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National Family History Month

To commemorate National Family History Month, Documenting the American South highlights several slave narratives that preserve family histories, lineages, and traditions.

The story of Abdul Rahman Ibrahima, as recorded in T.H. Gallaudet's A Statement with Regard to the Moorish Prince, Abduhl Rahhahman (1828), demonstrates the complex and imperfect manner in which some slave narratives preserved family history. Ibrahima, an African Muslim who was enslaved and transported to the U.S. around 1788 (at age 26), was commonly called "Prince" on his Mississippi plantation because both his father and grandfather ruled African kingdoms. Gallaudet's Statement was published years later, after Ibrahima and his wife Isabella had been freed through the efforts of southern well-wishers and northern abolitionists. However, they were forced to leave their "little flock"—as many as twenty-three children and grandchildren—behind in slavery (p. 4). The purpose of the Statement, in fact, was to raise enough money to purchase their freedom, a plan that did not succeed. Ibrahima and Isabella were ultimately deported to the American colony of Liberia, where they continued their efforts to free their family, but Ibrahima died shortly thereafter, in July 1829. Isabella was able to rescue two of her sons, who joined her in Liberia, but at least three sons and four daughters remained enslaved in Mississippi along with their children. Approximately 140 years later, historian Terry Alford discovered Ibrahima's narrative and decided to trace the descendants of the African "Prince" through archival research. Alford's work, Prince Among Slaves (1977) has since inspired further genealogical research, as well as a PBS documentary by the same title. Though Ibrahima and Isabella did not live to see their descendants recognized or emancipated, their family history lives on through these literary and documentary records.

Olaudah Equiano and James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw also trace their lineage to African rulers and describe their memories of local customs, systems of government, religion, and the natural landscape of their homelands. Both were born in parts of what is now known as Nigeria, and both offer descriptions of family members and cultural customs from childhood. Equiano was born in 1745 in an area named Eboe, and lived there until he was kidnapped into slavery around age eleven. He declares that his "father was one of those elders or chiefs . . . and was styled Embrenche; a term, as I remember, importing the highest distinction, and signifying in our language a mark of grandeur" (p. 5-6). Gronniosaw was born around 1710 "in the City BOURNOU [today spelled Borno]; my mother was the eldest daughter of the reigning King there . . . I was the youngest of six children, and particularly loved by my mother, and my grand-father almost doated on me" (p. 1). After seeking adventure in a larger African city, he was captured and sold into slavery by a rival king in 1730. While Equiano and Gronniosaw may have had both personal and political motives for including royal lineage, separated as they were from their families and members of their communities, the accounts seek to preserve a familial and cultural heritage that could otherwise have been obliterated by their enslavement.

Like Ibrahima, Thomas ("Uncle Tom") Jones experienced the unfathomable despair of separation from his family—not once, but twice. His Experience and Personal Narrative first describes his parents' anguish, knowing that their children would be "torn from them and sold" (p. 8). Born in Hanover County, North Carolina, Jones is sold at age nine to a new master in Washington, North Carolina, 45 miles away. When he is finally able to return to his "home" plantation, at age 22, he finds "the family all broken up; father was sold and gone; Richard, Alexander, Charles, Sarah, and John were sold and gone. Mother prematurely old, heart-broken, utterly desolate, weak and dying, alone remained" (p. 9). Years later, a father himself, Jones again loses his family when his wife Lucilla and three children are taken with their mistress from Wilmington to New Bern, North Carolina, and finally to Alabama. He is never able to find them again. When his second master dies, Jones is sold to yet another master, Owen Holmes. After Jones remarries and has three more children, Holmes allows Jones to hire himself out as a dockhand, enabling him to save money and to eventually purchase his family's freedom. Jones' repeatedly interrupted family history demonstrates how difficult it could be for enslaved African Americans to preserve the continuity of families and their stories.

"The Story of Mattie J. Jackson: Her Parentage, Experience of Eighteen Years in Slavery, Incidents During the War, Her Escape from Slavery: A True Story (1866) is somewhat unusual because it tells Mattie Jackson's life story almost entirely as a family history, rather than as an individual story of witnessing, experiencing, and escaping the trials of slavery. Instead, Jackson incorporates the experiences of her mother and siblings as an integral part of her own story. Although the body of the narrative is titled "Mattie's Story," large portions are devoted to Jackson's mother's courtships, marriages, and separations from Jackson's father and step-father. While her mother assists in her husbands' escapes, finding "solace in the contemplation of her husband becoming a free man" and "hope that her little family . . . might be enabled to make their escape also, and meet to part no more on earth" (p. 6), these passages also highlight the psychological trauma inflicted on those who attempt to develop relationships in the midst of slavery's constant threat of forcible separation. Furthermore, the narrative emphasizes how these traumas affect the children of those relationships: "I shall never forget the bitter anguish of my parents' hearts, the sighs they uttered or the profusion of tears which coursed down their sable cheeks" (p. 5). Jackson's focus on lineage and family in the narrative emphasizes both the value and fragility of those relationships.

Untold numbers of families like Jackson's were separated, and many slaves and ex-slaves tried desperately to reunite their families. The search for family members lost on the slave auction block is a central theme of Isaac Johnson's 1901 narrative Slavery Days in Old Kentucky. Johnson's father, who was white, sold Johnson's mother (who was African American) and the children they had together into slavery when Isaac Johnson was a small child. Johnson's narrative suggests he never quite got over the agony of separation from his family, and the narrative even ends with a reprinting of Johnson's current address, "In order that my relatives may know where to find me, in case this little pamphlet should fall into their hands." (p. 40)

Some slave narratives record poignant family traditions rather than robust family histories. When Phillis Wheatley arrives in colonial Massachusetts, she comes without "any remembrance of the place of her nativity, or of her parents, excepting the simple circumstance that her mother poured out water before the sun at his rising" (p. 10). This single memory is so important to her that she shares it with the Wheatleys, the family that buys and emancipates her and that later includes it in her biography. In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois records the lyrics and notation of a melody sung by "My grandfather's grandmother," whose "child sang it to his children and they to their children's children, and so two hundred years it has traveled down to us and we sing it to our children" (p. 254). For Dubois, this song, transmitted across five generations, is a piece of family history that he feels compelled to record for his two children specifically and for African Americans generally.

For Susie Baker King Taylor, it is not song but story and legend that sustain her and connect her to her ancestors. Indeed, the first chapter of Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33rd United States Colored Troops Late 1st S.C. Volunteers is dedicated to situating her, not as an individual, but as one of many hard-working women. Titled "A Brief Sketch of My Ancestors," the chapter traces some of the descendants of Taylor's half-Indian great-great-grandmother who herself bore seven children, five of whom were in the Revolutionary War. Taylor insists that her great-great-grandmother lived to the age of 120, a claim that, while possibly exaggerated or untrue, stresses Taylor's intense interest in the sustainability of her family, even in the worst of circumstances. To emphasize stamina and strength, Taylor describes the other women of her family, including her great-grandmother Susanna, a noted midwife who bore 24 children (23 of which were girls). By grounding her narrative in the strength of her female ancestors, Taylor indirectly acknowledges the source of her own strength as a woman, an escaped slave, a teacher, and a nurse in the Civil War. And thus her family, while scattered and abused by slavery, becomes a generative, legendary force for Taylor.

DocSouth staff