BILOXI, Miss. (AP) - Her tree was incomplete.
That’s how it looked to Melissa Evans when she compared her family tree to the ones created by her third-grade classmates. Some of her white classmates had branches stretching back centuries. Evans, one of only a handful of Black students at her school in Gulfport, traced her family to her great-grandparents.
When other students asked why Evans’ tree was so short, their teacher didn’t want to talk about slavery, how it tore apart Black families in the United States, and Evans isn’t sure it would have been the right setting for the conversation anyway. More than 30 years later, she remembers the feeling of embarrassment, of lacking something.
“Your feelings get hurt,” she said. “You see all these people. They have a huge tree. And you’re just sitting there like… that’s something I never forgot.”
That memory is part of what drove Evans, who still lives in Gulfport, to start carefully researching her ancestry as an adult. The research has taken her back to 1850, when some documents say an ancestor named Henry Hyde was born (other sources say 1854). She knows he spent most of his life working for a white family named the Dantzlers in Jackson County, but other details remain out of reach.
Evans’s research sometimes keeps her up until 2 or 3 a.m., trawling Ancestry.com and checking online archives for names of her ancestors. It has introduced her to a previously unknown relative in Germany and showed that Michael Jackson is a distant relation.
By tracing her family tree, Evans hopes to rediscover some of the kinship ties that slavery destroyed, and to ensure they will never again be erased.
“Sisters and brothers were broken up,” she said. “It’s a shame, but it’s just facts. All we can do is talk about it. A lot of people don’t like to talk about the past, but in order for the past not to occur again, we have to talk about it.”
Other Black Mississippians, and Black Americans with Mississippi roots, have similar stories of how genealogical research and DNA testing gave them a personal lens on American history and a sense of satisfaction in learning more about where they came from.
And because the research often leads to the living descendants of slaveholders, it also provides a lesson in the possibilities and perils of attempting an honest conversation, across the country’s racial divide, about the legacy and consequences of slavery in the 21st century.
HOW TO START RESEARCHING YOUR FAMILY TREE
Joyce Dixon-Lawson, who retired from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History last year as curator of research and genealogy, began hosting workshops on African-American genealogy in the early 1990s. As far as she knows, no one at the department had done that before.
Dixon-Lawson believes family history research should start with a conversation with the elderly members of your family. Take notes and ask questions to draw out details. Listen for the names of people and places.
Then, head to the archives. The federal government releases complete census information only after a 72-year waiting period to protect the privacy of living people. The most recent available census is from 1940 and is free to search online (it’s easiest if you know where your relatives were living at that point).
Next, work backward. After finding a relative in the 1940 census, look for them and their household members in the 1930 census. Check every census, Dixon-Lawson says, even if you are certain a relative lived in the same place each time, because each census collected different information.
One Mississippi-specific resource is the “Enumeration of Educable Children,” which lists the names and ages of school-age children, and is searchable online. State death records from 1912 are now also digitized and searchable online, thanks to the work of Christopher Smothers, an Atlanta-based genealogist and historian who specializes in African-American ancestry and has researched his own family in Mississippi.
Records, like the people who prepared them, can be faulty. Some faults are gifts: Mississippi’s educable lists sometimes include adult family members, perhaps because the person compiling the list didn’t understand what they were supposed to be doing.
Other faults confound. A relative may be excluded from a census, or the census taker may have misspelled the name. A county that exists now may not have existed in, say, 1880, so records that old may be somewhere else.
“And then you have courthouses that burned,” Dixon-Lawson said.
Though few who are not genealogists realize it, this country witnessed an epidemic of courthouse burnings in the 19th century, due to accidents and the Civil War. It happened in at least 12 Mississippi counties, including Jackson, plus many more that suffered unspecified “records loss.”
RECORDS AND FAMILY STORIES AREN’T PERFECT
Finding an ancestor in the archives may be possible only with a mind open to alternate spellings, inconsistent dates and contradictions of family lore. All family stories should be viewed with some skepticism until confirmed with documents.
Dollie Gathings, who began her genealogy research in the pre-digital era, spent 15 years searching for relatives in one census. She went line by line, for the entire county, until she found them, their names totally misspelled but ages a perfect match.
Gathings, 77, lives in Byram, Miss. and has spent countless hours at Mississippi archives, quietly perusing documents alongside other genealogy researchers. She said it’s not uncommon for a sigh of relief and joy to punctuate the silence, signifying someone has broken through a brick wall.
“We don’t pay it any attention, because we know that feeling,” she said. “The ancestors, we stand on their shoulders, and they deserve to be known and recognized and their names spoken. That’s one of the things that keeps me going.”
