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… (T)he great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations. And it is with great pain and terror that one begins to realize this …
James Baldwin, “White Man’s Guilt,” in David R. Roediger, ed., Black on White:, NY: Schocken, 1998), 321.
As social beings we are linked or related to each other in a million ways. As an expression of this, we often spend time with new people we meet trying to figure out positive linkages or connections in the recent past–people we both know, places we’ve both been, experiences we’ve shared. Read more ›
“Is genealogy racist?” I typed into the search engine.
I had just received results from an ancestry DNA test. No surprises there — 99.9% northwestern European genetic heritage. I immediately wondered how many neo-Nazis use DNA tests to reinforce racism and claim racial purity.
As I typed my question in to the search engine that day, I was excited to find Coming to the Table. But it didn’t seem to apply to me. I come from a lower middle-class background: my ancestors were preachers, teachers, and laborers. None of my ancestors were slaveholders!
I later learned that I was wrong. Months later, once I knew where and how to look, I did discover slaveholding ancestors — among my working-class northern ancestors! But I didn’t make that discovery that day.
On that day, I began accumulating notes and links to answer my initial, “Is genealogy racist?” question. Each answer led to more questions. These areas of inquiry began filling page after page. I created a Google Doc with what I found: Genealogy and Anti-Racism: A Resource for White People.
My ever-growing resource covered subjects ranging from genealogy’s history of exclusion to differences in how people of different races approach heritage family histories. There was so much to learn, so much to uncover.
The tools that genealogists use are racialized. For example:
Emphasizing immigration in the U.S. celebrates settler colonialism and homesteading, while appropriating indigenous histories and failing to connect contemporary immigration issues like “legality” and favoring people from some countries over others.
Those links are just a small sample of references I included in Genealogy and Anti-Racism.
But all of this information is useless if it doesn’t lead to transformation. What was I going to do with all that I learned? How would my genealogical practice change?
Here is a broad outline (details here) of actions we white genealogists can do:
I am eager to hear more from BitterSweet readers about how you have learned to use genealogical tools to challenge racism. When you read Genealogy and Anti-Racism: A Resource for White People, I share ways for you to add suggested resources. You can also comment below!
The answer to my search engine question that day — Is genealogy racist? — is that genealogy is only as racist as we are. The tools and discipline of genealogy can be used to uphold white supremacy — or we can name and dismantle racism. The answer is up to us.
The Rev. Diane Kenaston is pastor of University United Methodist Church in St. Louis, Missouri. She graduated from Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and previously served churches in West Virginia, where she is an elder in full connection. She is married to the Rev. Dr. Adam Ployd, and they have one son.
Part 3 concludes this blog series on conducting oral history research through the story of the Getting Word project. If you want to know more about the project and the historians, you can find it on the Getting Word web pages and in the books and online publications of the historians profiled in this part.
In addition, you will find a treasure trove of guidance and reflections on the “how to’s” of oral history research from these experienced researchers.
Part 3 – Getting Word – The Researchers and Their Advice for Oral Historians
The team of three women who conducted the Getting Word oral history research not only shared their stories of the project and its aftermath. They also responded to the question: “What guidance would you offer to people working on their own family oral histories?” The Tips that accompanied the two previous parts of this post and some additional advice and guidelines below are their responses.
Who the Researchers Are: To put their advice in context, here is some background information about each researcher.
Lucia (Cinder) Stanton: Following graduation from Harvard University, Ms. Stanton spent most of her career as an historian at Monticello. As a result, she is widely known as an expert on Thomas Jefferson’s personal life and the lives of his enslaved people and their descendants. She spent twenty years studying Jefferson’s financial records, editing and annotating his Memorandum Books, resulting in two volumes that are part of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. In 1993, Stanton helped launch the Plantation Community tours. From her involvement with the Getting Word project, Ms. Stanton was able to develop the Plantation Database, accessible through the Monticello website, containing information on 600 enslaved people associated with all of Jefferson’s plantation properties.
In her book Free Some Day: The African-American Families of Monticello (2000), Stanton introduced the families she had been researching for seven years. It is included in her essay compilation, Those Who Labor for My Happiness, published in 2012, extending the story of those families through many more decades and across the country.
The most meaningful insights that Stanton took from listening to over 180 people was that the Monticello enslaved community and its descendants are heroes, heroes to their families and heroes in their communities. They have maintained strong family ties, deep commitments to their faith and to education, they have acquired and made use of skills and gifts in music, cabinetry, pastoring, catering, hospitality, and business, to name a few examples. They were never victims; they saw themselves as people with dignity and standing, people who took actions large and small to ensure their circumstances matched their vision.
