The 1870 brick wall is no less surmountable in cyberspace than it is in the analog archives of today’s courthouses. Court records from times past divulge varieties of slave/slaveholder relationships. Knowing the records exist is not the same as locating and examining them for myself. I do realize this problem is not exclusive to African Americans. But the fact still remains that it is more difficult due to the fact that my enslaved ancestors were considered chattel property; and, prior to 1870, they had no surnames. And even their given names are inconsistently recorded in the census records that followed.
Insurmountable? Maybe. Impenetrable? Not if Cathy Meder-Dempsey and Schalene Jennings Dagutis have anything to do with it. This morning, I had the pleasure of reading their respective blogs: Opening Doors in Brick Walls and Tangled Roots and Trees. Both of these women have taken up the mantle of sharing the names of slaves found in their own genealogies. For them, they aren’t just names. They sense that descendants of these indirect extensions of their families could be searching for their histories as well.
Because of Cathy’s insightful blog, I’ll never look at a brick wall the same way again. She begins her three-part series with an introduction to her 5th Great-grandfather, James Sims (1754-1845). Then she meticulously describes her encounters of slave names among the inventory records of various Virginia counties.
In Parts 2 and 3, her account of Mr. Sims’ slave connection, and the steps he took in manumitting Isaac, make for a compelling read for either side of the unfortunate institution. Cathy not only posts images of the artifacts (Deed of Manumission, Manumission Letter, and Petition to Grant Residence). She precedes each with a brief introduction and follows with a full transcription. The descendants of Isaac Sims of Nicholas County, Virginia have an insightful look into his life.
And Schalene’s idea to launch the Slave Name Roll Project is an honorable undertaking of which I’ll be sure to make my colleagues aware. She started with posting anything relating to slaves that she found among the wills and property records of her ancestors. She describes her process here. She ends her introduction with a simple question:
If your ancestors owned slaves, will you join us in contributing to the Slave Name Roll Project?
Of course, these details are included in court house records, library collections, and family histories. But the fact that a slaveholder’s descendant reaches out to a slave’s descendant is a welcome advance in African American genealogy.