‘YOU DON’T TELL ME WHAT I CAN’T GET’
When Brenda A. Beal, who now lives in the Atlanta area, started researching her Mississippi family roots in the late 2000s, she called MDAH. The archives employee told her that enslaved people were not included in the census prior to 1870.
“And he said, ‘So, if you’re looking to find information further back than that, you probably won’t find it,’” Beal recalls.
When she hung up the phone, Beal sat at her desk and cried. Growing up in Michigan, slavery had seemed very distant.
“It was like a whole new light bulb had come on for me,” she said.
But Beal was not deterred.
“You don’t tell me what I can’t get,” she said.
Beal found her great-grandfather, Anthony Smart, in the 1880 census. He and his mother, Sarah Smart, were living in Attala County in the household of a man named Sam Chambers. But Beal did not know who the Chambers were, or if she had found the right Anthony and Sarah Smart. So she set aside the information in a “Miscellaneous” folder for puzzle pieces that don’t yet fit together.
It took a few years and the rediscovery of a misplaced document, but Beal eventually confirmed that Sarah Smart was her great-great-grandmother. She also located a death certificate for Sarah Smart’s oldest son, George, which revealed Chambers was Sarah Smart’s maiden name.
Several years later, a relative Beal found through her research told her about a document containing information about their shared ancestors: an 1858 slave registry that, unusually, listed some full names as well as ages and genders for the people it described.
The registry listed Sarah Chambers, her brother Sam and some other siblings, along with their mother Mariah. It also listed Sarah “Sall” Wilson (some documents list her surname as Parker), who was Mariah’s mother and Beal’s great-great-great-great-grandmother. Wilson was born in South Carolina, most likely around 1800. (The documents give a range of dates for her birth.)
With those names, Beal was able to locate her ancestors in the 1870 census: Mariah Chambers was head of household, living with her children and her mother, Sarah Wilson. Wilson was still living by the time of the 1880 census, but she is listed as sick. Beal assumes she may have died not long after, but has not been able to find a document recording her death.
The person who owned Beal’s ancestors was named William McWillie, a South Carolina banker who moved to Mississippi in 1845 and became the state’s governor in 1857.
Though Beal has traced several generations of her enslaved ancestors, many details of their lives remain mysteries to her. She wondered, for example, exactly how they made the journey from South Carolina to Mississippi. One document she found from 1902 describes the trip this way.
“In October, 1845, Col. McWillie accompanied by his family, with a long train of carriages, wagons, negroes and horses crossed the States between South Carolina and Mississippi to make a home in the West.”
HOW TO FIND AN ENSLAVED ANCESTOR
Christopher Smothers, the Atlanta genealogist who helped get Mississippi death records digitized, recommends people looking for enslaved ancestors trace their family members back to the 1870 census.
There’s a good chance that in 1870, they were still living in the area, or even on the same plantation, where they had been enslaved, Smothers said. The Freedmen’s Bureau, which supervised labor contracts for formerly enslaved people during this era, may also have relevant records.
Then, look at county land records to identify the major plantation owners in the area. Search conveyance records, slave schedules and deeds for each of these land owners.
“That whole cloak of misinformation and ignorance really dissipates when you understand that we were a part of the American capitalistic system, and in order to document that, you needed to be concrete about who owned what and what was being conveyed from who to whom,” Smothers said. “The information exists.”
Not all Black Mississippians were enslaved before the Civil War. In 1840, the state had 1,366 free Black residents, a number that had declined to 773 by 1860 (425,000 people were enslaved in Mississippi at that point), as southern states made it more legally difficult to free enslaved people. Most free Black Mississippians lived in the Natchez area.
Ja’el Gordon, a Baton Rouge-based historian and genealogist who leads the Louisiana chapter of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society and is in the process of chartering a Mississippi chapter, pointed out that migration across state lines was not uncommon for free Black people. Louisiana was home to the largest free Black population in the Deep South, numbering nearly 19,000 in 1860.
Some free people of color, like the famous Natchez barber, businessman and diarist William Johnson, owned slaves.
“Feelings are going to be there, whether that’s talking about consent or talking about free persons of color who owned other persons of color themselves,” Gordon said.
‘A BITTERSWEET TASTE’
Smothers said that identifying enslaved ancestors in documents “really leaves a bittersweet taste in your mouth.”
“Because you’re joyful that you know who they are, they have names, they had a legacy,” he said. “And the fact that we even have to say it like that is dehumanizing and demeaning… Because if we were talking about white people, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
Smothers’ research on his own family proves his point: he is a descendant of four different plantation owners. His great-great-grandfather was a white man whose family were wealthy land owners, and he knows the story of their lives back to the 1830s well. For his Black ancestors during that same time period, “it’s basically oral history.”
