I’m back with Kenyatta D. Berry for the second half of our interview, digging more into ways to find original sources, and to understand what those little points of data mean. Kenyatta is a professional genealogist, attorney, author, lecturer, and TV host. She has extensive knowledge of African American genealogy and enslaved ancestral research. Her book, The Family Tree Toolkit: A Comprehensive Guide to Uncovering Your Ancestry and Researching Genealogy, is a valuable resource for anyone interested in learning more about their genealogy. It’s a wonderful resource guide and also provides helpful steps for how to get started.
Kenyatta has so much to teach us with her vast knowledge, quick wit, and in-depth explanations. I know you’ll love learning from her! If you missed it, check out part 1 of this interview first!
Kay: One of the themes we’re seeing is how their voices are lost. We don’t have information about them, they’re put in a spreadsheet without a name, and it was illegal for them to be taught how to read or write. But after 1810, we begin to start hearing from them. I wonder as a genealogist, how do you start to piece things together to hear their story better, even if it’s not in their own voice? How do you take it from that tic mark on a document, to who they were, and who their family members were?
Kenyatta: I mentioned that genealogy is more than just names, dates, and places. To create that story, you have to understand the history. I’m really big on the historical context. I always use Madison county as an example, because when I lived in Virginia, I went there. I went to that county, that court house, and I bought books that talked about that county. Some of those history books then will talk about the slaves, and you’ll know what’s going on when your ancestor lived in that county. It’ll give you information to help you craft that story.
One of the biggest things is oral histories. Some genealogists don’t love the idea, as they feel like it’s a big game of telephone, where the stories change—but they’re still a great foundation. You can see what’s told, and try to find out what’s true.
Another thing is being able to learn about the county and surrounding areas. If they were near a larger city, there were newspapers. They tell the stories—including the stories of runaway enslaved people. Those give you so much information—a description of an individual, down to what they were wearing. That is a story. If you had an ancestor, but you don’t know who their last enslaver was, runaway enslaved ads can give you that information. That’s one way to look at it. But even if it’s not your ancestor, how many people were running away from a certain area? What was going on during the Civil War in your ancestor’s area? That will help flesh out those details, that you can use along with the Freeman’s Bureau records.
Kay: That’s amazing. I can see how those different records you’re piecing together allow you to start telling the story of the environment they were in. At what point did you see that you were able to get research in the voices of the people you were studying? Not during slavery, nor much during reconstruction. When do start finding primary sources? When does that shift happen, where you’re getting the stories from them?
Kenyatta: There are some very famous slave narratives. 12 Years a Slave, Fredrick Douglas, and some other very famous ones of those who escaped bondage. Those are in the voices of the enslaved. There were stories, even during slavery, from their voices. These were used a lot with the abolitionist movement to talk about the horrors of slavery.
When you get to the broader group of the enslaved, who didn’t have that opportunity, whether they died while enslaved, or just never got to tell their story—those stories do exist. Reconstruction is when we started to see those stories emerge, especially in newspapers. Reconstruction was an area when we got the “second founding” of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments of the Constitution, and so as they were fighting for full citizenship, they were telling their stories.
There were a number of African American men who were elected as representatives in their state houses. They’re telling their stories. Whether it’s in a book or a newspaper, those voices are of someone prominent in the community, but they can still speak about their experience.
The purpose of Reconstruction was to rebuild the union, to rebuild and restore in the South. It was a difficult time, but during that time many formerly-enslaved sought education. They wanted to learn to read and write; they wanted to know what they were doing when they were buying land. They wanted what they were denied before. They had the freedom, but they wanted the education to go along with it. Those stories are there, and you see them emerge during slavery, but you see more of them emerge during reconstruction.
Kay: With the genealogy research you’re doing, I’m sure finding some of this information is like finding a needle in a haystack. Many of these aren’t indexed, you might have to go into the regional records—what are some of the triumphs you’ve had a genealogist, where you were able to connect some dots, or found a one-in-a-million document?
Kenyatta: I mentioned the Freeman’s Bureau a lot, because far before things were online, I found the sharecropping agreement for my 4th grandfather Lewis Carter. In connecting the dots, in 1870 he was in Madison County, and I found a list of his personal property and of his real property. The value of his personal property was a little over a thousand dollars in that day’s money, and the value of his real property was over four thousand.
Seeing that as a genealogist confused me a little bit, because I knew he wasn’t a free person of color in 1860, but how did he get that? I digged into the Freeman’s Bureau, and found this sharecropping agreement between him and Dr. Taylor. These agreements varied from person to person, but for my 4th grandfather, he received half the crops, in return for maintain and farming this land that was owned by John Taylor.
