By Robin Foster
People assume all the time that I am much younger than I am. I have a youthful personality, I have kept up with technology, and I love learning new things. After so many years documenting my own ancestors and helping others, I am still discovering resources and have helpful techniques to share.
We have yet to discover many genealogical resources to document our ancestors. We have only touched the surface of the great depths of records which exist. Most have not even been indexed or brought forward yet. Those who are researching African American ancestors are still using the most basic record-types such as death, marriage, and census records. We will need to dig a little deeper in order to overcome the 1870 challenge.
During the last months of 2010, I decided to spend the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War bringing to the forefront history that has been buried, overlooked, or taught incorrectly. I felt this would be a great opportunity to discover more about African American history and historical documentation about our ancestors.
I began to focus on the period after 1865 and the new legislation that may have caused documentation to be generated that mentions African Americans. I began a study of the Black Codes, the Freedmen’s Bureau, and Reconstruction. I knew that I would also be led to identify ways we have not yet been able to embrace freedom.
During Reconstruction, African Americans had the right to vote and exercised other rights which were eventually taken away by 1876 and 1877. A economic system of forced labor which reared its ugly head in the form of labor contracts just after the Civil War became fully entrenched in the South for many decades. From 1865 through 1965 and later many African Americans were under the control of this system and suffered great violence.
African American history is about more than slavery
Many genealogical researchers do not see the importance of revisiting this time period, however, in order to uncover vital information about our ancestors, we must start with ourselves and work backwards through every existing record of genealogical significance not just the ones commonly used. Unfortunately, the history of African Americans has been reduced to the history of slavery. Without an understanding of the legal system during the years after slavery, we miss a wealth of genealogical records which were generated.
We must research the historical documentation generated by the Black Codes, Freedmen’s Bureau, Jim Crow Laws, NAACP, and records generated on the county, state, and federal levels to find the records that provide a wealth of genealogical data about our ancestors. So when I suggest that we have only brushed the surface when it comes to available records, I am including these record-types and those that remain hidden that we have yet to discover.
History as a whole
Taking this holistic approach to historical documentation, has enabled me to identify resources that are helpful to all races. Records are color blind, and they sound neither be taken out of the context of the time period that they were generated. We cannot separate genealogical records from the context of history, neither should we select a portion of records generated while ignoring the others which exist. I feel that even though I have been researching for 26 years, my journey has only just begun.