I am happy and impressed when anyone takes the time to actually read Trafficke, much less review it. I was exceptionally pleased when I learned Jon Curley had reviewed it on Galatea Resurrects, an outstanding venue for engagements with poetry books and projects. Jon brings great historical depth to his review, and writes more eloquently than I do about why and how the method and poetics of Trafficke matters. I was so pleased by his words that it took me a couple of times through to realize that our family’s 200 years of slave holding–the book’s ultimate ethical challenge–was never mentioned. Take a look at the Galatea page now and read the ensuing comments and discussion. Sean Pears (a brilliant young writer now working on a PhD in Poetics) took the lead; Karen Branan chimed in; Jon responded with generosity and insight; and I added my thoughts. Taken together, this is an outstanding way to review a book and to keep bringing hard truths to consciousness. We all have to learn, and sometimes we have to learn in public. I’m grateful to Jon, Sean, & Karen, and to Galatea Resurrects for providing the forum. http://galatearesurrection26.blogspot.com/…/trafficke-by-su…
…the most recent post from Our Folks’ Tales, Andi Cumbo-Floyd’s blog “dedicated to telling the stories of enslaved people, free people of color, and the descendants of these individuals.” You’ll also find there good pages of links for African American history and genealogy. I’ve added this blog to the links on this site. I also left a long comment in response to this entry re: plantations, and invite you also to share your thoughts. More conversation on this topic is currently happening on the Coming to the Table Facebook group.
I am thrilled to announce publication of James Bacon’s The Ties That Bind: From Slavery to Freedom–a book long in the making, shaped with skill, determination, and love.
In 1857, William Bowie, an enslaved man and skilled carpenter, was manumitted by the will of Roderick M. McGregor, of Prince George’s County, Maryland. Roderick’s birth name was Magruder, but in 1820 his father, John Smith Magruder, petitioned the state legislature to change the surname of his children to McGregor. Because Maryland law, by that time, forbade the manumission of slaves, Roderick’s will instructed his executor (his brother Nathaniel M. McGregor) to take William Bowie, his wife Matilda, and four of their children–Thomas, Nathaniel, Margaret, and Boston–to Washington DC, where they were to be hired out to work for a year, thereafter to have their freedom, a house, and a horse and cart. Once that was done, William Bowie received in cash the balance of the $500 Roderick McGregor had allotted to his welfare.
At that time, all members of the Bowie family were illiterate and had lived their entire lives in slavery. In 1913, just fifty-five years later, William A. Bowie, eldest son of Nathaniel Bowie, co-founded with John W. Lewis the Industrial Savings Bank, the most sound and successful black-owned bank in Washington, D.C.
And that is only one of the remarkable stories told in this book. From the Bowie family come tales of flight and capture, separation and reunion, Civil War service and multiple aliases, successful businesses and long marriages. On the other side of his family, James Bacon is descended from some of New Jersey’s earliest black property-owners, and important conductors on the Underground Railroad.
I have corresponded with James Bacon almost from the inception of this web site, and know him to be a dogged and thorough researcher. As you read this book, remember that behind every paragraph lie years of searching and careful recording; of corroboration and double-checking; of searching for graves and for documents; of squinting through miles of microfilm, then embracing the dazzling new world of online genealogy. Thanks to such efforts, The Ties That Bind: From Slavery to Freedom is, in itself, a reunion of the lost and the loved.
Just one footnote, for readers of the American Clan Gregor Society yearbooks… You may have read in an early article by C.C. Magruder, about the descendants of John Magruder of Dunblane (a grandson of Alexander Magruder the Immigrant, and Roderick McGregor’s great-grandfather), that Roderick freed all his slaves. This is far from true. He freed only William and Matilda Bowie, along with four of their children. Also to his credit, he had earlier purchased Matilda from a distant Maryland plantation in order to reunite her with William. However, the rest of the Bowie family, along with many others, remained in bondage, and an unusually large number of enslaved men are known to have run away from Roderick’s Prince George’s County plantations over the years. When recaptured, some of those men were sold, as were (apparently) several women or girls for whom there is no record of running away. These included two sisters in the Bowie family, who were not reunited with their siblings, nor with each other, for upwards of sixty years.
So while we celebrate the rise of the Bowies and other families, and while we give thanks for moments of conscience or expedience that led to the isolated acts of manumission that helped them on their way, let’s not forget the wider context of enslavement: an economic system entirely dependent on the institutionalization and social acceptance of crimes against humanity.