Some slave owners recorded marriages, deaths and births among the people they enslaved in family Bibles. They may have recorded details of daily life in a diary. And all of that may still be held by their white descendants.
That’s why information from living white relatives, identified through DNA testing or family tree tracing, can be so important.
In Facebook groups like “I’ve Traced My Enslaved Ancestors and Their Owners,” white genealogy researchers post documents and discoveries in the hopes of assisting Black researchers.
Smothers was recently hired by a Los Angeles attorney to try to determine what had happened to two men enslaved by her ancestors in Kentucky; she wanted to find their descendants and pay them reparations directly.
The men were listed only by gender and age in the 1860 census, not name, so Smothers initially feared he would be unable to trace them. Then came a breakthrough: he found the two on an 1864 Civil War Registration Muster Roll and learned that one of them later filed for a Union Army pension. These applications typically contain a treasure trove of information, including interviews with people who knew the applicant before the war, so Smothers is optimistic that he will be able to trace the men’s lineage.
Melissa Evans said that some of her relatives have connected with the white descendants of the people who enslaved their ancestors, and now “the Black Evans and the white Evans” talk on Zoom and are planning a family reunion.
‘THEY’RE NOT TRYING TO HELP ME’
For African Americans, Dixon-Lawson said, some historical facts are obvious: sexual abuse and rape of enslaved Black women by white slaveholders was ubiquitous.
“I have never found an African American who was shocked that they had European or Native American blood,” she said.
But white Americans often don’t want to acknowledge any history of slave holding in their families, much less share information with the descendants of people their ancestors enslaved.
Through DNA testing, Evans found a white woman on Ancestry whose tree helped Evans trace her grandmother’s lineage. The evidence indicated that this woman and one of Evans’s grandmothers were both direct descendants of a colonel in the Confederate army. But when Evans tried to connect her grandmother to the white woman’s tree, the woman blocked her.
“They’re not trying to help me,” Evans said.
SEEKING DOCUMENTS, CONSIDERING REPARATIONS
For some researchers, reading documentation of their enslaved ancestors’ experiences provides evidence in support of reparations for slavery. Smothers said the documents describing people as property make viscerally clear how much wealth was built on the backs of enslaved African Americans.
Genealogy research also often illustrates how brutal racism continued to shape African Americans’ lives long after slavery: most people interviewed for this article have an ancestor who was lynched, murdered by a white person who was never held accountable, or narrowly escaped similar violence. And one reason Mississippi research can be challenging is that Black sharecroppers who fled abusive landowners often changed their names to avoid being found elsewhere.
Sometimes, the difficulty of finding records can feel like an echo of the dehumanization experienced by enslaved ancestors.
Ja’el Gordon, the historian and genealogist who leads the Louisiana chapter of the AAHGS, said Louisiana parishes typically charge researchers to make copies of documents, and they don’t allow photography. On one recent trip, Gordon spent $177.
“That’s not fair,” she said. “My ancestors have already paid, they were already paid for. How dare you withhold it and say you can’t take photos of it, and that’s their ancestor’s document? If we ever want to talk about reparations, that should be one of the things.”
Evans said it’s hard to understand why there are not more easily accessible documents for African Americans trying to trace their roots.
“We’re the only race of people who really don’t know where we came from,” she said. “And sometimes I feel like the federal government should have more research available for us, so we can find that out.”
STILL SEARCHING FOR CLUES
There are projects under way to try to centralize records of people enslaved in the United States. One is an online database called Enslaved: Peoples of the Historical Slave Trade. It launched last year with records of 500,000 people and plans to expand with information from museums and archives.
Another is the GU272 Memory Project. Starting in 1838, Jesuit priests sold more than 300 enslaved people from Maryland to sugar plantations in Louisiana; the funds from the sale ensured Georgetown University survived and became one of the country’s leading universities. The memory project collects genealogical data and oral histories about the enslaved people the Jesuits sold and their descendants.
For Evans, those resources have not yet been helpful - she has a cousin who is one of the GU272 descendants, but project researchers told her she is not among them.
And so she stays up late, checking databases again, Googling ancestors’ names in case some new reference has appeared, reviewing her findings for potential new clues. Through DNA testing, she’s been able to find relatives on Ancestry.com, but she doesn’t have the documents to understand how they are connected.
She knows that Henry Hyde, born in 1850, worked for the Dantzler family in Jackson County, and that many of her relatives continued to work for the Dantzlers for decades. But the details of Hyde’s early life and the identities of his parents have been impossible to find. She is not even sure whether he was enslaved as a child.
So far, she has not been able to get in touch with the Dantzlers. She wonders if they might be able to help her. For now, Henry Hyde’s parents, and her own roots, remain a mystery.
“I’m just lost,” she said. “Right now, I’m just lost.”
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