for $125. He also signed a contract with William H. Russell, son of his future wife’s slave owner, to work under the same terms in nearby Alleyton, Colorado County, Texas (United States Freedmen’s Bureau Records, retrieved from http://www.familysearch.org).

1868. John “Rem” marries Elvira “Ellin” Davis. They secured a marriage license on May 02, 1868 and were married by African-American Minister of the Gospel, Spencer Grant (Texas County Marriage Records 1837-1965, retrieved from http://www.familysearch.org).

1870. On December 07, 1870, John Rem lived with his wife Elvira and her daughter Mary (reported to be about 4 years old). He lived next door to Natt Holman, on of the men who drew up a contract to bring hired freedman from North Carolina to work his farm in Fayette County. He lived several houses from his father-in-law, Alex Davis, and his family (1870 United States Census, retrieved from http://www.ancestry.com).


  • The 1871 Fayette County Tax Rolls document that John “Rem” owned 2 horses valued at $40 and 1 cow valued at $10 and other livestock valued at $24. He paid a total of $18.25 on his property valued at $74 (1871 Texas County Tax Rolls, retrieved from http://www.familysearch.org).
  • Annie Rem was born reportedly on July 29, 1871 (Pension File).

1873. This reportedly was the last time John Rem had heard news of his first wife, Harriet Morris.  He had received a letter from his brother Ruben Rem of Fred Johnson’s Mill in Pitt County, North Carolina, stating that Harriet was alive and had a child but that it was not John Rem’s child (Pension File).

1875. Orange Rem was reported to have been born around 1875 (1880 United States Census, retrieved from http://www.ancestry.com).


  • John Rem had 12 hogs valued at $24 and miscellaneous property valued at $3. His total taxes was $2.58 (1878 Texas County Tax Rolls, retrieved from http://www.familysearch.org).
  • Manda Rem was was reported to have been born around 1878 (1880 United States Census, retrieved from http://www.ancestry.com).

1879. Fayette County Tax Rolls document that John “Rem” had 1 horse valued at $15, 9 hogs valued at $18. Miscellaneous property was valued at $32, and his total tax was $2.86 (1879 Texas County Tax Rolls, retrieved from http://www.familysearch.org).


  • On June 08, 1880, census enumerators recorded that John led a household of his wife, 4 children, a sister, a granddaughter, and 2 boarders.
  • George Rem was was reported to have been born around 1880 (1880 United States Census, retrieved from http://www.ancestry.com).

1881. Sadie Rem was born around July 1881 (The 1900 Census cites her birth information as July 1878, but this is not likely since she was not enumerated with her parents in the 1880 Census. Her death record says her date of birth is May 30, 1880, which is also unlikely since George was an infant at the time of the 1880 Census).

1882. Tobe Rem was reported to have been born around August 1882 (1900 United States Census, retrieved from http://www.ancestry.com).

1884. Louis Rem was reported to have been born around June 1884 (1900 United States Census, retrieved from http://www.ancestry.com).


  • John owned a “carriage, buggy, or wagon” valued at $25 and 2 horses and mules valued at $50. His miscellaneous property was valued at just $5, yielding a total tax of $2.33 (1886 Texas County Tax Rolls, retrieved from http://www.familysearch.org).
  • Grant Rem was reported to have been born around December 1886 (1900 United States Census, retrieved from http://www.ancestry.com).

1887. J. Rhem owned a “carriage, buggy, or wagon” valued at $20, 2 horses and mules valued at $75, and miscellaneous property valued at $5. His total tax assessment was $2.45 (1887 Texas County Tax Rolls, retrieved from http://www.familysearch.org).

1888. John Rem owned a “carriage, buggy, or wagon” valued at $25; 2 horse and mule at $50; 3 cows valued at $15, and $10 worth of miscellaneous property. $2.27 total tax (1888 Texas County Tax Rolls, retrieved from http://www.familysearch.org).