On this site, you can read about William & Matilda Bowie, Runaways from Roderick McGregor, Interrelations among these families, as well as the wills and estate inventories of Roderick McGregor and his father, John Smith Magruder. All these pages will be updated, as time allows, in response to publication of The Ties That Bind.
The Ties That Bind: From Slavery to Freedom is available from Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions. Buy it! Read it!
At the end of 2014, in a meeting of the DC chapter of Coming to the Table, I met Karen Branan, a retired investigative journalist. My book Trafficke was in production; Karen was negotiating a contract and putting last touches on her book, The Family Tree. We realized immediately that we were in some way related, through the Beall family who, like the Magruders, were among the first arrivants to Colonial Maryland. We next realized that though our foci were different, each of us had been investigating for decades our ancestors’ culpability in slavery and white supremacy.
Today, I finally did my homework and discovered that Karen, too, is a Magruder descendant. My line runs from Samuel Magruder, Alexander’s grandson, born in what was then Calvert County MD, about 1687. Karen is descended from Samuel’s sister, Verlinda Magruder, born 1693, who married John Beall, son of Alexander Beall and Elizabeth Coombs. Samuel and Verlinda’s parents were the well-documented Samuel Magruder and his wife Sarah (also believed to have been in some way related to Ninian Beall, though we’re pretty sure now that she was not his daughter). I have at least one more Beall in my line–Charity Beall, who married Haswell Magruder in 1762–but haven’t yet figured out if that ties me more closely to Karen’s family.
So now you have one more reason to drop by Karen’s web site and read about The Family Tree: a lynching in Georgia, a legacy of secrets, and my search for the truth at karenbranan.com. One truth Karen discovered is that she is related not only to white men involved in the lynching, but also to one of the four black victims. On her site, you’ll find links to thoughtful and enthusiastic reviews and to several radio conversations. The Family Tree is available in hardback, as an e-book (Kindle or Nook), and as an audio book (CD or streaming). Karen is working hard to promote the book–more accurately, to use her book to promote conversation and action. Check out her scheduled appearances in numerous states. Invite her to yours!
Don’t forget: this Sunday, 28 Feb 2016: 2:00-3:30, I’ll be reading from Trafficke, with Karen Branan, author of The Family Tree (Simon & Schuster, 2015). @ The Writers Center, Bethesda, MD. Unknown to each other until we met at a gathering of Coming to the Table in 2014, we each spent 20+ years researching our families’ history–in my case, Alexander’s true Scottish origins and the history of slave-holding among his descendants/my ancestors in Maryland; in Karen’s case, a “kinship lynching” within her family in Jim Crow Georgia. I’m a poet, she’s a journalist, and as fate would have it we are distant cousins, both descended from Ninian Beall in Maryland. (I haven’t yet figured out if Karen is also descended from Alexander…) Please come out and join the conversation. Free parking on Sundays in the lot across the street from The Writers Center.
4508 Walsh St
Bethesda MD 20815
GPS users please note: Enter “Chevy Chase” as the city…though, really, it’s Bethesda.
Read about The Family Tree on Karen’s web site–including rave reviews.
Here are my upcoming readings from Trafficke, in case you happen to be in any of these neighborhoods. Unless noted, all events are free and open to the public.
In recent months I have read from and talked about Trafficke at a house reading/book launch in Washington DC, at a meeting of the DC chapter of Coming to the Table, in two readings at the AWP conference, at the Annual Meeting of the American Folklore Society, at the University of Colorado/Colorado Springs, the University of Illinois/Springfield, George Mason University, a house reading in Illinois, at Busboys & Poets/Hyattsville, MD, at The Writers Center, Bethesda, MD, and at The Potter’s House, DC. Many thanks to those who turned out to support me, and to join the discussion.
Several readings have been shared with Karen Branan, author of The Family Tree (Atria Books/Simon & Schuster, 2016), her investigation of a “kinship lynching” within her family in Jim Crow Georgia. I’ve recently discovered that Karen, too, is a Magruder descendant. See my post for 12 March 2016. Read about The Family Tree on Karen’s web site.
Now it’s summer, when I literally head for the hills…so no events scheduled until Fall. Here are two to look forward to–
Monday, Sept 24, 3pm: Karen & I will be speaking at the Fall for the Book festival at George Mason University. Building & room: Research 163. Visitor parking: Mason Pond Deck. Joining us will be Anthony Cohen, an African American historian who has twice walked to Canada on routes of the Underground Railroad, and in 2014 followed in the steps of his great-great grand uncle, who returned from freedom in Canada to enlist for service in the Civil War. A documentary of that journey, Patrick & Me, will be released nationwide in 2018. Committed to embodied encounters with history, Tony both directs his own foundation—Button Farm Living History Center, in Germantown, Maryland—and serves as Director of Historical Interpretation at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, where he is developing an immersion program in the experience of the enslaved at Great Hopes Plantation.
