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Roots: digging up the past in the Newberry Library's black-genealogy collection

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As a research librarian at the Newberry Library, David Thackery has watched for years as patrons--most of them old and retired--slowly but steadily combed pages and pages of census ledgers, legal documents, and manuscripts in search of the past.

They are, in effect, private investigators, unpaid but hardworking, tracing their families' roots from Chicago and its suburbs back to the old countries. Some descended from settlers from England, or Poland, or Russia, or France. Almost all were white.

"It occurred to me that we had very little to offer for genealogists of Afro-Americans, which was a shame, given the large number of blacks in Chicago," says Thackery, curator of local and family history at the Newberry. "I decided we should remedy that."

That was in 1984. Soon afterwards, Thackery received the go-ahead from his superiors to launch the Afro-American Project. Funded by grants from Kraft and the Joyce Foundation, Thackery has since put together an invaluable bibliography for genealogists of black history, as well as an impressive collection of documents, some more than a century old, that enable researchers to trace the roots of blacks from the plantations of the antebellum south to the neighborhoods of Chicago.

"So far the word of what we've done hasn't really gotten out, but what response we've had is very gratifying," says Thackery. "A woman who used our resources called last week and said she had found records of her great-grandparents in Mississippi. She said, 'It's just like history came up and slapped me in the face when I found them.'"

"What [Thackery] has done is marvelous," adds Muriel Wilson, cofounder of the Afro-American Genealogical and Historical Society of Chicago, a group that meets monthly at the DuSable Museum of African-American History. "Genealogical research helps give us a better understanding of Chicago's black history by showing where our grandparents and their parents came from. It enables us to chase away the illusion that blacks have no history."

But it's not easy. The genealogist must piece together complex puzzles by combing through pages of often mind-numbing documents and statistics. (Indeed, the rules, regulations, and work environment of the Newberry practically eliminate all but the serious scholar.)

"Our strongest genealogical collection comes from New England," says Thackery. "That's because New England is where genealogical research in this country began in earnest. That was about 140 years ago, in the 1840s." Some New England families have compiled their own histories, which they publish in book form, and then sent them to the Newberry, free of charge.

"We get about 20 to 30 family histories a month," says Thackery. "We have about 15 to 16 thousand in our collection."

There are also private companies that compile histories of towns and counties, like the one written after World War I for Stephenson County in northwest Illinois. It is filled with brief biographies of various residents, such as S.B. Gardner, who worked as a conductor on "a freight train on the Chicago North West Rail Road for 12 years, and during that time he's only laid off once, and then only 10 days on account of sickness."

"For a fee, a resident could get his biography published," says Thackery. "For a slightly higher fee, he got his picture published, as well."

Tracing the genealogical roots of black residents, however, is a trickier process. Many of the conventional town histories left them out. "We find many out-and-out cases of racism," says Thackery. "One local genealogical society in Kentucky sent us a history that skipped the blacks. They weren't included. It was like no blacks lived in the town. That was just astounding. I don't think it's too general a practice, but it happens."

Perhaps the biggest drawback is that pre-Civil War census records are incomplete for blacks. The 1860 census from Montgomery County, Mississippi, for instance, records in neat script the name, age, gender, occupation, place of birth, marital status, and education of white residents. The same census, however, treats blacks as faceless, nameless pieces of property, listing, under the name of their white owners, their age, sex, "color" (b for black, m for mulatto), and overall mental and physical status (or, as the census form states, "whether deaf and dumb, blind, insane, idiotic, pauper or convict").

"Here and there we find a variation," says Thackery. "In 1860, the census taker from Hampshire County, Virginia, for instance, wrote the names of slaves. I don't know why. Either he was a census taker with a point to make, or he was very efficient. Whatever, if you're looking for descendants from this county, you're in luck."

The 1870 census is the first to list freed slaves by name. A genealogist examining the census for Hampshire County will discover that Charles Key, a 30-year-old black man, worked as a farm laborer, was married to Sarah, 31, "who [kept] house," and had six children ranging in age from Butler, 12, to Mallie, less than one.

More valuable information can be found in the records of the Freedmen's Bureau--a federal agency created in the reconstruction era to oversee the integration of newly freed slaves into society. The Newberry has these records on microfilm.

"Generally local records are better than federal ones because they offer more details," says Thackery. "The problem is that most local records are not on microfilm. But Mississippi's Freedmen's Bureau kept great records, with lots of details. That's helpful because a lot of blacks in Chicago originally came from Mississippi.

"For instance, the Mississippi Freedmen's Bureau 'legitimized' marriage by keeping record of them. You could have couples who lived together for years, but now they were legally married, with a record to prove it. It's very glib for people to say that there was no black family structure during slavery. If you look at this material, you see that there was a great deal of loyalty between spouses during the years of slavery."