Dianne Swann-Wright: Dr. Swann-Wright received her PhD from the University of Virginia, in American History. Prior to working on the Getting Word project, she had been a historian at the Banneker-Douglass Museum in Annapolis, MD. Then she was director of multicultural programs at Eastern Mennonite University and finally, she was director of the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park in Baltimore, MD. In those positions, she had both read oral histories of enslaved people and had collected some of her own. Her research became A Way Out of Now Way: Claiming Family and Freedom in the New South. That work looks at the relations between two white landowners and their enslaved people, from a master-slave arrangement in the antebellum period onward to the early twentieth century and an employer and employee situation.
Kendra Hamilton wrote about Dr. Swann-Wright in “’Wrighting’ History’s Wrongs,” Black Issues, August 1999, stating that hiring Dr. Swann-Wright at Monticello was a clear signal of the shift in the site’s programming and interpretation. Once Swann-Wright arrived, events at the historic site intended to draw in an African American audience had credibility in the black community.
Beverly Gray: Beverly Gray has her degree from Ohio University. She is the co-founder and director of the David Nickens Heritage Center in Chillicothe, Ohio, showcasing African American history. She was an elementary, middle school, and high school teacher for more than 30 years, as well as an adjunct professor of education for Ohio University. On retiring from teaching, she was Education Specialist at the historic Adena Mansion and Gardens in Chillicothe. Ms. Gray has been a historian of the Underground Railroad and the African American experience in Ohio for decades. In 1993 she agreed to share her years of study of former Monticello slaves and their descendants as consultant to the Getting Word project.
Ms. Gray is a firm believer in using every possible scrap of documentary evidence to support and fill out the oral history. She also advocates for visiting the places where the family members being interviewed and their ancestors were born, lived and died, seeing their houses, churches, places of business, and final resting spots
Guidelines and Advice: The oral historians shared specific pieces of advice as well as interesting techniques and pieces of the personal philosophies they came to work by.
To gain people’s trust, Swann-Wright and Stanton prepared a brochure explaining the project. On the front was the picture of an African American man in a blackmithing apron, a man who looked strong and capable, far from any caricatured image. They distributed the brochure to libraries all over the country to make sure there was a single, consistent message about the project and to attract sources to come speak to them.
From Dorothy Spruill Redford, Ms. Swann-Wright got helpful suggestions for structuring the project methodology. For example, you must get people’s permission for interviewing, and you may give them access to whatever is written up, but do not let the interviewees edit or change their stories.
Ms. Gray’s practice is to do all the accompanying document and public records research: oral histories and the written record must go together.
Swann-Wright and Stanton initially hoped that they would only interview one person at a time. But they had to adapt. Occasionally, as many as five people might came to an interview, with some of them speaking and others remaining quiet for the whole time. Being together gave them confidence.
Swann-Wright also emphasized the importance of having a biracial interviewing team. When Stanton would leave the room where they were meeting with an individual or a family, someone would often ask Swann-Wright if Stanton was “OK,” on the level and respectful. Reassurance from the African American member of the team generally led to greater candor.
Especially Useful Questions
Processing the Interviews
Stanton described the balancing act of dealing with oral histories. On one hand, the researcher must give each person’s story complete acceptance as being true for the person and the family that shared it. On the other hand, the historian must weigh a story against available documents and other stories. This process requires one to discern where a family “truth” may not be exactly an historical truth but has some deeper truth behind it, and exercise enough lateral thinking or imagination to hypothesize what the deeper truth might be. Have people or places with the same names become conflated? Is a grandparent really a great-great-grandparent? (Chronology and generations are the most likely aspects of family stories to become inaccurate over time.)
Even documented “evidence” is not always factual and reliable. Census takers see what they want to see. Midwives and undertakers misspell names or misrecord dates and birthplaces. Faced with an unexpected baby, families record half-truths or lies to protect themselves.
Part 2 of the Oral History post describes the kinds of impacts that oral history research can have, regardless of the circumstances of the family whose history is being woven together. The Getting Word project’s impacts and aftermaths are an interesting story, and I hope they give you ideas for what your research might inspire in your family and what else, beyond history, you might be able to create.
Part 3 of this blog series will come out next week.