Others in the same county have various arrangements. Some would get money; some would get room and board—it depends on the employer. The theory is the employer is probably the previous enslaver, which means Taylor was likely the enslaver of Lewis. When I looked at the 1870 schedule, it listed Lewis Carter as an agent of Dr. Taylor. My 3rd great-grandmother, Lewis’ daughter, married James Philip Sellers. Their marriage certificate says they got married on Taylor’s farm. There’s consistency there—that helps me build my story. Whatever connection there is to Taylor, there’s still a connection.
Kay: What do you make of that, with this specific ancestor? Was it common that they would stay on the lands they would previously been enslaved? Was there any indication of what that relationship was like, since it looks like he made enough money to go somewhere else? It sounds incredibly complicated, and it’s hard to imagine how that relationship continues.
Kenyatta: To understand the relationship between Taylor and Carter, it’s going to be complex. They call it a peculiar institution, because you don’t know. I don’t know the relationship between the two of them. His daughter is married on this land. She’s living with him on this land with her husband. I haven’t found much information on that relationship.
The interaction between the enslaver and the enslaved person we may never know or understand. It could be anything—I’m not going to assume that because he stayed that they had some type of familial relationship, because I don’t know. But there are other places, where the stories are very basic, where the person was their parent, and years later they interviewed and mentioned that their enslaver were their father. That’s something they didn’t talk about. To understand those relationships is to understand that culture, and that community. Every community is different.
But I haven’t seen anything that would confirm that relationship with Lewis. I wish I could find something, and I can try to tell a story, but I only know what I have in front of me. I can try to add something to it, but I can’t confirm it.
I also wanted to mention, about staying on the land they were enslaved on—many of them left, because they wanted to find their people. There were a lot of “information wanted” ads in newspaper, because they wanted to find their brother, father, sister, who was sold down the river, and they wanted to find their family. That’s one thing with Lewis and his wife, I have accounted for all of her children. If someone was sold off, I might have missed them, but for Martha Paine Carter, and Emily Carter Sellers, I have identified all their children.
Kay: That’s amazing, and rare, right?
Kenyatta: It depends. You can definitely do it—it’s not as rare as you’d think. You have to understand how to do it, and the patience to dig through the records, and know what you’re looking for. If you know the enslavers name, and they have a will, then that will may mention him giving a slave to someone, and you can follow that person. That’s why it’s important to know the last enslaver.
It’s emotional to think about, and difficult to grasp, but at the end of the day, these human beings were property. As property, they had records attached, which were connected to those who owned them, the enslavers. So while some may think there’s not records available for African American genealogies, they’re missing that there are records, they’re just not always in names of those who were enslaved—they’re the names of the enslavers.
Kay: Wow. It’s really heavy, and I appreciate you taking us through it. Even though we’ve talked some before it, I still feel like there’s so much to wrap my head around—but you do a great job of breaking it down where to look, and where to start following the string. Do you have any advice where our readers can go to find their own genealogy, and what can we do to support the African American genealogy study?
Kenyatta: If you’re just getting started with your genealogy, start with yourself and work backwards. Interview the older relatives—aunts, grandparents, great grandparents. Anyone! Get all the information, ask all the questions, document it and source it. Use that to build out your family tree. One of the reasons I wrote my book is to help people get started, because when I started 20 years ago, there was no beginner’s guide to help you walk though this overwhelming process. It’s a lot of information, it’s a lot to take in.
Focus on one family line. Focus on your mom’s side, or your dad’s side, and then once you continue to find information, focus on one grandparent, and go back on that line. That way you don’t get overwhelmed and underwater with it.
There’s a number of records that do need to be digitized and indexed and transcribed—a way to help is to support your local library, historical societies, genealogy societies that have these documents that need to be available. I know the Smithsonian has a transcription project related to the Freeman’s Bureau. This is looking at the record that is in cursive, and transcribing that, and there’s a lot of indexing that goes on, especially at family search.
If you look at the location where your ancestors lived, see if those archives have these projects, and you can support them by going through the records physically, as well as financially. The records are not only attached only just to the African American person, but also the enslaver. People don’t realize, that when we look at African American history, we’re looking at American history. It’s John Taylor and Lewis Carter. It’s the story of two people. We need to understand that, as we go through and share this information, that this is a benefit to everyone, because it’s our collective history.
Kay: I appreciate you bringing it together and telling it as a complete story, even with a complicated history. Even now, we have some resources to bring it all together, but it’s still complex and takes some hand- holding to figure it out. Your book is a great resource for those who want to learn more, and our readers can also follow you on Facebook, or Instagram. Thank you so much for sharing so openly from your research!