The marriage records also tell of marriages and families destroyed by slavery. The record of a Mississippi man named Oscar Carter shows that, though married to Adeline E.J. Esress, he had lived previously for two years with another woman, who had died. The same record shows that before she met Oscar, Adeline had lived with another man; they had been separated by "force." Was Carter's first wife murdered? Was Adeline's husband sold to another slave owner? We don't know. The bureau's ledger sheet offers no clues.

Other details can be found in the records of bank accounts arranged for blacks by the Freedmen's Bureau. Oscar Carter, for instance, opened his account September 5, 1868. From his application, we discover that Carter was born in Dixon County, Tennessee; his father was John Ross, his mother Lavina Carter; he had two brothers (John and Martin), two sisters (Hanna and Mandy), and, from the shaky but clearly legible signature at the bottom of the page, he could sign his name.

These small details represent a lot. A genealogist may know only that his or her subject was related to Oscar Carter. Thus, Carter's records offer small but valuable clues to the lives of other people. "Every detail helps," says Thackery. "You need all the little pieces you can assemble. Sometimes you'll look through dozens of documents just to find one name. Eventually you might find enough information to piece together a life. You have to adopt the philosophy that many drops fill the bucket halfway--or maybe only a quarter way, at best."

The Newberry also has on microfilm thousands of reconstruction era labor agreements signed between black sharecroppers and white landowners. One document from Mississippi offers a man named Henry little more than slave status: "[Henry] agrees to occupy our former [slave] quarters, receive the former kind and quantity of food, our usual amount of clothing and medical treatment, and one-tenth of the present growing crop," the document reads. Henry signed it with the letter X.

"Federal documents are generally in better order," says Thackery. "They are little more than forms filled with basic information. But the richest materials, in terms of details, are often found in the pages of slave-owner journals. Many of these journals are on microfilm. You'll find all sorts of things--crop accounts, poems, and reports on slaves."

One journal, kept in 1843 by Haller Nutt, owner of the Araby Plantation in Natchez, Mississippi, reports that three slaves "died from the cruelty of [their] overseer. Bess drown, and August hung, and Tom [was] beat to death when [he was] too sick to work." For his transgressions, the journal concludes, the overseer was dismissed.

There are also wills to peruse, as well as baptismal records, cemetery certificates, and headstone engravings from all over the country.

"There are all sorts of ways to dig out information," says Thackery. "Some counties in Ohio required blacks to prove they were free. One document reads: "Moses Bird . . . five-foot-nine-and-a-half inches high, of bright complexion with blue eyes and a mole in the back of his neck, is a person of color who is of free parentage and has ever acted as a free person.' "

Wilson and the other members of the Afro-American genealogical society did not have such detailed resources at their disposal when they founded their group in 1979.

"I started researching my family in about 1971," says Marcia McGhee, president of the society. "I have always enjoyed history and I'm a fairly family-oriented person."

McGhee's father moved to Chicago from Charleston, South Carolina, in the late 1920s. He did not return there--even for a visit--until 1971.

"That was quite an experience, going to Charleston with my father. I remember his face, his eyes. It really got me started on putting together a family tree. Right now I'm stuck at my great-great-grandfather. I can't find him in ordinary records."

Like McGhee, Wilson stitched together her family's history from stories, footwork, documents in the Newberry, and a little luck.

"My initial goal was to find out about my grandfather, who was killed in a boat accident on the Chicago River in 1890," says Wilson. "My father was only three when it happened, his mother remarried, and we lost touch with that side of the family. I had heard that they came from around Hannibal, Missouri, so the only thing I could think of was to go down to Hannibal and see what I could find. So, that's just what I did. I went up to a man on the street--he was a well-dressed man of color--and asked him if he knew of the AME Church.

"Well, he turned out to be one of the nicest gentlemen you could imagine. He led me to the church, all right. He even took me to the home of the church secretary--she was in bed sick at the time. And eventually I discovered a parallel line to my family that I had never heard of. And you know what? It turns out that this family has a daughter who lives five blocks from me in Chicago."

Like Thackery, Wilson cautions against relying solely on oral histories passed down through the family. "These oral histories are a good starting point," says Wilson, a retired Chicago public school art teacher. "But you have to dig further into the records to get at the real facts. There's a whole history of blacks and a history of Chicago in those documents at the Newberry. Some of it's not pretty to read or remember. Most of the history is sad. But you can't let it get to you. If you do that, you'll never get on with your research. And maybe by doing the research and telling the stories we can guarantee that it will never happen again."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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