Researching Slave-Holding Ancestors

There are two topics that are guaranteed to come up in just about ongoing discussion of American family history research: slavery and slave ownership.

Genealogy television shows frequently explore the subject: of course you would expect to see that on Henry Louis Gates’ excellent African-American Lives. But, it’s remarkable how many celebrities (not all Southern) on his follow-up show, Finding Your Roots and TLC’s Who Do You Think You Are discover that their ancestors either owned slaves or were slaves.

There’s a reason for that: slavery is a huge part of the American story. All of America. The South differs only in that if your family is Southern it is impossible to research for very long without encountering many reminders that slavery was an accepted part of life at the time. In fact, documents concerning slaves: wills, deeds, newspaper notices, etc. are a major resource for genealogists.

But, that is just the factual, technical part of the story. The other part is emotional. These are our kinfolk we’re talking about here, even if we never met them (and might not like them if we did).

Though I’ve read many blog posts on the subject, I can’t really know what it feels like to be African-American and research ancestors that were owned like cattle. That’s not the subject of this post. I only know what it’s like to research dozens of slave-holding ancestors. And while I am sure it is far less shocking and traumatic than researching enslaved ancestors, it is um, complicated.

No, I was not surprised to find ancestors who held slaves. Neither was anyone in my family, as far as I know. We are Southern and white, ergo, someone must have held slaves along the way. I really don’t know how anyone can be “shocked” about this, as they frequently are on TV shows. It just stands to reason.

Neither was anyone surprised to find that we had African-American cousins. We knew there had to at least be a historical connection to African-American Bembrys for a start. (I’ll admit that, as blindingly white as we are, the hundreds of African-American DNA matches that popped up were a few more than we were expecting!)

So, not shocked. However, I was surprised that so many of my ancestors had held slaves. Everyone in living memory on either side of my family has been a small-time farmer: many were even tenant, or migrant farmers. There was certainly no story of a Gone with the Wind-style plantation in the family oral history.

My ancestors were more typical of southern slaveowners than George O’Hara in his big white, columned house. In fact, Miles Bembry started out as a plantation overseer, an employee, not a “planter.” But, throughout the 18th and part of the 19th century, dozens of my ancestors owned slaves: anywhere from a single individual or family to 38 people in one case.

So, that was the first step toward awareness, you might say. Check marks on censuses and slave schedules.

As I dug deeper into the family history, however, those check marks became people, with names. I know the names of the enslaved people who lived and worked in my fifth great-grandfather’s household, for example. Dinah and her children, Dick, Alice, Saline, Berry, Jacob, and Oran. They are now a part of my family’s history.

The family above was mentioned in a will because Miles Bembry, their owner, was attempting to keep them together for at least a decade after his death. That was “special consideration,” a term used when white slave holders treated their slaves at least somewhat like people. But it does not represent the majority of documents that I’ve found.

Nathan Harris, my seventh great-grandfather, surely broke up at least one family when he distributed slaves to his many children. Some of the slaves are to be “returned to the common mass of the estate” and sold, if certain conditions are not met. As if they were so many cows or cooking pots.

Slaves were a major form of capital for their owners. So, they were fought over a lot in court, like any other property (the Bembrys were constantly arguing with each other over slaves, it seems). A slave could be sent to another household to settle a legal dispute. They also could be sold outright to settle debt. Thomas Bembry, my fourth great-grandfather, lost all his slaves that way, as the family spiraled downward into tenant farming.

But no matter how bad things were for his family, it was much worse for the people who were auctioned off in front of the county courthouse to who knows what fate. It’s one thing to know, in principle, that “these things happened.” It’s another to read about your own relatives selling other people—who may have also been relatives!

How do I feel about it? Well, I don’t feel ashamed, exactly. A good deal of history is cruel by modern standards, and after all, there is nothing I can do about the past. But, I can recognize that this history happened and that it had lasting consequences. My ancestors were the sellers, not the sold. Not to mention (at least in the case of the men) they were the rapists, not the raped. This is all hugely important.

After the Civil War, my family may have been diminished in numbers, grieving, traumatized, largely illiterate, and flat broke, but they were still white. They were no “sundown towns” for them. They didn’t have to worry about the KKK knocking on their doors. They could go to school, vote, sit at the lunch counter, maybe get a mortgage loan, even go to college. All of which they did—eventually.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking how far my family has come in the last 150 years or so. My grandfather couldn’t read, but he and my grandmother put five kids through college. It wasn’t only whiteness that got all that done. I just understand better, after all these years of researching southern history on a micro level, how our whiteness was (and is) a significant advantage decades, even centuries, after slavery ended. I am truly grateful for that broadened perspective: it is not always obvious, when you do not come from any wealth to speak of, that you are, in fact, greatly privileged.

Practically speaking, African-Americans have to rely on white genealogy a great deal in order to research their own families. Of course, in many cases, the white genealogy is part of their genealogy. But this help can go both ways. Every document listing slave names may be a gold mine to someone researching their enslaved ancestors. That’s why I post them on this blog. But every document transcribed by an African-American researcher because it lists slaves and their owners/buyers/sellers may also help out a white researcher with their research! I’ve benefited from this myself.

DNA is also helpful regardless of ethnic background. A cousin is a cousin, no matter what color they are, and can always help reveal family connections. I am contacted all the time by cousins, to be honest, most of these connections remain a mystery regardless of whether they are “on the white side” or “on the black side.” But I remain hopeful that someone who understands DNA a whole lot better than I do can actually make use of the information!

I love history, and I am interested in telling as complete a story as possible. So, if I only researched my white ancestors, and blithely ignored the all other people who were working, living, and at least occasionally sleeping with them, for centuries, then that wouldn’t be very complete, would it? I have been, and will continue to research slaves that were owned by my ancestors as much as it is possible to do so. This side of the story is not always pretty, but it is always interesting—and more importantly, the truth.

It’s past time we all overcame any queasiness we may have about our slave-holding ancestors. In a time when many are trying to divide us in this country, we family historians are in a unique position to understand how closely tied together we all are—and the very complicated history that we are still working through to this day.


3 thoughts on “Researching Slave-Holding Ancestors

  1. What an excellent read! –an excellent statement! I’m going to share it on facebook, and reblog it in my own blog if that is okay with you. You express so much of what I feel. Thank you from one descendant of enslavers to another! Helen


  2. I’ve thought a lot about the history of our country lately and agree with what you have said. It’s not pretty but it’s the truth and shouldn’t be hidden. I always thought my ancestors did not own slaves, but recently came across a line from Virginia who did. It was something I never thought was a part of my family’s history, but like you said we are all connected to it somehow.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s