African American Genealogy: A Professional African American Researcher’s Practice

With African American genealogy, researching families separated by slavery is a daunting and time-consuming task. There is no way around that and I would be lying if I said anything different. Researching people who were documented with just one name, their first name, and identifying their enslavers, is challenging. Understanding that the only way to discover our enslaved ancestors is through records that were about them – but never by or from them – is frustrating. Or understanding that exhaustively exploring their lives requires knowing all of the different kinds of records and resources held about them – and knowing where these records and resources are and how to access them – can be daunting. However, it is possible to tackle this one-of-a-kind American genealogy challenge.

Yesterday my co-host and cousin Donya and I had the honor of attending our first Kwanzaa dinner hosted by our cousin Yolanda. It was a celebratory afternoon and evening centered around remembrance of the ancestors, laughter, exquisite food that had been lovingly prepared, conversation, banter, and family. On top of everything else, we met some wonderful new cousins, young and not-so-young. It never ceases to amaze me how my maternal Edgefield County, South Carolina connected family does four things exceptionally well: laugh, cook, eat, and talk.

“Why Dig Around in the Past?”: A Dinnertime Question

One of our older cousins, I’ll call her Barbara, asked a simple question. Given the day and the chatter about genealogy, it was the most appropriate question to ask Donya and me. For some context, this was a conversation among the descendants of mostly enslaved African Americans. The question was framed through the lens of researching enslaved ancestors: “Why do you do genealogy and dig around the past? What’s the point?”

Donya and I gave the following reasons:

  • We call out the names of our ancestors. In many of the cases we could think of, our cousins who actively research our Edgefield County, South Carolina ancestry have revealed the names of long-forgotten enslaved people. We frequently speak the names of enslaved people who haven’t had their names spoken since their enslavement. In other words, we speak names that have not passed a living soul’s lips for a hundred years – up to centuries. They are known now. And we have vowed that they will not be forgotten.

  • Knowing our ancestors tells us something about ourselves. Understanding where our family quirks, mannerisms, beliefs, attitudes, abilities, personalities, physical characteristics and so much more came from connects us to our ancestors in powerful ways.

  • Researching the history of our enslaved ancestors forces us to research the times in which they lived. In other words, we learn about the history of the United States. More specifically, we learn about chapters in the history of the United States that are uncomfortable. And we can call out inaccuracies that get shared publicly in the present. Like textbooks referring to enslaved people as servants. Unbonded servants could choose to whom they gave their labor and could negotiate the terms of their remuneration. The enslaved had no such bargaining power – just to be clear on that distinction. Bonded European servants, those who toiled for a set time duration to pay off a voyage debt, were not enslaved. Apprenticed servants, who had to be in service until a set age, were also not enslaved. The difference in their lived experience is the reason why different words or terminology are used for each group of people. That’s a short history lesson right there!

  • When African Americans critique aspects of our lived experience in the United States, we can receive comments like “go back to Africa.” Our ability to name our oldest known U. S. born African American ancestors, enslaved or free, with their years of birth effectively counters those comments. We live in the country that is our birthright alongside any other American. We have a right to comment on the African American experience both past and present. Descendants of free people of color may also have an ancestor who fought in the American Revolution or served in that war in another capacity. That makes him a patriot alongside every other non-Black patriot. In fact, African Americans have served in every conflict this country has ever had from its earliest colonial period to the present. As the old saying goes, knowledge is power.

  • It’s also about educating the general American populace. Too many people try to intellectualize something that should never be intellectualized. That would be slavery itself, and the enslaved. Intellectualizing a topic like slavery strips the entire conversation of the real lives of those who endured the yoke of bondage. The intellectualized language people use is telling in this regard. It makes it easy for people to talk about enslaved people as intellectual abstractions; as though human beings were things or objects. The enslaved were never an abstract construct. They were real, living, breathing human beings with lives shaped by fears, hopes, aspirations, pain, suffering – and whatever measure of joy and happiness they could experience. There is a stark difference between discussing people in the abstract and discussing them with a sense of their humanity intact. Researching them demands that.