Part 1 – The Story of the Getting Word Oral History Project
Part 2 – The Impact and Aftermath of the Getting Word Oral History Project
Part 3 – The Researchers and Their Advice for Oral Historians
Part 2 – Getting Word: Impact and Aftermath
Conducting oral history research in any family, grand or modest, has the power to create change, to be disruptive, and to have lasting effects. The impacts may be low key and positive, or they may stir up old feelings of fear, anger, sadness, estrangement or confusion. There is the chance that new and surprising information or connections will be uncovered. Family research is never “just” family research.
An oral history project is probably not going to end when the researcher thinks it will. Collecting stories and hunting up documents often leads to more of the same. Most oral historians have some end product in mind, whether that be a book, a database, a movie, or an exhibit, and that end product is likely to be read, shown to or shared with the people whose stories it contains.
But the research experience and the final product take on lives of their own, an aftermath that the researcher may not have anticipated. The experience of telling stories and looking at documents inspires the people who participate to ask more questions, share more information, and want to connect with other members of the family or community. Gatherings and reunions take place; Facebook groups spring up. Sometimes the family spirit is revitalized, and relatives want to travel together and return to their ancestors’ home places. People other than the researcher are moved to blog, tweet, Instagram, video, scrapbook, and write fiction or non-fiction. News stories get written. Family members offer or are asked to speak to the historical society, the church, the youth group, the school or college. Sometimes an outstanding family member is honored or the research project itself is recognized. Sometimes the oral history becomes an impetus to preserve an old home place or restore an abandoned cemetery.
The impact and aftermath of Getting Word may prepare you for what could come out of your work – undoubtedly results more exciting and broad reaching than you expect.
Impact of Getting Word – Validated & Respected: The initial impact of launching the oral history research was a sense of excitement among the descendants. A Fossett family member was overcome with tears of gratitude to have his family stories finally be believed. Over the years of the project, the experience of having carefully held family histories be affirmed and valued, listened to and recorded, taken seriously by scholars and an important American institution continued to be deeply meaningful to individuals, to their immediate families, and to the Getting Word descendant community.
Research Causes More Research: Another impact of the initial phases of the project was to encourage additional descendants to be interviewed or to be motivated to do their own family research beyond the scope of the project. A woman who was not interviewed by Getting Word but knew of the project started following up on a family story of being descended from “a Jefferson.” As her research continued, Monticello gave her research support, and she was able to find the links between her mother’s family and one of Jefferson’s grandchildren. Persisting, she is now figuring out how she is descended from a Hemings brother.
The TJF website reports that Getting Word led to the “discovery of almost ten previously unknown surnames of enslaved families at Monticello. This has led both to finding descendants and to helping combat the stereotype of “nameless” slaves who took their owners’ surnames after the Civil War.” The project uncovered a fourth individual’s memories of life as a slave at Monticello in the form of a long interview given by Peter Fossett to the New York World in 1898. It also discovered that “one of only a dozen surviving sound recordings of former slaves is an interview with a descendant of Monticello slaves: Fountain Hughes.” Appropriately, part of the end product of Getting Word is a digital collection of over 200 photographs of descendants from the nineteenth century to the present.
Re-Connection and Community: A Getting Word community formed. It started with a gathering at Monticello in 1997 of people interviewed for Getting Word. That event brought together people who had lost touch with or never known one another. Groups of descendants discovered that each line had been telling the same oral history of how they were related. People from different Monticello families whose ancestors had moved to southern Ohio unbeknownst to one another, were rejoined as a community.
Richer, More Truthful Interpretation: Of course the oral history project also achieved its original purpose of informing the interpretation of the historic site. Monticello’s interpretive strategy now weaves together the daily lives, activities, skills and accomplishments of the enslaved people and the slaveholders. Just as the “historically significant” European American family members are mentioned by name, now the names, roles, and personalities of the equally important but less known enslaved individuals are part of the tour guides’ stories.
Aftermaths – Ongoing Gatherings & Engagement with the Work of the TJF: Getting Word has gone well beyond its original reason for existing. When white Jefferson descendants proposed to Monticello that they would hold an all-inclusive gathering for everyone descended from the plantation community, the Getting Word community already existed, ready to be invited. And they came, 200-strong, to a weekend reunion in 2007.
