by Zach Friis
When I started this project I was looking for a simple answers to a simple questions; Who descended from slaves? Who descended from slave owners? Upon researching, I was overwhelmed by a ton of information such as over one hundred CD-ROM's. Without first hand knowledge of specific families however, I soon found dead ends. For example, I do not know whose great grandparents are native and who was an immigrant. Rather than trace histories that may not be my own, I have decided share my experience in order to help others find information on their own families.
You should begin with your immediate history. Start by interviewing close relatives. Jot down the names mentioned in their stories. Try to get approximate dates. If possible, record some interviews. This may reveal some overlooked details, and you will also be glad you did years after they may have passed on. I recently interviewed the Rev. Willy Wade. He told me of stories his grandfather used to tell about a war and the military occupation of Valdosta. Mr. Wade, at the time, thought his grandfather was speaking about World War I, but he later discovered his grandfather was talking about the Civil War. Mr. Wade was able to discover that Valdosta was once occupied by the 103rd US Colored Infantry, and he is a descendent of one of those soldiers.
Mr. Wade had a difficult time tracing his roots to the 103rd. The history of African Americans is very hard to trace, especially in rural Southern towns like ours. Sometimes one could say that important figures try to cover up anything controversial, such as slavery and Reconstruction. Mr. Wade had to go to the National Archives to get concrete evidence of the 103rd occupation. He will tell you it is a conspiracy, because when he tries to educate the public about this "overlooked" bit of history he is often meet with resistance.
You are likely to run into several dead ends also. Public records have a tendency to be very flammable and an easy target if someone needs to clear his name. I was able to find some transcribed probate records from the years just before the Civil War. I saw the records of several estate sales, which included slaves. The slaves' first names were mentioned. You can sometimes put the last name of the master to the first name of the slave. For example, say that your great, great, great grandfather was named John Washington and you know he was a slave, you can probably assume his master's last name was Washington. This method is sometimes reliable, but a lot of the time former slaves would obliterate any ties with their former masters.
Many white people may have the same difficulty. Believe it or not America is a country of immigrants. More often than not family names where frequently changed when a foreigner entered this country. Sometimes this was done because the people registering immigrants could not speak another language, or the foreigner wanted to start a brand new life. A lot of times the person would pick a name to make it sound more American.
During your search do not forget that you have every right to view public records. They are there, so use them. VSU, Lowndes Historical Society, and the local courthouse have vast amounts of records. VSU, for example, has several gigabits of information on CD-ROM, including marriage and census records. They also have, literally, tons of public documents just waiting to be viewed. Another source you might try is the Mormon Church. I have been told by many that they have the most extensive genealogy records in the country. If your family history reaches back to another country you may encounter more problems. For this, I have included a few web links that may be of assistance.
Blockson, Charles L, and Ron Fry. Black Genealogy. Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 1991.
Wade, The Rev. Willy F. Personal Interview. April 17 2000.
Christine's Genealogy and African American History Website http://www.info.gov/
National Archives and Records Administration http://www.nara.gov/
Christine's Genealogy and African American History Website http://ccharity.com/
The African Native Genealogy Homepage http://hometown.aol.com/angelaw859/index.html
The Odum Library is a Federal Depository Library.