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Listen to the Past

A society of slaves' ancestors rebuilds history.

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By Grant Pick

Robert H. Williams faced a daunting task when he tried to prove that his great-grandfather had been a slave in South Carolina. The exact identities of slaves are frequently lost to the past. Unless they'd been freed by their masters, slaves didn't produce legal papers of their own until after the Civil War. Their names were first recorded in the U.S. census of 1870.

"But I was lucky," says Williams. "It so happened that the slave owner had filed a will, and it ended up in the state archives." The will of Willis Whittaker, dated 1858 and recorded in Fairfield County, South Carolina, bequeathed to his son "the following negroes"--among them Edward Williams and Julia (last name unnoted), Robert Williams's paternal great-grandparents. "I know very little about them, but I was glad to at least learn their names," says Williams, a retired railroad worker. "That made them come alive."

The Whittaker will also enabled Williams to become a certified member of the International Society of Sons and Daughters of Slave Ancestry, the volunteer-run group he cofounded. Based in a small office on 95th Street in Beverly, the group seeks to bind present-day slave descendants to their forebears, most three or four generations removed. "This isn't to say we approve of slavery, but it helps us be proud of who we are," says Williams of the nation's only slave-lineage society.

Members like Williams, who serves as the organization's treasurer, not only authenticate slave antecedents but amass photographs and stories involving them. "They've turned up some absolutely marvelous pictures and stories which trace the journey of African-Americans through history," says Michael Flug, senior archivist at the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature at the Carter G. Woodson Regional Library. The Harsh collection is the official repository of the society's work.

Williams and some acquaintances hatched the idea for the group in the fall of 1995 after a meeting of the Patricia Liddell Researchers, an African-American genealogical society, at the Woodson library. "We were standing around brainstorming," says Patricia Bearden. "It just came to me--that we had to find our slave ancestors--and I shared that with the others."

Bearden, Williams, and five fellow genealogy enthusiasts began gathering monthly at the Avalon branch of the Chicago Public Library, at 88th and Stony Island. The International Society of Sons and Daughters of Slave Ancestry was incorporated as a nonprofit in 1999.

To become a bona fide member, an applicant must present acceptable records to the in-house genealogist, Curtis Brasfield. "There are many people who are interested in their traditions," says Brasfield. "But either they don't take the time to do the proper research or they can't back up their contentions with fact." Brasfield rejects plenty of bids: "Folks get angry when I turn them down, but I can't help that."

Some voice reservations, feeling slave ancestry is a topic better left alone. "Some folks ask us, 'Why do you want to talk about that stuff?'" says Bearden, the group's president. "'Let's leave it alone,' they say. 'It's too painful. We just want to survive today.'" Robert Williams says that applicants must get past not only the stigma of slavery but the idea that liberated slaves must have been virtuous. "You can have skeletons in your closet," he says. "You can find somebody who was antisocial and ended up in jail. But you can't be ashamed, because [freed slaves] were strong and intelligent, and we've inherited their survival skills."

Jo Ann Page, the society's secretary, traces her paternal line back to her great-grandfather Joseph Lynch, a slave to a Cherokee Indian who, once freed, served as a Union soldier. Page, a former first-grade teacher, found her proof in the testimony that Lynch gave before a 1905 federal commission taking the final rolls of the Cherokee Nation in what later became the state of Oklahoma.

Bearden actually met her great-grandmother Julia Snowden, who had been a slave in Georgia and died in south suburban Robbins in 1951 at the age of 100. "I was a girl, and she was a little old lady in a white hat, lying in bed on the first floor of a house," remembers Bearden. "She gave me and my sisters a pair of gold earrings." Bearden documented Snowden's roots in a tape recording she made of Snowden's daughter. Though Brasfield likes to avoid oral history as a form of proof, in Bearden's case he accepted it.

In total Brasfield has certified 27 instances of slave ancestry. He downplays the importance of a new and much-ballyhooed CD-ROM, produced by the Mormon church, that contains records of the Freedman's Savings and Trust Company, a bank chartered by the U.S. Congress that kept accounts for former slaves after emancipation. "That CD will only be helpful to people who are serious about their research," Brasfield says.

An exhibit at the Woodson library opening March 16 will have two dozen blown-up photographs of former slaves with accompanying histories. Stories include those of Page's maternal granduncle Stephen Benbow, an Alabama-born slave and farmer who after liberation spat on a white man and was spirited north to Ohio; Adeline Curry, a slave born in Africa who had nine children with the son of her master; and Calvin Nichols, a landholder and racetrack owner in Arkansas. The exhibit will also feature three quilts by artist Yvonne Marie filled with pictures of former slaves.

"The image of the slave is too often a woman standing in a cotton field wearing a bandanna," says Bearden. "But many had different experiences, some better than others. Our goal is to tell more than one story."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.

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