No details yet, but Karen & I expect to be speaking in Baltimore in October…stay tuned!
I recently had my DNA tested. After a little research, I chose Ancestry.com b/c 1) it’s easy to use; 2) huge number of family trees to match to (plus historical records to verify and document your tree); 3) they keep the DNA, so as technology improves you may get more results; and 4) the raw DNA data is easily downloaded, then uploaded to other sites with more powerful technical analysis tools.
I’ve uploaded my data to Family Tree DNA (for a moderate fee) and to GEDmatch.com (free). These allow you to match one-to-all (a fishing trip) or one-to-one (to zero in on someone who looks like a genuine match). I am barely beginning to understand it all, but am pleased so far.
Also, my family tree is complete (as far as I know it) on Ancestry and is public.
I have found the tutorials on the site linked below to be very helpful, including Lesson 2 which helps you figure out which company to start with. The answer may depend on where your ancestors were from, as well as what kind of information you are seeking. If you are looking for relatives within the time frame of a typical family tree, don’t skip the autosomal (atDNA). The others will take you back into deep time, but won’t show spouses, other children, cousins, etc., just a son-to-father-to-father chain or a daughter-to-mother-to-mother chain.
On the other hand, for African Americans searching for a white male ancestor, the Y-DNA test may be the most efficient way to start.
GEDmatch.com has a whole page of links for learning, under the title DNA for Dummies.
Yesterday I met an extraordinary woman, Bernice Alexander Bennett, and discovered her Thursday evening Blog Talk Radio program, “Researching at the National Archives & Beyond.” Bernice’s guests are authors and researchers with wide experience. Topics among recent programs include searching incarceration records, genealogy resources in Louisiana, and Freedmen’s Bureau records. Last week’s show, Dr. Maurice Gleeson on “The Irish in the Slave Trade,” addresses both Irish men sent as bound labor to the West Indies and American colonies and Ireland’s participation in the African slave trade, and also debunks a few unfounded beliefs about these histories.
All shows are broadcast live, including call-in and write-in questions and comments from listeners, and all shows are archived–174, so far. Sound quality is not like commercial or public radio, but it’s fairly good. Broadcast is Thursday evening, 9:00 p.m. Eastern Time…and one upcoming program features Edward E. Baptist, whose book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism I am reading now and highly recommend. From now on, you’ll find a link to this program in my blogroll, listed as Bernice Bennett: Genealogy Live Talk Radio.
Several of you have been in touch about the reorganization of web access to the ACGS archives at the University of Baltimore; but, like you, I was unable to figure out the new pathway to the yearbooks. Thanks to Lois Ann Garlitz for sending the new link.
I have fixed the link on the blogroll but haven’t gone back through all the pages and old posts to fix all links.
I started this train of thought in my last post, re: ACGS Yearbooks. Here’s a little more.
The perpetual problem in family history research is that so many of the available narratives are unreliable–sometimes intentionally so, more often because the authors and compilers haven’t exercised a very high standard of evidence analysis. Often no distinction is made between what has been proven and what is believed, and enthusiasm counts for more than accuracy. It hardly matters whether you’re looking at your grandmother’s genealogical notes, a magazine article about a local historical site, or the efforts of an amateur historian–rarely will such sources prove entirely sound.
People make mistakes. (About half the family trees I’ve seen on Ancestry.com give the wrong name for the father of John S. Magruder. His father was Nathaniel; his uncle was Nathan. Read Nathaniel’s will if you don’t believe me.)
People hide secrets. (Is the birthdate in a family Bible accurate? Or does it hide an out-of-wedlock conception?)
People find one record and stop looking. (The wife’s not in the will, therefore the wife was deceased.)
People assume public records are accurate. (Try comparing ages for one person across 2 or 3 19th-century census records!)
People look for evidence to confirm what they already believe, or want to be true, ignoring gaps and contradictions. (Among those associated with a particular family, I’m looking for African-Americans named Basil Mullin, so I want to believe a slave named Basil, with no surname given, must be another Mullin.)
People like heroes, villains, and good stories. (We’d like it if Roderick McGregor had freed all his slaves in his will. Sadly, he didn’t.)
