African American Genealogy Part V: How did we get here?

Posted September 30, 2011 by SharonGeni | 4 Comments

This blog series provides information on how to conduct family research — with a special focus on the challenges that apply for African Americans. Our goal is to help you appreciate history, learn how to research your family and be inspired to join a community – Geni.com – that seeks to unite the entire world into one big family. Join us for an adventure that is sure to last a lifetime!

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How did we get here?

by Sharon Leslie Morgan

America is a land of immigrants. That is indisputably true, even though most of us have integrated into this society to a point where we no longer think of ourselves as “foreign” or “other.” I believe that natural human curiosity leads us to ask questions about who we are, where we came from and what life might have been like before we existed. That is where the genealogical quest comes in. With the exception of indigenous Americans — all of us have origins outside the continental boundaries of the place we were born and have always known as “home”.

For African Americans, our origins are in Africa and that is where we ultimately have to look to answer questions about “from whence we came.”

An estimated 15-30 million people (men, women and children) were stolen from Africa and sold as slaves. These figures exclude those who died aboard the ships and in the course of wars and raids connected to the trade. Ten to twenty percent of these captives perished in the Middle Passage, the voyage from Africa to the Americas. Five percent of the survivors ended up enslaved in America. The “triangular trade” connected the economies of four continents – Europe, Africa, North and South America (and the islands in between). The trade continued for four centuries, from the 16th to the 19th century.

Many people were off-loaded in the Caribbean, Haiti being a case in point. “Discovered” by Columbus in 1492, Haiti (originally known as Sainte Domingue) was ceded by Spain to France in 1697. By 1789, the island paradise was renowned as the single richest colony in the world. It supplied immense surpluses of commodities to Europe and America, including indigo and sugar. From 1791 until 1804, Ste. Domingue was the epicenter of a singularly successful slave rebellion. The revolution defeated Napolean Bonaparte and gave birth to the world’s first independent black-controlled nation: The Republic of Haiti. Fleeing the revolution, more than  11,000 people of French descent migrated to the United States.

I found one of these emigrants in my own family research: Dr. John Marrast. His family, originating in Gers, France, fled the Haitian revolution in 1793. Dr. Marrast was born soon after the family arrived in America. He grew up to be one of the largest slaveholders in Lowndes County, Alabama, which is where my ancestors emerged from slavery. In 1855, he held 128 people in bondage.

Many people think it was only the South that benefitted from slavery. That is absolutely not true. Slavery was the underpinning of the entire American economy; as well as the economies of many nations in Europe. People in Rhode Island built ships and commissioned slave voyages. Factories in Maine processed cotton. People in New York City held slaves.

In 2009, Emory University in Atlanta led the creation of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, an effort to trace the geographic origins of Africans transported in the transatlantic slave trade. The database includes more than 60,000 names. The problem is, these are all first names, which were undoubtedly changed once the ships arrived in America and the people on board were sold.

As people build family trees through Geni.com, it is obvious that there will be many twists and turns before we African Americans find our connections.

 

Post written by Sharon Morgan

Sharon Leslie Morgan is a marketing communications consultant and the founder and webmaster for OurBlackAncestry.com, a site dedicated to African American family research. She is co-authoring a book entitled Gather at the Table: Steps Toward a Post-Racial America to be published by Beacon Press in 2012. These blogs express the views and opinions of the author and should not be attributed to Geni.com.

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  • http://profiles.google.com/kcleage Kristin Williams

    My maternal grandmother’s father was from Lowndes County, AL too. Turners from the Hayneville area. Unfortunately he died when she was 4 and she lost touch with them so there are no photos and little information aside from what I’ve found in the census records.

  • http://www.nolichuckyroots.blogspot.com Susan Clark

    I’m surprised by the figure of 5% of those surviving the voyage being sold into slavery in America. Were the others sold as slaves into the Caribbean and South America? 

    • Sharon Morgan

      Yes. If you look closely at the map, you will see that Brazil was the leading location.

  • Bob Huggins

    Hello Fellow Genealogy Researchers,

    I am pleased to announce that
    the Classic http://www.paperofrecord.com site,
    is  now available as an IPad app.  This pioneering collection of
    historical newspapers represents some of the richest genealogical information
    available in English, French and Spanish. 

    I’ve provided the link below;

    http://itunes.apple.com/ca/app/paper-of-record/id407496193?mt=8

     

    Best

    Bob Huggins

    Founder – http://www.paperofrecord.com