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Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery

Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery

by Heather Andrea Williams
Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery

Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery

by Heather Andrea Williams

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After the Civil War, African Americans placed poignant "information wanted" advertisements in newspapers, searching for missing family members. Inspired by the power of these ads, Heather Andrea Williams uses slave narratives, letters, interviews, public records, and diaries to guide readers back to devastating moments of family separation during slavery when people were sold away from parents, siblings, spouses, and children. Williams explores the heartbreaking stories of separation and the long, usually unsuccessful journeys toward reunification. Examining the interior lives of the enslaved and freedpeople as they tried to come to terms with great loss, Williams grounds their grief, fear, anger, longing, frustration, and hope in the history of American slavery and the domestic slave trade.

Williams follows those who were separated, chronicles their searches, and documents the rare experience of reunion. She also explores the sympathy, indifference, hostility, or empathy expressed by whites about sundered black families. Williams shows how searches for family members in the post-Civil War era continue to reverberate in African American culture in the ongoing search for family history and connection across generations.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780807882658
Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
Publication date: 06/01/2012
Series: The John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 264
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Heather Andrea Williams is Presidential Term Professor and Professor of Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom.

Read an Excerpt

help me to find my people

The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery
By Heather Andrea Williams

The University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2012 The University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8078-3554-8

Chapter One

Fine Black Boy for Sale Separation and Loss among Enslaved Children

A vague fear came over me, but I did not know why. THOMAS LEWIS JOHNSON, former slave

Early in the fall of 1836, N. A. Hinkle of Snickersville, Virginia, wrote a letter of five lines to slave trader William Crow in Charles Town, Virginia. "A friend of mine," the letter said, "has a fine Black Boy that is now in the market for Sale and I told him that I would write to you about him he is about 12 years old not tall for his age but verry stout. You had better come over or send some word immediately about him if you want to get him." The brief communication was layered with significance: A child for sale—a sense of urgency—the need to act immediately to stave off competition or perhaps to get this boy to a purchaser in time for the harvest. The boy was twelve years old, ready to be put to work in the fields or in a craftsman's shop to learn a trade. He was not tall, but his strong, sturdy body rendered him capable of doing the hard labor that a new owner would require. Hinkle wrote to a likely purchaser. William Crow was in the business of purchasing people in Virginia and imprisoning them in the basement of his house until he had enough to send to New Orleans, where his agent sold them at market. Seething silently between the lines of Hinkle's business proposition is a layer that concerns the child's feelings, his thoughts, and his emotional ties to parents, siblings, friends, and place. Sale of this child would almost certainly result in separation from his family, but Hinkle, acting as the middleman in this proposed transaction, gave no apparent consideration to such concerns.

In contrast to Hinkle's silence, this chapter examines the emotional lives of those African American children who experienced separation from families either through their own sale or through the sale of parents or siblings. Although we may never learn any more about this specific unidentified black boy who for a fleeting moment anonymously entered the historical record, sources produced by former slaves, slaveowners, and slave traders provide a degree of access to the lives of young people who had similar experiences. We do not know if this particular boy found himself chained in William Crow's basement before making the trek to New Orleans, but others who left records of their lives help us to gain some sense of what it was like for a child to be sold and taken far away from home and family.

Scholars who write the history of children or childhood note that children leave behind few records with which historians can work. Enslaved African American children left even fewer than most. What we know of their thoughts, feelings, and experiences is refracted through the memory of the adults they became. We must rely, then, on adult memories of childhood, however flawed memory may be, or leave these lives unexamined. The narratives that African Americans wrote or dictated in the nineteenth century as well as the memories they shared with government-employed interviewers long after slavery had ended are key sources of insight into how enslaved children experienced family separation. These autobiographies and interviews allow us into the world in which children came to understand that they could be treated as commodities, that they could be sold, and that frequently, sale meant their families would be broken apart. These sources also divulge how parents responded to the loss of their children. Through accounts of a mother's anguished wail or a father's lapse into depression, we are able to see the impact of separation on enslaved parents. The reactions of both parents and children reveal deep emotional bonds among family members and a variety of methods of coping with the pain brought about by separation. Former slaves' accounts of highly charged separations contrast with owners' and traders' calculations as they carried out the business of slavery, and these accounts by the enslaved contradict the analyses of historians who thought these people were either satisfied with their condition or incapable of emotional depth.