1890. In 1890, John Rem was the only African-American in the Pecan civil division of Fayette County, Texas who had fought in the Civil War. In a special schedule enumerating Union veterans and widows of Union veterans of the Civil War, he reported having been a Private in NC Infantry Company K from 1864-1865 (Special Schedules of the Eleventh Census (1890) Enumerating Union Veterans and Widows of Union Veterans of the Civil War, retrieved from http://www.ancestry.com).

1891. On May 05 1891, John Rem filed an invalid application for pension due to syphilis and enlargement of spleen and liver; this was the first of 2-4 rejected claims from this time until 1902.  Prior to this date on April 29, 1891, George Davis (one of the freedmen accompanying him from North Carolina to Texas in 1867) and W. Herndon, both of Weimar, affirmed their acquaintance with John Rem (27 years and 8-9 years, respectively) and confirmed his identity as such (Pension File).

1892. On Oct 29 1892, John Rem completed a General affidavit stating that:  he had served in the Company K 37 2  in both North Carolina and Virginia under a Captain Houston; he was one of the first men to be discharged in 1865; and he had lost his discharge papers (Pension File).

1893. J. Rem owned a “carriage, buggy, or wagon” valued at $25; 2 horses/mules valued at $50; 2 cows valued at $10, and $5 worth of miscellaneous property, yielding a total tax of $2.44 (1893 Texas County Tax Rolls, retrieved from http://www.familysearch.org).


  • John Rhem still owned his carriage and 2 horses/mules and $5 worth of miscellaneous property. However, he acquired 2 more cows for a total of 4 valued at $60. His total tax that year was $2.45 (1894 Texas County Tax Rolls, retrieved from http://www.familysearch.org).
  • On June 20, 1894, John Rem reported in an Declaration for Invalid Pension that: he had enlisted in the Union army first as a member of the heavy artillery unit and then was transferred to Company K; he incurred syphilis during his service with the latter unit. He lived in Weimar at this time, possibly reflecting a later claim by Elvira Rem that they were separated only during the period he “made a crop” in Weimar (Pension File).

1895. Interestingly, John didn’t report owning any property this year, but he, like others, paid a minimum tax of $1.75 (1895 Texas County Tax Rolls, retrieved from http://www.familysearch.org).


  • On May 27 1897, John Rem made a Declaration for Invalid Pension in which he stated that he was “totally unable to earn support by manual labor by reason of enlargement of spleen which causes pain and often I have to get the physicians to use a catheter to pass urine” (Pension File).


  • On Mar 26 1898, John Rem completed and signed a form issued by the Department of the Interior. He reported that: he was married to Elvira Rem with several children – Annie Rem b. July 9, 1871, Orange Rem b. March 20, 1875, Amanda Rem b. May 25, 1877, Sadie Rem b. May 31, 1880, Tobe Rem b. August 9, 1882, Louis Rem b. June 1, 1884, and Grant Rem b. December 15, 1886 (Pension File).
  • The Bureau of Pensions did not find the name “John Rem” in their files, but they did find the variant “John Ream”. On June 05, 1898, Littleton T. King of Fairfield, Hyde County, North Carolina, a fellow member of “Co K 37 USCT”, declared that John Rem, also known as John Ream, when he “enlisted as private in Co K 37 USCT..was active and viger [sic] and appeared to be free from bodily disease.” On July 04, 1898, Edmon John and Phillis Atkinson of Winnabow Plantation in Brunswick County, North Carolina, also fellow members of “Co K 37” signed a General Affidavit declaring that John Rem and John Ream “are one and the same person [and] was called by both names in the service” (Pension File).

1899. Harry Rem was reported to have been born around July 1899 (1900 United States Census, retrieved from http://www.ancestry.com).


  • On February 24, 1900, Dr. T.C. Cook certified that he had provided medical advisement to John Rem and his family since 1868 and that John had “laboured under chronic inflammation of the liver and spleen, which [had] proven to be intractable to medical treatment…and disabling him from performing the manual labor of an able bodied man.” Dr. Cook described John as “a good, sober, and exemplary man and a respectable citizen.” (Pension File)
  • On June 07, 1900, John Rem (transcribed by Ancestry as “Yohn Remus” ) is enumerated with his wife Elvira and several of his children in Holman, Fayette County, Texas. In this census record, Elvira reports that 17 of her 18 children were living at the time, but, based on all other reports, I believe seven living children should have been indicated instead (1900 United States Census, retrieved from http://www.ancestry.com).
  • On June 10-18, 1900, John Rem made a Declaration for Invalid Pension (Pension File).

