Since I began this journey into my family’s history, my family and friends find it an interesting topic of discussion. Naturally, as with any conversation, questions crop up: how did I find a piece of information, what are my preferred search methods, do I have any tips and tricks they might use in their own research, and more. One question, more than any other, typically gets asked when someone discovers I have this new hobby called genealogical research: “Does it bother you your ancestors were slaves”?
To be fair, it is an obvious question to ask. My answer is a smile and a simple “No, it doesn’t”. Not all African Americans were slaves. Some were indentured servants and left servitude as free men and women after a period of usually seven years. As a side note, it was different story for children born of mixed relationships in the Colonial period. Their indentured servitude last far longer. And if born to white mothers, their mother was fined and, in some instances, imprisoned. This is a slice of history I knew nothing about before I began this research. It certainly wasn’t included in any of the history books I ever read!
Of those who are descended from slaves, some are descendants of people who were slaves but freed before the Civil War started. And some African American families, like my own, had ancestors who were slaves from the dawn of the American slavery system until the absolute very end of that system. While there will be shared experiences between all African American families living in the South prior to the Civil War, subtle differences would have been experienced within each of these three groups.
A sense of identity, for instance, would have been experienced differently. Free black men and women who owned their own land or business would have had a strong sense of identity. Land and business are two primary means of attaining a sense of identity and self. Land and possessions, passing from one generation to the next, would have instilled a sense of identity and belonging within a family. African Americans who were slaves and freed, became landowners themselves, or operated their own business, or engaged in paid work for others. They too would have an opportunity to establish a sense of self and family identity – although some memory of slavery experience could be passed along as well. This would not have been the experience of newly freed post Civil War slaves, who had owed their existence and possessions to someone else. I am unaware if there is research covering this ground. It would make for insightful reading. Did slaves, institutionalised within a perpetual system, produce items that could go undetected and be passed down family lines?
This is partly how I expound on my “no, not really” reply. The fact is I am a descendant of slaves. There is no getting around it, sugar coating it or denying it. I don’t believe in historical revision because truths are uncomfortable or unpalatable. Facts are facts. I don’t have to like them. I don’t have to be comfortable with them. I have to accept the facts as facts – and strive to understand them and learn from them.
While I can only hypothesise what daily life was like for my ancestors, and read accounts written by slaves, the facts I’ve uncovered thus far provide glimpses of insights. For instance, my family’s line of Sheffey slave ancestors weren’t split apart. Their family group, and extended family group, were kept together. This is more than likely a result of being owned by small to medium sized estate holders. Compassionate is a contentious word to use, but the Sheffey family who owned my ancestors appear to have supported a slave family structure.
By this, I mean my ancestors’ children weren’t taken from them and sold elsewhere. Indeed, the majority of this family’s slaves were multiple generations of my ancestors and their kin. Once freed, these family groups remained together or in close proximity to one another. Family bonds survived the slavery system.
This familial experience doesn’t distinguish them. It is happenstance that this was their story, their general experience within slavery. It doesn’t make their slave experience better or worse – it merely is.
I could have easily not begun this journey at all. I knew with absolute certainty that slavery would be something I would face. However, I’m glad that I didn’t shy away from the task. I’ve caught a glimpse of my African American ancestors’ collective experience. It’s only a glimpse, and that is better than nothing at all. Their experience could have been relatively better – they could have been freed men and women during the colonial period or freed from slavery early on. It could have been relatively worse – their family group could have been split apart and sold all across the South over subsequent generations.
The survival of that family bond is a miracle to me. It is something I humbly celebrate. That a people born as slaves through numerous generations could leave that system with a strong family bond – and any history at all – is an amazing thing.
This was a truth I did not expect to find.