Barbara looked thoughtful as Donya and I covered the points above. She proceeded to floor us as she shared some amazing family histories about some of her ancestors. Stories about African American ancestors who traveled by buggy to other states. We have urged her to record these chapters of her family’s history. History like this adds to the story of the lived experience of Black Americans in the United States. And we can only know about these histories if people hear about them, read accounts like these, or research their families and discover and publicly share them.

African American Family History May Have More Relevance Than You Think

I have urged African Americans over the years to set aside the understandable fears or reluctance they have when thinking about researching their family’s past. Whether enslaved or free people of color, no Black family came out of the early American experience unscathed. African American genealogists and researchers have all been there and experienced the same feelings. You are not alone. We’ve got you. Black genealogists and researchers understand what this history means on a cellular level. Black researchers can and do provide a unique type of client support. Yet, for every unsettling aspect of their lives that we may uncover…there are positives. There had to be. None of us would be here breathing, walking, and talking if there weren’t. This is one of the reasons why I continue to research.

And do not believe for one minute that it is impossible to research your people beyond the 1870 census.

With African American genealogy, researching families separated by slavery is a daunting and time-consuming task. There is no way around that and I would be lying if I said anything different. Researching people who were documented with just one name, their first name, and identifying their enslavers, is challenging. Understanding that the only way to discover our enslaved ancestors is through records that were about them – but never by or from them – is frustrating. Or understanding that exhaustively exploring their lives requires knowing all of the different kinds of records and resources held about them – and knowing where these records and resources are and how to access them – can be daunting. However, it is possible to tackle this one-of-a-kind American genealogy challenge.

An Example Of A Client Research Project

A client and his wife have had me on a research retainer for the past 18 months. Donna (the name I am using for her) had done an excellent job researching her ancestry back to her ancestors who were emancipated in 1865 in Georgetown County, South Carolina. It was her pre-1865 South Carolina ancestry that she had struggled to crack. I had already done extensive research in the Gullah Geechee region of Eastern South Carolina and was already familiar with the larger-scale enslaving families there: The Al(l)ston, Ball, Blake, Brewton, Butler, Conyers/Congers, Guerard, Hassel/Hazel, Hilliard (Hilyard), Izard, Keith, Middleton, and Motte families. I knew their marriage patterns and I knew how these families tended to pass their enslaved people among themselves when they died. l also knew the families they most likely sold their enslaved people to when they sold them outside of their families. I was also familiar with where most of these families filed their legal papers (i.e. probate records, sales deeds, deeds of partition, dowry deeds, etc.). I felt this rich and deep experience would speed up the process of finding her lost ancestral roots for some of her enslaved lines.

Genealogy Adventures researchers for descendants of enslaved African Americans typically use resources like Archive.org and Google Books – both are rich sources of material for family, local, and regional history books. Most of the older books of this nature are free to download too! We aim to turn two-dimensional people with “dry” vital statistics into living, breathing three-dimensional people their descendants can identify with. We UN-intellectualize the ancestors, in other words, whenever possible.

A Remarkable Chapter In An African American Family History Revealed

I knew that some of Donna’s enslaved Allston-Conyers-Hazel/Hassel ancestors – which included the Simons and Mayzck families – had been enslaved on the Keithfield Plantation in Georgetown County, South Carolina. I made a note to add local history books about Keithfield to the research strategy I had created for this project. I came across a historic account that involved extended family members of Donna’s enslaved family (pages 15 & 16):

Holloway, Pippa. 2008. Other Souths. Athens: University of Georgia Press. https://books.google.com/books?id=klW8PodZ5FsC&pg=PA15&dq=sallie+mayzck,+Other+Souths:+Diversity+and+Difference+in+the+U.S.+South,+Reconstruction+to+Present&hl=en&newbks=1&newbks_redir=0&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwit6bWxhb38AhXYElkFHb6jCvUQ6AF6BAgJEAI#v=onepage&q=sallie%20mayzck%2C%20Other%20Souths%3A%20Diversity%20and%20Difference%20in%20the%20U.S.%20South%2C%20Reconstruction%20to%20Present&f=false.

