Blog Post

History, Genealogy, and My Light bulb Moment

So, Sunday night when I should have been grading student papers I was instead surfing The Net, and much to my surprise and delight I learned that a resource I have come to rely redesigned its website and, drumroll please, has made the 1870 census available online. The heavens have opened!

For those of you who have spent little time thinking about family history research, let me make it plain how huge this is. Eighteen seventy is only five years after the end of the Civil War, and though, through the course of the war, many African Americans migrated or were moved or displaced, probably most formerly enslaved people remained right in the vicinity of their former owners. For instance, in one of the southern locations I have studied not only are many of the descendants of former slaves of a "Gen. Robertson" still within a mile of his homestead, but there are many who continue to carry his name. In the South, especially in rural areas, this kind of situation is not uncommon.

In short, having the 1870 census available, along with earlier slave schedules, is going to blow open many doors to our American and African American past. And many thanks to LDS (The Church of Jesus Christ, Latter Day Saints) not only for the work that they have committed themselves to over the years, but for making this potentially life changing information available free of charge. Subscription rates and cost of travel to archives no longer will be barriers to black families' and other families' ability to research their pasts.

Focusing on the interests of the HASTAC site, I should perhaps clarify why I have placed my blog and project (Freedpeople's Transcription Project) here. The truth, as I see it, is that Web 2.0 and the ease of digitization mean that records, including slave records, that have never seen light of day are going to start appearing on the Internet. They already are appearing; there is a growing body of bloggers on the topic of African American genealogy. Our nation's attitude about, and its whisper concerning, our legacy of slavery presently is being challenged by the availability of tools that allow individuals and families to go deeply into their own histories. The lions are in fact able to tell their own stories; we have arrived at that time. What will be the response of humanities folk to this challenge to traditional authority, to this imminent democratization of voices? The question of who gets to tell the story is being answered every day on the Internet.

But back to the 1870 census. Those of you who have visited my project website are perhaps aware that my work involves digitizing and publishing to the Internet thousands of African American names including other indentifying information (all public information) such as the name of each individual's former owner. This information was recorded at contraband camps in occupied areas of the South. It so happens that in 1870 my ancestors were living still at one of the five Memphis, Tennessee camps that had been opened during the war. Working through the 1870 census was a lightbulb moment. Not only have I studied the 1870 census many times, i have recorded from it information for all of my known ancestors. Why then did it only occur to me this past Sunday that what I have been recording is not just my own family's residence but the post-war camp community?

Here's the point. Next to nothing has been written of the Memphis camps. There are a handful of narratives, written by university historians mostly, of other camps. The Memphis Public Library (a wonderful institution with a superb genealogical department) unfortunately has only a few scattered articles about the particular camp where my ancestors lived. Because of this paucity of information, the general knowledge in the city--for the relative few residents who have any sense of this history--has it that a camp did in fact remain after the war but had only a few residents and eventually dissolved. I have on record that my ancestors remained there as late as the 1880s.

The 1870 census identifies those who remained, and there are many reasons why this is hugely important. One of them is that this camp community is tied to the work of Superintendent of Freedmen John Eaton, Jr., his collaboration with no lesser figure than Underground Railroad operative Levi Coffin. The two men intended to create black farmers, and if--in looking at the 1870 census of this particular Memphis camp community--one takes note of the occupations of the residents of the camp one will not fail to miss a preponderance not of field hands or farm laborers but of farmers, who are black, only five years outside of their slave past.

Who has told this story before now? Why haven't these truths emerged before now? I am doing my part, which includes writing, getting the word out about dusty records that are being digitized and about more that should be. And I'd like to add one final word, and that is about the divide that seems to exist between history and genealogy. Ironically, I am self-trained in both. I am neither university-trained in history nor organization- certfied in genealogy. I am trained in composition theory and pedagogy, and I am a rhetorician. My interest--examining how "truths" get constructed. I disclose this in order to say that orthodoxy and disciplinarity are barriers; they limit. History is a fine science that creates invaluable products, and genealogy is a science and art which I have found not just to be history's equal but a necessary partner.

In the next ten years, I expect that stories of contraband camps will be told through university presses and also  through the phenomenon of blogging. There will be a diversification of voices. I only hope that they begin to speak to each other more, and I hope as well that when these slave records themselves begin to speak loudly in ways that genealogists are as attuned as anyone to hearing that everyone concerned will be listening.


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