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Researching Black Ancestry

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  • Nancy Pittman
    Collected from the Farmville Enterprise February 26, 2003 Genealogist takes pride in researching black ancestry. Pitt County men encounter unique obstacles.
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 27, 2003
      Collected from the Farmville Enterprise February 26, 2003

      Genealogist takes pride in researching black ancestry. Pitt County men encounter unique obstacles. By Donna Kemp Editor/publisher

      ARTICLE: Frank Clark and William Cox know the difficulties of tracing their African-American ancestors. They have struggled with the task for years.

      As with all genealogists, they have spent hours in courthouses, archives and graveyards. And while sifting through plantation papers, deeds and wills, they have found the resources are there to give them the answers.

      Clark and Cox both began their research upon the premise of organizing their family reunions. Clark has been the driving force behind what has become a massive annual reunion of his near and distant relatives. He has the responsibility of being the family's historian, adding to the family tree every year and keeping track of the many new relatives.

      "Every year," says Clark, "I add something new about the family."

      Clark remembers as a child visiting the log cabin in Pantego where his grandparents lived. He also has discovered that his grandparents gave the land for the first black school in that area. He has revisited the site and takes pride in what his forefathers did for their community.

      Several years ago, he decided that it would be the perfect location for one of the reunions. From a small beginning, the event has become a massive undertaking. Hundreds of relatives attend each year, hotels are booked in advance and charter busses are used to carry everyone to the site of the reunion.

      Cox began his undertaking in much the same way. While planning a reunion, he undertook the task of researching his ancestors, and the obsession spread from that spark. The difficulties encountered in their efforts have been numerous, as with any genealogical undertaking. However, black research follows the same format as the search for white ancestors.

      "In genealogy, black and white history is the same research," says Cox. "You have to search through the white family records to find your black ancestors. The history is intermingled; it's not one way or the other."

      But there are significant differences in the techniques used to find these ancestors.

      Unlike some, if not a majority of whites, African-Americans prior to the Civil War did not own property; they were themselves considered possessions. Instead of a will that names heirs to the family fortune, Cox and Clark search the wills for a mention of their ancestor's name. It was common practice for slaves to be inherited by family members upon the death of the slave-owner. It was also not uncommon for them to be set free, and that leads the researchers in a new direction.

      "A free man's life was only a fraction above being a slave. It was necessary for them to have their papers with them at all times. But was better to be free in North Carolina than in Virginia or South Carolina," Cox adds.

      Once freed, a former slave gained many rights but was held back for the most part by the culture of the day. Slaves could buy their freedom, if they could find the money. They could also buy the freedom of other slaves.

      Cox has found ancestors who worked other paying jobs off of the plantation with their owner's permission. He shows an amount of pride as he talks of their entrepreneurial skills.

      "They worked for their owners and then would work for someone else who would pay them. Some of the time, the owner would allow them to keep their own money."

      With little education, and obstacles that people today would find difficult to overcome, these slaves made their mark and changed their world.

      "When I stared my research, I found a lot of the history hard to deal with," say Cox, "but that was the way the culture was then. You have to remember that. I take a tremendous amount of pride in these people. They succeeded and made me who I am today."

      One of the hardest puzzles in researching is the name changes among the African-American communities. Slaves often assumed the last name of their owner, sometimes changing that name when they changed owners or were set free. Children often took their mother's name. After emancipation, some former slaves arbitrarily chose a new surname. And this is not always the toughest obstacle the researcher finds.

      With few, if any land transaction, researchers must rely on plantation records, slave census schedules, will of their white owner, "freedman" records and cemetery records. Also, many white families recorded slave births in the family bible and slaves were often buried in the family cemeteries.

      Cox has found that some of his ancestors lived as slaves on the land near Lang's Crossroads. He has also found that his heritage is a mixture of black, white and Native American, including Blackfoot and Cherokee. He notes the features in his face - the European nose of his siblings, the high cheekbones and olive skin of some of his family. He has also learned of diseases and ailments that have passed down through the generations and feels better able to handle these problems with knowing what can be inherited.

      Cox has written several books that show the research he has spent years perfecting. Copies of the book are available for viewing a Sheppard Memorial Library in Greenville, the Heritage Room at Lenoir Community Collage and at East Carolina University.

      Clark, who was raised in Greene County, has found relative up and down the East Coast, including Farmville.

      "You don't even realize who you are related to until you take the time to check it out," he says.

      Clark is currently the vice president of the Pitt County Family Researcher. A devoted group of genealogist who meet every month to share information and work on new projects. The group is currently planning a second printing of The Pitt County Chronicles, and hopefully work on a second volume will begin in the near future.

      PCFR also has a room at Sheppard Memorial Library, where genealogical books and research material is stored. The collection is open to the public and there is no charge for their use.

      Clark also recommends that all beginning African-American genealogist read "Black History Lessons for Researcher," a publication that can be found in the library.

      "This book explains how to get started," says Clark.

      But he also wants to encourage everyone to lean about their family.

      "Interview your older relatives, write down what they have to say," he says. "Interview their friends, the people who lived around them and knew them. You never know what you can learn from people."

      If the task seems overwhelming, Clark invites anyone interested to attend PCFR's monthly meeting, held on the third Tuesday of each month at 7 P.M. at Sheppard Library.

      "There you will meet other people who can give you ideas and may even be researching the same line that you are," he says.

      "People don't realize how important their history is," says Cox, adding in union with Clark, "but we're gonna teach them."

      End of Article

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