* * *

Former slaves who wrote the narratives of their lives described the shock and sense of loss that accompanied the separation they experienced as children. What amounted to a business transaction for owners could be a traumatic and defining experience in an enslaved child's life. In the narrative of her life, Kate Drumgoold captured the innocence, grief, and faith of a small girl whose mother was suddenly taken away. Drumgoold was born in Virginia close enough to the start of the Civil War that she might have missed the pain of slavery altogether. Instead, the war itself became the source of her grief when her mother was sold to pay a substitute to serve for their owner in the Confederate army. As Drumgoold recalled it, "My mother was sold at Richmond, Virginia, and a gentleman bought her who lived in Georgia, and we did not know that she was sold until she was gone; and the saddest thought to me was to know which way she had gone, and I used to go outside and look up to see if there was anything that would direct me, and I saw a clear place in the sky, and it seemed to me the way she had gone, and I watched it three and a half years, not knowing what that meant, and it was there the whole time that mother was gone." In a sky as vast as her grief, the child fixed her mind on a clear place to help her to grapple with the dislocation brought on by her mother's abrupt disappearance. In that spot, she could summon a nearly tangible connection with her absent mother. Drumgoold designed her own mourning ritual, a practice infused with hope and a touch of magical thinking that allowed her to believe her mother was in the sky and would return just as suddenly as she had disappeared. Drumgoold had not attended a funeral for her mother, had not said goodbye, and had no gravesite to visit, but her mother was as much gone as if she had died. She reasoned in her child's mind that if she could keep finding that place in the sky, she could find solace and perhaps, someday, see her mother again. This child's story speaks to the experiences of many enslaved people: the jolt of sudden loss, holding on to a faint hope of reunification, and the searing, lasting memory of confusion and pain.

Former slave Charles Ball's family members did not suddenly disappear; instead, four-year-old Ball watched as purchasers tore the family apart. The incident was painful and memorable. When Ball's owner died in Maryland, the estate put all the slaves up for sale at auction, and each member of Ball's family was sold to a different bidder. His new owner, Jack Cox, put the child on a horse and prepared to take him home, but according to Ball, "My poor mother, when she saw me leaving her for the last time, ran after me, took me down from the horse, clasped me in her arms, and wept loudly and bitterly over me. My master seemed to pity her, and endeavored to soothe her distress by telling her that he would be a good master to me and that I should not want any thing." Still grasping her child, Ball's mother begged Cox to purchase her and her remaining children so that they would not be taken from the area, but her new owner intervened and ordered her to "give that little negro to its owner." According to Ball, this man "snatched me from her arms, handed me to my master, and seizing her by one arm, dragged her back towards the place of sale. My master then quickened the pace of his horse; and as we advanced, the cries of my poor parent became more and more indistinct. At length they died away in the distance, and I never again heard the voice of my poor mother." Ball recalled clinging to his new owner "as an angel and saviour, when compared with the hardened fiend into whose power [his mother] had fallen." The traumatized four-year-old having just witnessed his mother's distress sought comfort from his new owner, who had at least spoken kind words to her. Writing many years later, Ball reflected, "Young as I was, the horrors of that day sank deeply into my heart, and even at this time, though a half a century has elapsed, the terrors of the scene return with painful vividness upon my memory."

Neither Drumgoold's nor Ball's mother had anyone, any institution, or any authority to whom she could turn for protection of her family. Only Louisiana and, belatedly in 1852, Alabama ever sought to protect mothers and children by adopting laws that regulated the ages at which children could be sold separately from their mothers. The vast majority of enslaved children belonged to people who had complete discretion to sell them or to give them away at will. Indeed, approximately one third of enslaved children in the Upper South experienced family separation in one of three possible scenarios: sale away from parents, sale with mother away from father, or sale of mother or father away from child. Slaveholders and, by extension, slave traders particularly desired adolescents, as they were immediately productive, and their youth promised a lifetime of service to the purchaser. The value of boys lay primarily in their physical strength; owners desired girls aged twelve to fifteen years both for their strength as laborers and for their potential reproductive capacity. Still, many owners sold much younger children alone as well.

Practices of sale and purchase varied, but for enslaved people, the single most important fact was that owners had the power to decide what they would do with the people they owned. They decided whom and when to sell. They decided which children would be sold with their mothers and which would be separated. They decided whether to keep families together or to ignore familial bonds, and their actions held great consequences for enslaved people. Every death of an owner, every auction, and every sale portended separation for the enslaved child and parents; every transaction could bring about loss and grief.

Sometimes owners and traders announced their intention to sell a woman and her children together, as was the case, for example, when the administrator of an estate in Fauquier County, Virginia, advertised that he would "offer for sale by public auction a negro woman and her four children consisting of two boys and two girls." Or when an ad in Charleston offered, among many other enslaved people, "5 likely Families, with from 2 to 7 in number." The sellers here suggested to potential purchasers that the families came as a package; however, the purchaser usually stood to make the final decision as to whether to take the whole group or only part. Other advertisers made it clear from the start that they gave no consideration to family relationships by openly declaring that children would be sold alone. A seller in Virginia, for example, offered forty to fifty slaves for sale, among them "six or seven young Men, about the same number of young Women an excellent Semptress [sic] a most dexterous House Servant about 18 years old, some Boys and Girls, and several Children, healthy and generally between two and four years of age." These very young children seemed to be thrown in almost as an afterthought, with no evident attention to their connections to parents or siblings. In 1858 when a Virginia slave trader compiled the assessed value of enslaved people, he included categories of boys aged twelve to fourteen and girls aged as young as ten and eleven. The "demand was good for likely Negroes," he wrote, but at the bottom of his list he noted, "families rather dull and hard to sell," meaning that the boys and girls would in all likelihood be sold individually without siblings or parents.

