Laurie Scott-Reyes drove alone for two hours on a back road from Crawford, Alabama, to Sparta, Georgia, following the migration of her ancestors in reverse after the end of slavery.
Eager to reach her destination and determined to make the journey, she gazed at the sights around her, staring at dilapidated houses rusted across shop fronts and rows of pine trees. Years ago, her family fled Georgia in search of a better life and made Alabama their new home. Now she felt a pull to come back and see what they had left behind.
“It was like going back in time,” said Scott-Reyes, thinking of her ancestors. “Your spirit is very real to me and it was a great achievement for me and I felt like I was doing it for my tribe.”
Her accomplishment: Tracking down the William Hurt Plantation, where her family was once enslaved.
At the plantation, Scott-Reyes joined a growing wave of black Americans who have been researching their genealogy at historical sites in recent years. They have dug into increasingly available information about the existence of their families in the United States – a story that dates back more than 400 years ago when abducted Africans were first brought to Virginia and sold into slavery. These efforts have led to new explorations of former slave laboratories, deep insights into historical data, and settlements in personal homes via family trees and in the country’s institutions facing controversial truths about the role of slavery in American society.
For Scott-Reyes, who lives in Florida, her journey into her family’s experiences of slavery took her more than 500 miles southwest of Jamestown, Virginia to the Hurt Plantation in Georgia. Scott-Reyes toured the plantation where William Hurt once controlled about 2,000 hectares of land. She said it was sad to walk around the Muscadine and Scuppernong vines to see the sleeping quarters and the cooking house for the enslaved.
“It was almost as if I was driven by something bigger than myself,” said Scott-Reyes, who has since written a book called Against the Tempest. “It’s no longer just about me, my curiosity and the desire to get to know my people. I wanted all of the descendants to know who those ancestors were, so at some point it became more for them than for me. “
Historians, genealogists, and personal researchers like Scott-Reyes have long sought answers about plantations.
One of the most famous events centered around this goal in 1986 when descendants of enslaved Black Americans gathered for a reunion at Somerset Place near Creswell, North Carolina, on a plantation that was once home to several generations of enslaved people. Dorothy Spruill Redford, writer, historian and former executive director of Somerset Place, helped organize the event.
Researchers have also found like-minded people through the Slave Dwelling Project, a group that attracts attention with overnight stays in historic buildings and other programs.
Joseph McGill Jr., the South Carolina-based founder of the project, was inspired to start the organization in 2010 after staying in a restored slave hut in South Carolina. A year later he was sleeping near an auction block in Brenham, Texas. He has now visited slave homes in 25 states for the past 10 years. He says it is important that descendants of African slaves tell the stories that happened in places like Somerset Place.
“When we’re not in the audience or part of what these places have to offer, they’re going to gloss over the story to tell the Gone With the Wind version of the story,” said McGill. “The Slave Dwelling Project counteracts this.”
Alex Haley’s 1976 novel, Roots: The Saga of an American Family, and the groundbreaking 1977 miniseries based on it, inspired many African Americans to explore their family history. In 2019, the 400th anniversary of the landing of the first documented Africans in North America in England at Point Comfort in what is now Virginia gave another boost to genealogical research.
Ric Murphy, former vice president of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society and author of the book “Arrival of the First Africans in Virginia,” urged black families to research their genealogy. He has written a book, “Arrival of the First Africans in Virginia”. “American history is our history and our history is American history,” he said.
Black researchers flock to family files and submit their DNA to genetic services for answers. Others have used oral records to map their family history, such as Bettye Kearse, author of The Other Madisons: The Lost History of A President’s Black Family, who has evidence that she is related to former US President James Madison .
“Always remember, you are a Madison, you come from African slaves and a president,” said Kearse, quoting a family credo she heard when she was five. Years later, she became the family griot – a West African term for the person responsible for maintaining a family’s oral traditions – and the keeper of scrapbook photos and other artifacts.
“I’m very interested in scrapbooks, boxes and tangible things that people keep in basements and attics and closets and all kinds of places,” Kearse said. “It is very important to do it, save it and pass it on.”
Museums and institutions have also become increasingly concerned with the descendants of the enslaved in recent years. Some have reformatted their programming and others have used tools to catalog the lives of enslaved Africans and their descendants.
In December Michigan State University launched a searchable database, Enslaved.org, that contains brief biographical sketches. The project partners are the University of Maryland and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Stephen Hammond, family historian and an expert on the lives of enslaved people at Arlington House Museum in Virginia, said more information sharing allows researchers to better research genealogical cases. Over the past 20 years, Hammond said, staff at historic locations such as George Washington’s Mount Vernon mansion, Madison’s Montpelier, and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello have begun to tell more about the history of enslavement.
Hammond is a member of the seventh generation of the Syphax family associated with Martha Washington, wife of the first president. He’s currently underway on a DNA study that could confirm not only the family’s African ancestry, but how it intersects with white Washington descendants.
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“I’m excited to think that we can use what our ancestors knew to change our future,” said Hammond. “And I hope that in this way we can also inspire other people to think about it.”
Historical research can be difficult for black families because many have been torn apart by the slave trade, documents have been burned, names have been changed, and sometimes even living family members have declined DNA requests.
Cheryl Brown, who lives in Virginia, experienced some of these challenges after uncovering a marital relationship through DNA tracing and spending most of her life without knowing her father or family because she was adopted. But after replying to a persistent email claiming she was her cousin, getting her birth certificates, and taking an Ancestry.com DNA test, she met her father two years ago.
Lonnie Lee Jr., Brown’s 81-year-old father, said he was delighted with his daughter’s efforts and glad to meet her for the first time at a tearful family reunion in Charlotte, North Carolina. “I knew she existed somewhere and I was just glad she found me,” he said.
Brown also learned of a late sister, bonded two family members to their birth fathers, and gained over a hundred new family members. She is now researching slave transaction records and motivating them to dig even deeper.
“I’m pushing forward,” she said. “I never get tired of research. There is just so much to do. “
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Black families use DNA, oral tradition, to fill in the gaps left by slavery