Black Families Can Now Recover More of Their Lost Histories

In many ways, the overgrown cemetery on a South Carolina rice plantation where my paternal ancestors are buried is emblematic of Black history itself. On my first visit in 2013, I went in search of the Fields family graves. There I found many unmarked graves, some of them nothing more than sunken depressions, as far as the eye could see. A few had simple headstones. One marked grave had been broken wide open by a fallen tree limb, and had filled with water. I was horrified to see my ancestor’s skeletal remains floating at the top.

After researching the history of peasant rice farmers in West Africa for over a decade, I had recently extended my research to enslaved laborers on Lowcountry South Carolina rice plantations. But I had not thought to research my own family’s history. Seeing that open grave made me feel as though I had turned my back on my ancestors. I pledged then to find out who was buried in that cemetery and tell their story.

African Americans searching for their family histories often have only small irregular pieces of an enormous puzzle. Most of those pieces are missing because enslaved African Americans were not recorded by their first and last names before the 1870 census. Until recently, identifying enslaved and formerly enslaved people who lived before that time was virtually impossible. To complicate matters, professional historians typically analyze and interpret plantation owners’ records, which identify enslaved people as property and by first name only, and describe the violence that was done to them, how their labor was exploited and their bodies abused. These records deny our ancestors’ humanity.

Because of these limitations, it had become accepted as fact among historians and genealogists that efforts to recover African American family histories reaching back to the time of slavery would hit a brick wall.

Today, I’m excited to report, the brick wall, or at least a large part of it, has been dismantled. Projects to digitize enormous troves of once difficult to access records are giving African American families opportunities to recover more of our lost past and offering historians the potential to enrich and rewrite the history of slavery.

When I embarked on my journey to research my father’s family’s history, all I had to go on was a list of names from the census that included that of Hector Fields, my great-great-great grandfather, and his direct descendants. It wasn’t much, but it was something; most African Americans can trace their families back only a few generations. I knew I would need new tools to uncover the history of my enslaved ancestors.

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