That bill of sale and countless other documents that could help the descendants of slaves find their heritage often remain in the hands of the slaveholders’ descendants. Virtually all references to enslaved populations in public documents fall under the slaveholder’s name. And slaveholder’s descendants, myself among them, have to go through those records line by line to do our own family histories, anyway. Who better than we, then, to take a hammer to the “brick walls” of African American genealogical research from the other side?
Frazine and I decided to encourage others to take up the challenge and adventure of documenting slaveholder and enslaved families as a cohesive system—because they surely were. For better or worse, their lives intertwined, and their fates intersected. We decided to call people who are deeply interconnected but not related “beyond kin,” and our project became “The Beyond Kin Project.” We created a website at BeyondKin.org, and after just a few months in operation have a forum membership of more than seven hundred genealogical researchers—and growing by more than a hundred a week lately.
The Beyond Kin Project offers a method of using the most common genealogical software tools—resources genealogists already have on hand—to handle the complex task of documenting people who are not even named in many cases. While existing software does not present a straightforward solution, we created a workaround that people are using all over the country now. Our Facebook forum brings multiple minds together to answer the questions that inevitably arise as we tackle the toughest but most rewarding sort of genealogy most of us will ever encounter. We celebrate together every time another once-nameless line in the nation’s census slave schedules has been identified, named, and given his or her rightful place in their own family trees.
Not long ago, I met the first of what I hope will be many descendants of the Mayberry Plantation’s enslaved population. Ingrid Marshall of Virginia Beach, Virginia, found me on Facebook. In a great moment of serendipity, she told me her great-great-grandfather Wesley went to war with my ancestor Jacob Mayberry. They came home together to a world changed, and Wesley lived near them for the rest of his life.
Ingrid and I have been able to fill in details for each other, enhancing our search for understanding and knowledge of our families. Thanks to the very robust oral histories in Ingrid’s family, I know things that documents would never tell me about Wesley and his life on the Mayberry plantation. And I, living a half hour from the place our ancestors coexisted, can get to information Ingrid cannot easily locate from her Virginia home. Though Ingrid and I have not found a genetic kinship between us (it was the first thing we checked), we are, like Jacob and Wesley, “beyond kin.” We know our ancestors better because we know each other.
I encourage anyone who is documenting slaveholding families to consider expanding your scope to include their enslaved persons. If you descend from enslaved families or descend from neither but want to volunteer in this effort, we welcome you. Consult BeyondKin.org, and join the conversation on our Facebook forum. If you are not a genealogist but have your slaveholding family’s papers, I encourage you to find a way to make the documents accessible to researchers. One casual mention in a letter, one bill of sale, or one account ledger might give thousands of descendants a chance to finally put a name to their ancestor. Email me at email@example.com if you have questions or need help finding a repository for your family’s documents.
Donna Cox Baker has served as editor-in-chief of Alabama Heritage since 2002. She co-chairs the Statewide Initiatives Committee of the Alabama Bicentennial Commission and blogs at the Golden Egg Genealogist (gegbound.com).