In 2012, Monticello collaborated with the just-forming National Museum for African American History and Culture and the larger Smithsonian organization to put on an exhibit called “Jefferson and Slavery: Paradox of Liberty.” At the entrance to the exhibit was a large wall covered with the names of people enslaved on Jefferson’s properties. Artifacts loaned by descendants of those people were on display, with the lenders named and acknowledged. Stories gathered during the Getting Word research appeared in print or on video, and the narrators’ family trees were on display. The Getting Word community was invited to attend the opening. Some of the descendants became informal spokespeople for the exhibit.
Two years later, after consultation with Getting Word descendants, Monticello prepared for an enormous renovation and restoration project that would start rebuilding the places in which the ancestors of the Getting Word people lived and worked. Descendants of the enslaved workers were asked to “voice” the audio tour guides to the new structures.
A year later, in May 2015, the restorations on Mulberry Row were opened, with a large number of Getting Word descendants present. They were applauded by the public, feted at a dinner and a champagne tea, and let down their hair together in the evening at a local hotel.
Later that summer, a smaller group of Getting Word descendants came back to Monticello to sleep in those restored buildings, for a Slave Dwelling Project overnight. More of them joined the sleepover in 2016. They danced on Jefferson’s lawn to African drumming, discussed their ancestors’ lives by the light of a bonfire at the edge of Mulberry Row, touched the fingerprints in the bricks of the mansion’s wall, put flowers on the graves of unidentified African American enslaved people, sang hymns, and held one another close.
Tips for Impact and Aftermath
So many of us want to know our ancestors’ stories and find out more about where we’ve come from. DNA research has advanced our ability to find and learn about our family members to an extraordinary extent, but family stories are still a basic piece of the work. Because of my involvement in several projects associated with the enslaved and slave owning families of Monticello, I have known about the Getting Word oral history project for many years. I’ve also been able to see the all the ways that project has lasted on and extended beyond just being an oral history project.
I am fortunate to know the three historians who initiated and conducted most of the work of Getting Word, and I realized what a significant resource they are to other oral historians, especially those who might be in the early stages of interviewing family members. The three women, Ms. Gray, Ms. Stanton, and Dr. Swann-Wright, graciously agreed to give me their oral histories of working on Getting Word, and included advice and guidance for others doing the same work.
The blog post will be in three parts, over three weeks.
Part 1 – The Story of the Getting Word Oral History Project
Part 2 – The Impact and Aftermath of the Getting Word Oral History Project
Part 3 – The Researchers and Their Advice for Oral Historians
Part 1 – The Story of the Getting Word Oral History Project
Introduction: There’s an old saying along the lines of “if you want to know who you are, you have to know who your people are and where you come from.” Collecting family members’ oral histories – the stories they carry in their memories, the stories passed down to them from their ancestors – is foundation building. Those stories make up a mosaic picture that can reveal the ties that held the people together and the tensions that sometimes pulled them apart.
Collections of the oral histories of enslaved people, plantation communities, and slaveholding regions of the country are not new. The WPA Federal Writers’ Project is one of the largest examples of an oral history collection with a focus on slavery. The University of North Carolina’s Documenting the American South is another large-scale project, which takes in a whole region, and Pass the Word is a state-level project based at the University of Kentucky. Other oral history work has revolved around individual plantations, such as the Esmont Oral History Project in Virginia, and the Tall Timbers narrative and photographic project from Georgia. One of the best known oral history studies intended to preserve the stories of the enslaved community and bring together their descendants is known as “Somerset Homecoming” This study was conducted in a similar time period to the Getting Word project, and its lead researcher, Dorothy Spruill Redford, influenced the approach used by the Getting Word team.
The Getting Word Oral History Project: By sharing the story of the Getting Word project, we hope to give you encouragement to do your own story collecting, to give you tips and advice from three professional oral historians, and show you some of the ways an oral history project can grow well beyond its original research mission.
Getting Word is a long-term project carried out by researchers from the Thomas Jefferson Foundation (TJF), the owners of Monticello, to discover, collect and preserve the histories of the enslaved African American families of Jefferson’s plantations. In 1993, as the 250th anniversary of Jefferson’s birth was being celebrated, Dr. Daniel Jordan, the President of the TJF, was urging his staff to develop new programs and take the site’s interpretation in new directions. One area that many agreed had not been given adequate attention was slavery and the African American life experiences of the plantation’s people.
The site was offering Plantation Community Tours, going beyond the architecture and decorative arts within the walls of the mansion, and holding Plantation Community weekends during which re-enactors demonstrated cooking, nail making, woodworking and other crafts and household activities known to have been practiced at Monticello in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. For their demonstrations and the accompanying interpretation, the re-enactors needed more complete stories to work from and much more information about the identities, talents, personalities and histories of the enslaved people whose work they were highlighting.