I emailed the book’s link to the client with a note that I was going to call her. This was too amazing a discovery about her family history to not share with her on a personal level. Donna was blown away by this discovery, needless to say. She laughed as she kept stating that the women in her South Carolina family were “no-nonsense” and that they “did not play.” The paragraphs about her freedwomen relatives Charlotte and Clarissa Simons, and Sallie Mayzck resonated with her on a deep level. She laughed too about her other family relation, Dennis Hazel: “Well, I guess he forgot [who he was dealing with], messed around – and found out!”

Donna would have never had this epiphany had she not started the journey of researching her ancestry – and then proceeded to hire a professional genealogist (that would be me in this instance) to peel back the earlier chapters of her family’s history.

Researching An African American Ancestor’s Pathway of Enslavement

It is not all laughter. I have spent roughly 35 research hours working on her 4x great-grandmother Nancy Hassel who was born around 1830. Probate, dowry settlements, and deeds of partition documented her life from a teenager to 1865. She had been enslaved by the Allston and Belin families in Georgetown County, South Carolina during this latter period of her life. Using the methodology discussed in a recent Genealogy Adventures TV episode – Researching an Enslaved Ancestor’s Pathway of Enslavement –

I was faced with 3 alternatives in researching her younger years. She may have been born in the enslaving Belin family’s household. If this was the case, I would need to find family papers that noted the births of their enslaved people to try and find Nancy’s name. Alternatively, she was passed within the Belin family which required accessing and reviewing Belin family probate records and sales deeds. Lastly, she was purchased from outside the family.

Belin family papers disproved the first option. The second option, however, led to a document that confirmed that Nancy was purchased from outside of the family:

30 December 1839 Charleston County, South Carolina sales deed between E O Ball and Mrs. E Belin for the sale of 9-year-old Nancy Hassell | FamilySearch via https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QHV-N3ZY-3B2P

It is never pleasant to share with a client that a nine-year-old ancestor had been sold away from her parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins – all that she had known and loved for nine years. However, as the client understood, this document revealed two things: the name of her previous enslaver, Elias Octavius Ball (aka E. O. Ball)…and the reason why the client matched the Caucasian descendants of Elias O. Ball’s family. Nancy was not just enslaved by this family. She was enslaved by her family members.

The next step is to determine in whose household she was born. This will help identify her father. E O Ball’s parents, John and Martha Caroline (Swinton) Ball of Kensington Plantation died long before Nancy was born. This ruled out John Ball from the equation. This leaves E O Ball and his son, Elias Nonan Ball – or one of E O Ball’s brothers or nephews. This requires finding their slave accounts to search for the birth of a Nancy around 1830. Once I can identify whose household she was born in, I can then return to triangulating the client’s DNA against descendants of E O Ball and his son, brothers, and nephews to see which line Donna shares the most DNA with and the longest Ball DNA strands. I stand a better chance of identifying her mother once I identify her Ball father with this research strategy. The Balls had a custom of naming the mother when they listed enslaved children’s births on the plantation ledgers I have accessed so far.

The research methodology outlined above is the standard used by Genealogy Adventures researchers. If you think one of our African American genealogy specialists can assist you with your research, please consider getting in touch.


We are available for your genealogy research project!

Whether you’re new to genealogy, don’t have the time to pursue your own research, or have a stubborn brick wall you just can’t break through: you can hire one of our experienced research team who will happily work with you to achieve your genealogy research goals. As the first Black-owned genealogy research company, our African American genealogists excel at African American genealogy! As African Americans with caucasian ancestors – our genealogists are just as experienced in researching European-descended American ancestry.

The short video below covers what we do and how we do it:

How to contact us

For more information about our genealogy research services, our contact form, and our research service contact, please visit: https://genealogyadventures.net/research

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