That’s the reality, so what should we do? The question is not whether to use sources that may be unreliable–often they are our only starting point. The question is how to use them. And the answer is twofold: cautiously and proactively.
Here’s an example from my own research.
In the 1917 Year Book of the American Clan Gregor Society, Caleb Clarke Magruder, Jr., published a 26-page article titled “Nathaniel Magruder of ‘Dunblane’,” in which he summarized and quoted from the wills and estate records of Nathaniel Magruder (d.1786) and a large number of his descendants. C.C. Magruder was one of the better researchers among the early ACGS writers, and I am interested in this particular family, so I am quite happy to have this article. It has pointed the way toward several interesting lines of inquiry, clarified some family relationships about which I was hazy, and given me a large panorama of the family’s property-transference, slave-owning, and other matters.
But that’s not the same as accepting C.C. Magruder as the final word. Here’s where caution and proactive research come in.
I had already read a few of the wills he quotes, so I spotted one large error right away: he says Roderick McGregor did free all his slaves, when in fact he freed only one family. This is very clear in the will and in the estate inventories. (I’ll refrain from theorizing how this mistake could be made, but there it is; and others have quoted it as authoritative.) This alerted me to treat the article with caution, but you shouldn’t need any special red flags. You should always follow up with your own legwork. (See Will of Roderick McGregor and related pages, for images and transcriptions.)
I discovered another error quite by chance… or, rather, by casting a wide net. On subjects that interest me, I read every published source I can find, and I often start with the index. That’s how I discovered–in Letitia Woods Brown’s Free Negroes in the District of Columbia 1790-1846–that one Elizabeth Magruder made her will in the District in 1827, including detailed provisions regarding her slaves. When I first found that information, I didn’t know who this particular Elizabeth Magruder was. C.C. Magruder’s article clued me in that she was Nathaniel Magruder’s unmarried daughter (and John S. Magruder’s sister). Why Elizabeth made her will in Washington, D.C., despite the fact that her legal and apparent residence was the family plantation, Dunblane, in Prince George’s County, may be explained by the will itself: her executor and all her heirs are found in the family of one of her sisters, a D.C. resident. Another lesson here: check other jurisdictions, wherever your target has relations, business interests, or property. (See Will of Elizabeth Magruder and related pages, for the rest of the story.)
The last issue I’ll talk about took a while to pin down. Because Roderick McGregor’s wife, Ann, is not mentioned in his will, C.C. Magruder states that she predeceased him. It’s a perfectly reasonable assumption in a time when divorce was so extremely rare. But once all the clues are assembled, it seems very probable that Roderick and his wife Ann were legally separated or divorced at the time of Roderick’s death. I picked up this trail in the 1850 census, which shows Roderick living alone and Ann living with a woman who is likely her mother. It took me a while to feel confident that this Ann McGregor was Roderick’s wife–I think I first drew the connection from the genealogy in Sue Emerson’s Magruders in America. Sue doesn’t give sources, so at that stage I had to call it a working hypothesis and keep digging. Eventually, I found Ann McGregor’s will, from 1871, which confirmed her identity. My last confirmation came from details in an 1850s land record. Again, the lesson is: cast a wide net. Search every category of records you can reasonably reach, for any and all information about your target. (See Interrelations page in the Magruder-McGregor pages, for details of this story.)
One way to contextualize any article you are reading is to consider what sources were and were not consulted. C.C. Magruder’s article on Nathaniel was based primarily on a survey of wills in Prince George’s County and the District of Columbia. You immediately know that you can and should look for other categories of records to confirm and expand the information.
And then, since we are people, too, and prey to all the mistakes I listed at the top of this post… distinguish carefully between what you can prove and what you believe to be true, and then be thorough and transparent in documenting and revealing your sources, allowing others to judge how firm the basis for that belief might be. It is useful to read each other’s theories; it is the opposite of useful to read a theory presented as if it were fact.
No time to do all this? Fine, just practice that very last piece of advice, letting the rest of us know that (so far) your only source is an uncorroborated article or family tree, and more work remains to be done.
In Evidence Explained, in the chapter on “Fundamentals of Evidence Analysis,” Barbara Shown Mills offers 6 descending “Levels of Confidence” that a conscientious researcher can communicate to readers.
Certainly: no reasonable doubt, sound and adequate evidence
Probably: more likely than not, good evidence but not quite certain
Possibly: some evidence, but far from proved
Likely: enough evidence that the odds are in its favor
Apparently: you’ve formed an impression but not tested it
Perhaps: you think an idea is plausible, but have not tested it