Descendants of enslaved people have a lot harder time digging out the stories of their ancestors. Considered “property,” these ancestors weren’t afforded the dignity of having their names and birth dates recorded on census records, county marriage records, and the like until after the civil war.
Which means that in order to get beyond the 1870 brick wall, descendants of enslaved people have to rely on alternative records generated by slaveholders to ascertain their family’s history. In addition, there is no major online collection of slaveholder/enslaved people records that African American researchers can turn to in order to find their roots. At least not yet.
But there ought to be.
Kenyatta D. Berry, a co-host of the (PBS) Genealogy Road Show, has proven time and again that it is possible to find enslaved ancestors. As a professional genealogist, lawyer, techie, and entrepreneur, her background grants her deep insight into the challenges of African American genealogy research as well as the ability to think outside of the box to come up with solutions to those challenges.
Kenyatta has lobbied for a searchable online collection of information about enslaved people in America for at least a decade.
Did I mention she’s persistent?
I caught up with Kenyatta during RootsTech 2018 to ask about the progress being made and to see what the rest of the genealogy community can do to help speed up the process.
Before we go there, it should be clear that this is a genealogy problem, not simply an African American genealogy problem.
A Genealogy Problem
When a researcher runs across a record that mentions an enslaved person, they often don’t know what to do with that information.
For instance, in February 2017, I was in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City researching an ancestor, Joseph Tanner (born 1662). A close inspection of the Henrico County, Virginia Court Orders (April 1, 1678 – April 17, 1693) revealed that Joseph was often in court. He witnessed wills, vouched for the fair start of a horse race, and even testified that a “servant,” John Crossman, was absent from his duties.
Then on page 37, I came to this:
Furthermore, by page 146 of the book, a horse beating judgement was entered against Joseph, which made me wonder how things were going for little Joshua. And what, I wondered, should I do with this information?
There are a couple of options for passing on information. For instance, the Slave Name Roll Project on Tangled Roots and Trees, a site maintained by a group of volunteers, allows researchers to submit names of enslaved individuals along with their slaveholders and the source of the information found. Likewise, AfriGeneas, a resource site for African American genealogical research, has a searchable database of slave data and registry of submitted names. *Update: In addition, the following sites were recommended by Judy Russell: Unknown No Longer, Slave Name Roll Project, Sons and Daughters of the U.S. Middle Passage, and Coming to the Table
Sadly, most researchers are not aware of these projects. And though they serve a critical purpose, these projects lack the resources and reach that is needed to encompass the records of the nearly 4 million people enslaved in the United States by 1860.
It’s a problem of accessibility of information. One that all genealogists—descendants of slaves and slaveholders alike—should be anxious to solve.
I had naively thought this would be a project that Ancestry.com and FamilySearch would jump on quickly. Both already have front-end portals for users to submit crowdsourced information such as wills and photographs. Both have missions that include opening up genealogy to people who have previously not been involved in family history.
I also believed it would be of strategic market importance for Ancestry.com, opening the door to a huge percentage of the American public, many of who might part with $99 for a DNA kit. However, Berry cautions that DNA testing is not a panacea for missing records. That $99 is steep for many people. In addition, the results are likely to bring up more questions about their enslaved ancestors than provide answers.
According to Berry, no one debates the need for a combined database of information about enslaved individuals. There are many slave databases at universities, historical societies, and libraries around the world. However, these databases don’t talk to each other.
There are also difficult questions about how to structure such a combined database. Genealogists who specialize in African American research would like to be at the design table for such a collection. Their understanding of which alternative records need to be indexed and how to make search results relevant to those researching enslaved ancestors is critical to the success of such a collection.
Hope for Descendants of Enslaved Individuals
There is hope, however. Michigan State University is using $1.5M Mellon Foundation Grant to Build a Massive Slave Trade Database.
Kenyatta remains optimistic but explains that this “is not something that will happen overnight.” The solution might come in a partnership with one or all of the major genealogy companies, but in the short term, Berry is also looking at other institutions, such as major universities which have a historical interest in curating records of enslaved people in America.
This is Kenyatta’s Berry’s quest, but we should all be invested in it.
 Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “Slavery, by the Numbers,” The Root, February 10, 2014, https://www.theroot.com/slavery-by-the-numbers-1790874492.
- Featured image background: “Cabins where slaves were raised for market–The famous Hermitage, Savannah, Georgia” by Underwood and Underwood, Public Domain, accessed via U.S. Library of Congress, Photographs and Prints Division, https://lccn.loc.gov/94505180.
- Kenyatta Berry: © Kenyatta Berry, used with permission
- Excerpt: Page 37, Henrico County, Virginia Court Orders (April 1, 1678 – April 17, 1693), Repository: Family History Library, Salt Lake City, UT.