Researching African-American family histories often presents special challenges due to the enslavement of Black people in America. The way families were ripped apart willie-nillie by kidnappers and human traffickers, casually labeled by many historians as “plantation owners,” presents Blacks who want to find their “people” with tremendous hurdles. So too does the spotty record-keeping on Black lives during enslavement, which is way more challenging to navigate when venturing past 1870.
Recognizing this reality, the Fort Bend County Libraries’ Genealogy and Local History Department is hosting a special program, “Family-History Research: Beginning African-American Genealogy”, on Wednesday, June 28, from 10:30a.m. to 11:30a.m. in the Computer Lab of the Missouri City Branch Library, located at 1530 Texas Parkway, 77489.
“The program is an introduction on how to start genealogy research, particularly for African Americans,” said Daniel Sample, manager of the Missouri City Library’s Genealogy and Local History department. “I go up to the 1870 census because that’s when Blacks were included.”
In Black family research (genealogy) circles, 1870 is called the “Brick Wall” because before that year enslaved Blacks (considered “property” by their kidnappers/human traffickers) were rarely enumerated (mentioned one-by-one) by name. Additionally, oftentimes formerly enslaved Blacks carried a variety of surnames. After the Civil War (post-1865), there was still a fluidity about surnames, for various reasons.
An individual or entire family could have multiple surnames over the course of their lives if they were sold from one “forced labor camp” (award-winning author Isabel Wilkerson’s term for “plantations”) to another. Thus, it was common for formerly enslaved Blacks to have one last name on or before 1870 and an entirely different one by 1880, especially with Blacks eager to exercise the agency of naming themselves and divorcing themselves from the names of their former captors.
Sample will discuss many of the resources that are available to family-history researchers, with a special focus on tools to help individuals who are researching African-American family histories. Sample will also offer tips on how to extend family-history research into the years before the American Civil War took place.
“I have a second section of the program that focuses on the slavery period. It can be fairly difficult but not impossible to find family genealogy information,” Sample shared.
“And after my presentation, participants get time to go through some of the databases that I show them to do some research on the spot. Participants are also free to stay around so I can answer any questions they might have.
Sample said the program, which has been offered for a decade, gets anywhere from three to four people or 10 or more, though he’s hoping for a larger crowd this year.
Other online resources, such as the Ancestry.com database, items that are available on microfilm, and print resources will also be discussed.
The class is free and open to the public. Seating is limited, however, and reservations are required. To register online at the library’s website (www.fortbend.lib.tx.us), click on “Classes & Events,” select “Missouri City Branch,” and find the program.
Participants may also register by calling the Missouri City Branch Library (281-238-2100), or by visiting the library.