The claimant’s mother’s name was Clora, and since you ask me I will tell you that Overton, her owner was the father of the claimant. “I will tell you everything you ask me.”
— Testimony of former slave Nancy Hawkins, in the Civil War pension file of Henry Jones (March 12, 1920)
It’s no secret that slave-owners fathered children with their slaves. Stories of children begat between owners and their slaves are the subject of many oral stories concealed through painful whispers and gossip. That black women endured rape as the collateral asset of slavery is a deeply unspoken subject. In my experience researching my once enslaved ancestors, relatives have different ways of re-remembering, telling or concealing the fragments of our family “history” depending who is telling the story, from what perspective they embrace the past and the importance or significance of the part they choose to share through re-telling.
The dynamics of African American genealogy host a number of simultaneously moving and acting parts. First, captive people were real estate, Next, as real estate they were transferred through a myriad of family gifts such as marriage, divorce settlements, death, mortgaged and sold to pay debts. Third, there are an infinite number of motivations and reasons for slave transactions between slave-owning families; so understanding their genealogy is essential to following how they trafficked slaves between each other generation after generation for nearly 300 years. I call this doing genealogy twice — once for the slave-owning families and another for following slaves in the family. Esoteric clues lay in a disjointed fashion between the owning family and captive humans.
As a consequence, my method of genealogical research requires a concurrent practice of following the ancestry of the slave-owning family and their slave transactions to ascertain the relationships between slaves that culminate into recognized citizens for the first time on the 1870 census. Prior to this census, unless a former slave were free, the only identity relinquished to identity them on the census was as property on the…