Nursing children generally had the best chance of remaining with their mothers because it made economic sense to both traders and purchasers to include them as part of a bargain for their mother. Sometimes the infant had a price attached, as when appraisers assigned a value of $150 for six-month-old Minnie in 1860. At other times, the child was included as part of the mother's sale. In Orangeburg, South Carolina, a seller wrote out a bill of sale for $1,005 for the purchase of "a negro woman called Salley about 24 years old, and two children the oldest called Lear 2 years and ten months old, the youngest called Deanah 9 months old, to have and to hold the said Negro woman and children forever." In Augusta, Georgia, Samuel B. Clark sold "a negro woman named Clarissa, her child Eliza one and a half year of age and her infant one month old." And when a Virginia slave dealer provided quotes for the value of slaves, he included a category of "good young woman and first child." The decision to sell mothers and young children together usually meant there was some benefit to the dealer and the purchaser; a lactating mother was in the best position to take care of an infant who would be a burden to anyone else. Additionally, sale with an infant indicated to the buyer that this woman was fertile. Indeed, a woman with a first child might be even more valuable, as she was both fertile and presumably young enough to give birth to several more children, who, by law, would inherit their mother's status and became the property of her owner.

But former slave Jim Allen's recollection of his childhood is an important reminder that even when a mother was sold with her infant, she and her other children still lost one another. As Allen recounted it, "Before I could remember much, I remember Lee King had a saloon close to Bob Allen's store in Russell County, Alabama, and Mars John Bussey drunk my mother up. I mean by that, Lee King took her and my brother George for a whiskey debt. Yes old Marster drinked them up. Then they was carried to Florida by Sam O'Neal, and George was just a baby. You know the white folks wouldn't often separate the mother and baby. I ain't seen them since." Allen's mother got to keep her baby, but she lost her other children.

Slavery was a business, the slave trade the most cold and stark element of it, and the market did not always tolerate even a very young child accompanying his or her mother. In a letter to his employer in central North Carolina, Samuel Browning, a slave trader, hinted at the inconvenience of having an infant along while he transported slaves. Browning was in Greenwood, Mississippi, heading to Milliken's Bend, Louisiana, and complained that there was no "spirit of trade" anywhere he had been because people were "ex-treamly anxious to buy but have not got the money to pay." He had expected to keep moving, he said, "but a girl that I have along had a child yesterday which I shall have to wait on a few days if I cannot make some disposition of her—." By disposition he presumably meant selling the woman and possibly her baby, but with the market so slow, he may have taken other steps to make sure that he and the slaves could move on.

Former slaves told horror stories of what could happen to an unwanted child. Parthena Rollins from Kentucky recalled an incident in which the financial interests of the owner trampled on any concern for mother and child. Once when the slave traders came through, Rollins told an interviewer, "there was a girl, the mother of a young baby; the traders wanted the girl, but would not buy her because she had a child. Her owner took her away, took the baby from her, and beat it to death right before the mother's eyes, then brought the girl back to the sale without the baby, and she was bought immediately." According to Rollins, the child's mother became ill after this agonizing loss. "The thought of the cruel way of putting her baby to death preyed on her mind to such an extent, she developed epilepsy," Rollins said. This angered her new owner, who returned her for a refund of his money. And William Wells Brown, an enslaved man who belonged to a slave trader, told of the trader giving away a woman's five-week-old child because the infant's crying annoyed him. The child's mother, part of a coffle of slaves being taken to market, begged and promised to quiet the child, but the trader had made his decision. His peace of mind was worth more than he could get for this child in the market, and the infant's mother, like many other enslaved people, was powerless to prevent the loss of her child.


Excerpted from help me to find my people by Heather Andrea Williams Copyright © 2012 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Chapter 1. Fine Black Boy for Sale Separation and Loss among Enslaved Children....................21
Chapter 2. Let No Man Put Asunder Separation of Husbands and Wives....................47
Chapter 3. They May See Their Children Again White Attitudes toward Separation....................89
Chapter 4. Blue Glass Beads Tied in a Rag of Cotton Cloth The Search for Family during Slavery....................119
Chapter 5. Information Wanted The Search for Family after Emancipation....................139
Chapter 6. Happiness Too Deep for Utterance Reunification of Families....................171
Epilogue Help Me To Find My People Genealogies of Separation....................189

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Williams speaks to scholars and to everyone interested in African American roots and family history as she delves into the short-run and long-run impact of family instability and disruption. This is a study of real importance.—Michael Tadman, University of Liverpool

Williams has uncovered evidence with emotional heft that will help modern readers understand the toll slavery took upon families and individuals. She examines these losses from the perspectives of enslaved peoples and seeks to answer how they dealt with—and how they felt about—what was done to them.—Marie Jenkins Schwartz, University of Rhode Island

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