1901. On Sep 16 1901, John Rem applied for invalid pension for enlargement of liver but was rejected (Pension File).


  • On June 18, 1902, John completed a form issued by the Department of the Interior Bureau of Pensions requesting information about his military enlistment. He reported that he was born in Pitt County, North Carolina where he was most recently enslaved prior to enlistment by “young Richard Nobles.” Probably escaping to Union lines in New Bern, Craven County, North Carolina, John, operating under the name “John T. Baptist,” began “rafting logs on Brice’s Creek for the government” under the authority of one “Captain Harrington”. At the time he filled out this form, John lived in Holman, Fayette County, Texas. He reported his height as 5’6″ and skin color as dark; he also noted having three scars – one on his cheek just under his left eye, one on his “right side”, and one near his groin (Pension File).
  • On November 15, 1902, John Rem applied for invalid pension and was approved for $6 per month due to rheumatism and an enlarged liver. He reported that he had originally enlisted in the 14th Heavy Artillery and transferred later to 37th Regiment (Pension File).


  • On October 15, 1903, John signed an affidavit stating that “the reason [he could] not furnish medical evidence as to [his] condition since November 4th, 1902 is [he is] now and [has] been ever since Nov. 4th 1902, too poor to pay a physician to treat me, as [he could] not give security for same.” His neighbors, 34 year-old William Dickey, and 61 year-old Natt Holman (possibly the same employer for whom he contracted to work in 1867) swore that they had witnessed the decline in his physical health since 1902 (Pension File).
  • On December 22, 1903, John filed a declaration alleging an “increase of pensioner causes” (Pension File).


  • On April 12, 1904, John Rem (then living in LaGrange, Fayette County, Texas), as part of his Declaration for Invalid Pension, stated that he originally enlisted in the 14th Heavy Artillery Unit August 11 or 12 1864 and was transferred to the Co K, Reg 37 unit in late October or early November of 1864 (Pension File).
  • On May 09, 1904, John filed a declaration alleging increase and enlargemnet of the spleen (Pension File).
  • On June 08, 1904, John was examined by Dr. T.W. Moore, who agreed that John was unable to perform manual labor due to rheumatism in both legs that had “existed more or less for eight years” as well as other conditions (Pension File).
  • On June 17, 1904, he filed a declaration for an “increase and slight dropsical condition of entire body” (Pension File).

1905. On April 28, 1905, John presented a claim to increase his pension to $12 (Pension File).

1906 On November 07, 1906, John Rem was pensioned at $12 per month under the Act of June 27, 1890, approved for rheumatism, albuminaria, and general physical decrepitude (Pension File).

1910. On April 30, 1910, John (age 63) and Elvira (age 60) Rem lived on LaGrange and Weimar Road in Justice Precinct 7 of Fayette County, Texas. His twice-married daughter, Sadie (mistakenly written as “Katy” Hill), also lived with him, along with his grandchildren Rosa (age 12) and Linan(?, age 10) Goodwin (presumably Sadie’s children). John and Elvira reported that they had been married for about 42 years and to each other only; Elvira reported that she had borne 17 children, 8 of whom were still alive at this time (1910 United States Census, retrieved from http://www.ancestry.com).

1912. John Rem completed and signed a deposition on March 12, 1912 before James E. Madden, a special examiner of the Bureau of Pensions. He reported details about his service, including details previously provided and reported elsewhere on this timeline. He also reported that he had no prior or subsequent service or service in the Confederacy. He stated that he was in no battles but did spend some time in a hospital near Elizabeth, Virginia on the James River. His Captain’s name was Houston, and his 1st Sergeant was named Sam Kensey; he did not remember the name of the lieutenant. Of his comrades, he remembered the names Edmond John, Littleton T. King, and Hannibal Barnes. He also reported that he had married Harriet Morris by “the Bureau” (referring to the Freedmen’s Bureau) in November 1865 (Pension File).

