Luckie Daniels, proprietor of Our Georgia Roots, a tenacious researcher and tech expert, has taken on the hosting of the first edition of the Carnival of African-American Genealogy. The theme for the first edition concerns slave research. Participants are asked to answer one or more of the following questions:
- What responsibilities are involved on the part of the researcher when locating names of slaves in a record?
- Does it matter if the record(s) are related to your ancestral lines or not?
- As a descendant of slave owners, have you ever been pressured by family not to discuss or post about records containing slave names?
- As a descendant of slaves, have you been able to work with or even meet other researchers who are descendants of slave owners?
- Have you ever performed a Random Act of Genealogical Kindness involving slave ownership records? Or were you on the receiving end of such kindness?
Although I am the descendant of slaves and slave owners, I’ve never ben privileged to receive salve ownership records from any slaving-owning descendant. That is one area about which I have been disappointed in my research. I’ve come close, though.
One family in my paternal line is the Sanfords of Milam County, Texas. William “Billie” Sanford was born a slave in about 1809 in Virginia. He is my 2d great-grandfather. He was owned by a member of the extended Sanford families who lived in Virginia at that time; most probably James Sanford (1769-1849). When James Sanford moved his family to Tennessee inm the 1820s, they apparently took William with them. James Sanford died in 1849 in Williamson County, Tennessee. His son Reuben Sanford, had died three years earlier, also in Williamson County, Tennessee. Upon James’ death, it appears that his daughter-in-law, Mary (“Polly”) Wood Sanford, took charge of the family property, including the slaves.
In about 1854, Mary Wood Sanford relocated the family to Milam County, Texas, taking the slave William with them. (A cousin of mine told me recently that the story is that William walked from Tennessee to Texas pushing a wheelbarrow in which sat some of the Sanford children.)
In Milam County, Texas, William was the property of Rueben Henry Sanford, the sixth child of Mary and Reuben.
I’ve been in contact with several members of the white Sanfords, but none were direct descendants of Rueben and Mary. They have all been very cooperative and we have helped each other solve problems in our respective research. I’m glad to have found them. However, I would love to find direct descendants of Reuben and Mary Sanford, who may have ownership documents or who may have heard stories about William.
Reuben Henry Sanford died on 30 Jun 1910. His former slave, William Sanford, lived until 20 November 1916, when he died at age 106. He was described by one source as “the oldest colored person ever to die in Milam County.” His death certificate states in no fewer than three places that his cause of death was “old age.”
A family member described William to me as having been nearly seven feet tall and weighing more than 300 pounds.
Recently, I was in brief contact with a woman whose ancestors held part of my wife’s family as slaves. I asked if she had heard the story of the slaves’ daring escape during a Civil War battle. She said she had not heard the story, but that she was veyr sorry for the things that those particular slaves had endured. She seemed regretful but not surprised that her ancestors owned slaves. I let the matter drop, but now wish I could engage with her a bit more.
I haven’t been fortunate enough to locate any other descendants of slaveownwers relevant to my research. (I do know, for example, that Reese Witherspoon is a collateral descendant of Boykin Witherspoon who held some of my ancestors in bondage.)
I think this budding dialogue between descendants of slaves and descendants of slave owners is a mightily important step for American genealogy and history. It’s time the whole story be told, in all its sorrow, cruelty, complexity, and ambiguity. That’s the only way we’ll all understand ourselves as Americans who value openness and truth.
I’ve been inspired by the example of Luckie and others to reach out myself to the descendants of those who held my ancestors in bondage.
March 18, 2010 Thursday at 10:54 am