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The 1865 wall

Most people who don't have ancestors involved in the forced African diaspora to the US know very little about the "1865 wall". But to those of us who do have these ancestors, it's something that you have to deal with all the time.

What does it mean?

In 1865, the Emancipation Proclamation nominally ended slavery in the United States. Before that, slaves in most of the US (some notable exceptions being Latin Louisiana) were never mentioned by name in the censuses, so the only way you could find out even basic information such as an ancestor's first name was through other means such as a bill of sale or a will deeding the slave to someone in the family. People kept better records of their horse breeding than they did of their slaves.

The other issue that arises is that you're never quite sure if your ancestor was slave or free, unless you find clear proof of his or her freedom (such as land ownership, tax records, marriage certificates, and other things that slaves generally weren't allowed to have). Which means you have to get extra-sleuthy. It also means you have to research a whole lot more people, because the only clues you have to find a slave is through their masters, and all you have to go on is a last name.

A third issue is that some people changed their last names after they were freed and got as far away from their former masters as they could (which you can't really blame them for), but that just makes you crazy if you think about it too long. Those people pretty much drop off the grid as far as the genealogist is concerned, unless you can find a relative that didn't change their name and find their old name that way.

So it's a challenge -- and I have it easy, not being visually coded as "black". People return my emails on Ancestry (up until I mention slave masters, of course -- then it's about 50/50), and I don't expect too much trouble when I finally get around to driving to Mississippi or Georgia to look up records. I can't imagine how difficult it must be for others who aren't so lucky.


( 2 comments — Something to add? )
Jun. 3rd, 2011 03:42 am (UTC)
So true! So true! African-American genealogy can be quite a challenge for all the reasons you've name above. I hit a lot of '1865 walls' with my family research back when I started this journey in 1989. But, I've been able to chip away at the wall little, by little with so much information being available online today; not to mention that I connected with the great-grandson of the Master who owned members of my family and brought them to Texas (I just blogged about this connection this week). So, our challenge continues . . . Great post!

Jun. 22nd, 2011 02:49 pm (UTC)
"I connected with the great-grandson of the Master who owned members of my family and brought them to Texas"

This is pretty amazing. How did it go?
( 2 comments — Something to add? )