1912. On June 20 1912, John Rem completed and signed a Declaration for Pension under Certificate No. 1070278. He was awarded $14 per month to commence on June 26th and $16 per month to commence on July 27th (Pension File).

1913 – On March 21, 1913, John was approved to begin receiving $14 per month (Pension File)

1915. John Rem was mailed a form from the Department of the Interior Bureau of Pensions. Between January 02 and April 08, 1915, he reported that: he was born in Pitt County, NC on July 27, 1846, that he was a member of the “37 Regiment Colored Light Infantry Company K”; that his post office at the time of his enlistment was New Bern, Cravin [sic] County, NC; and that he married his first wife Harriet Morris in New Bern, Cravin County, NC. John also reported that seven children were then living and that 11 others had died before they were named and whose dates of birth and death he did not know (He did remember that one was named Edmond John Rem). John filled out this document in his own handwriting and spelled his surname “Rim”. Incidentally, he reported his son Tobe Rem’s date of birth two days later than his previous report (Pension File).

1916. John was to begin receiving $20 per month beginning on July 27, 1916 (Pension File).

1920. John Rem died on December 18, 1920 due to kidney problems and heart disease (Texas Death Records)

In conclusion, this process of chronicling John Rem’s life proved to be an arduous task. It took longer than I expected, and I was taken aback by how much pain John seemed to have endured as a result of his syphilitic condition. He was severely limited by his disabilities, and he had to go through great lengths to prove it to the Bureau of Pensions! There were many affidavits to sift through, but they were, apparently, necessary to prove his identity, to confirm his military service, to support his medical claims, and to demonstrate that he was a good person who was not plagued by “vicious habits”. Witness testimonies also proved that John Rem had been a stable presence in Fayette County from the time he arrived in Texas to the time he died, even though I didn’t have specific records for each year of his life.

In terms of genealogical benefit, this method of chronicling yielded a rich overview of John Rem’s life. Although there were 22 years of his 74 year life (about 30%) that I was unable to track with specific records, I was able to find different kinds of information about his life from a variety of genealogical resources, most prominent of which was John’s pension file. Moreover, I was able to differentiate him from other Rem’s in the area, including a John Rem who lived in Austin, Texas, but had property in Colorado County in 1881. I can see how chronicling (or chronologizing) could be a helpful tool in researching people for whom there is little information available. Not only will researchers be able to develop a more visual representation of an individual’s life, but they also may be able to formulate more informed hypotheses about gaps of knowledge in a person’s documented life. Do you plan to try chronicling? If and when you do, let me know how it goes.

Y’all know black folks owned slaves, too, right? A discussion of genealogy, privilege, and power

Recent conversations about racial injustice, inequality, and inequity often refer to the notion of white privilege, which refers to the idea that whites have greater access to power and resources than people of color do and that they might not even be attuned to this “leg up” they have. Some people believe that white privilege is a legacy of slavery, which began in America around 1619. In 2015, President Obama commented, “What is also true is that the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination in almost every institution of our lives — you know, that casts a long shadow. And that’s still part of our DNA that’s passed on. We’re not cured of it.” The idea is that slave ownership, and acquiescence of or participation in the economic system developed out of it, has led to advantages experienced by white people today. California Newsreel states,

“Affirmative action in the American “workplace” first began in the late 17th century when European indentured servants – the original source of unfree labor on the new tobacco plantations of Virginia and Maryland – were replaced by African slaves. In exchange for their support and their policing of the growing slave population, lower-class Europeans won new rights, entitlements, and opportunities from the planter elite…When slavery ended, its legacy lived on not only in the impoverished condition of Black people but in the wealth and prosperity that accrued to white slaveowners and their descendents [sic].”

Retrieved from http://newsreel.org/guides/race/whiteadv.htm

Where are the discussions about the contributions to social disparities and access to power and resources – that is to say, privilege – associated with slave ownership by blacks? Do people even realize that blacks owned slaves? And once they do, what considerations should be made about the possibility that the descendants of black slaveowners enjoy special advantages today because of the economic decisions their ancestors made over 150 years ago? Let’s explore this a bit.

There is ample evidence of slave ownership by people of color in states across America, but I’ll just focus for a moment on Louisiana, since that is my mother’s home state. In an article about free people of color in Louisiana, Michael Taylor, Curator of Books for LSU Libraries, explained that they used the same strategies that their white counterparts did to establish and maintain their economic power, one of which was slavery. He reported that the first free person of color in southwest Louisiana was documented in 1766 and that, just eight years later, he was found in a census of the Opelousas District owning two slaves and fifty cattle. Taylor further noted that, in 1818, Marie Simien employed nine slaves to work her more than 7,500 acres of land in St. Landry Parish, Louisiana. In a summary of census data collected for St. Landry Parish in 1830, a time of great prosperity for Louisiana free people of color, Christophe Landry demonstrated that there were quite a few slaveowners of color. Of the 631 slaveholders listed in Landry’s abstract, 41 of them were designated as Free People of Color (FPOC), and, as a group, they owned approximately 373 slaves (interestingly, sixteen of the FPOC resided in Bayou Teche and owned a total of 176 slaves). Martin Donato, of Plaquemines Brûlées, outpaced the rest of the group with a holding of 75 slaves, followed most closely by Jean Baptiste Meullion, of Bayou Teche, who owned 53 slaves.

Several of my direct ancestors were listed as heads of household in that 1830 Census, and two of them were free people of color. Laurent Malveau(x) (as well as his brother Jean Baptiste) had been freed from their white, French-born owner, Jean Baptiste Malvo(t) at the time of his death in the first decade of the 1800’s. Their mother, Catherine, had been manumitted prior to that time for good and faithful service. Their father’s name is unknown, but they are always identified in records as free negroes rather than mulattos, indicating that their father was a black man (and not Jean Baptiste Malvo(t) as some would think; this was confirmed when Henry Louis Gates explored that possibility on the episode of his show Finding Your Roots that featured award-winning journalist Suzanne Malveaux). Shortly after being freed, Laurent bought several slaves, including the mother of his children, Constance Chretien; however, he didn’t just buy his own family members. Gwendolyn Midlo Hall’s database of slave transactions in Louisiana shows that Laurent purchased slaves who weren’t related to him, including Henry, bought in 1816, and Dick, bought in 1818. In fact, as census records demonstrate, by 1830, he owned 18 slaves.

Laurent obviously wanted to move far beyond the animalistic bondage under which he had lived previously. As a free man, Laurent did and became what he saw was necessary in order to earn capital, influence, and clout…and to be able to pass those on to his children. Indeed, his children (and his brother’s children) intermarried with other free families of color, thereby giving his descendants a chance that his enslaved comrades didn’t have. Fast forward to today…I reflect on my education, socioeconomic status, and values and wonder what kind of advantages I enjoy because of the unpaid labor that slaves provided to Laurent. I have wondered over the years if I have any responsibility or duty to those men and women that Laurent owned. Have I contributed unwittingly to the social problems and gaps in access to resources that exist among blacks simply by being a descendant of a black slaveowner? And if I have, what do I do to right the wrongs – should it be a symbolic gesture or practical action?

I have lots of questions about the impact of Laurent’s slave ownership! Was it “okay” that Laurent owned slaves if he treated them well and saved them from a potentially more ignominious life managed by a white slave owner? Should I feel ashamed and guilty because of what Laurent did and live my life differently because of that shame and guilt? Does the fact that I have many more enslaved than free ancestors make up for the damage that Laurent did to the slaves he owned? Do I get any credit for being and living black? I don’t have all of the answers, but these are questions worth pondering, if you happen to be a black person with an ancestor who was a slave-owning person of color. In fact, even if you are a black descendant of a white slaveowner, you might consider these questions. Let me know in the comments about how you have researched and thought about your ancestors who owned slaves – I’d love to hear your thoughts.