Lucia (Cinder) Stanton was the Director of Research at that time (later Shannon Senior Historian) at Monticello, with a passion for the stories, activities and characters that bring life to the plantation’s history. She had been inspired by the Dorothy Spruill Redford’s research already under way. Stanton promptly brought on an experienced African American oral historian, Dianne Swann-Wright, to co-lead the project.
Inspired by Dr. Swann-Wright’s imagination, the two researchers decided to call the project “Getting Word.” It was obvious – they would be getting words from people. But they also needed the word to get out to descendants and others that their stories were valuable and important, and they hoped descendants would also “get word” back to them.
From the outset, Stanton and Swann-Wright knew they needed to start their work in southern Ohio, in the vicinity of Chillicothe, and they knew the historian who could help them make the right connections, find documents, and understand the historical context – Beverly Gray. For years, Gray had been researching the histories of African American families of the area, including many who had migrated from Monticello and Albemarle County, Virginia.
The research methodology was informed by the work of the noted anthropologists, Nancy and Charles Perdue. The plan was that, as the professional oral historian, Swann-Wright, who is African American, would take the lead on conducting interviews. Stanton, a European American and an experienced researcher, thought her role would be to focus on the documents. They intended to divide up the work of interviewing and documentary research on each story collection trip. But very quickly, they discovered they needed to adapt: Dianne did always take the lead, but the two women did every interview together. Dianne paid attention to the questions and answers, and the flow of the interview, and Cinder asked some questions, took notes and handled the interview recording.
The first research trip to Chillicothe, Ohio, started with a kick-off gathering of many Monticello descendants, notably those of Madison Hemings and Joseph Fossett. Beverly Gray set everything up – assembled the descendants, found the meeting space, and organized the evening. That meeting set the stage for numerous future interviews during that trip and thereafter. Swann-Wright and Stanton also started their campaign of visiting cemeteries, archives and the places in the vicinity of Chillicothe, Ohio, where people who came from Monticello had lived.
Traditional Sources: The Getting Word team followed two classic approaches for finding descendants and preserving their histories: oral interviews and documentary research. They considered both types of sources as equivalent forms of historical evidence, and both required the same considered assessment. Dianne and Cinder visited dusty courthouse cellars and church graveyards as well as descendants’ living rooms. A significant foundation of the research was information about life at Monticello derived from Jefferson’s voluminous archive, including over 19,000 letters and his Farm Book. This material contained the names of the people Jefferson owned, which of them had children, and other demographic data. Letters described where the enslaved people worked and who was given away as a gift. Wills and deeds of sale showed where enslaved people had come from and who had been sent on to other plantations. There were also a few letters from the enslaved people themselves, since a number of them could read and write.
Surprising Sources and Connections: As many family historians have found, unexpected connections come out of painstaking and intuitively inspired study of census documents, slave schedules, property records, tax lists, and birth, death and marriage records. For example, during the review of an 1850 census record, it became apparent that the brother of former Monticello butler, Burwell Colbert, had a different surname. He was the head gardener, Wormley Hughes.
Stanton and the Hughes descendants found one another at an Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society meeting in Washington, DC. At that time, the Hughes’ descendants knew only that their ancestor had come from Albemarle County, but had not known of their connection to Monticello. But the name from the census turned a light bulb for Stanton, who immediately got in touch with them. Soon thereafter, fourteen members of the family came to Monticello for the first time, to be interviewed. In another case, local marriage records revealed an unfamiliar surname, Hern. Wondering whether that name belonged to a Monticello enslaved family, Stanton searched in additional records and found another “new” family line.
Another surprising connection to the enslaved community came via letters to Monticello’s curators from Jefferson descendants in Alabama. In writing about Jefferson artifacts in their possession, the Bankhead family also mentioned members of the Scott family, descended from Jefferson’s first coachman, Jupiter. The Scott family had been working for the Bankhead family for over 150 years, ever since the days of slavery. Both the black Scotts and the white Bankheads still tell stories of life at Monticello.
As the “word” got out, descendants contacted the project and the quest gained a momentum of its own. Some descendants found the project as they proceeded with their independent family research. A descendant of Brown Colbert had no family history of a connection to Monticello, but his research took him from West Virginia to Lexington, VA, back to Monticello, and he reached out to Getting Word.
Surprising Discoveries, Unexpected Insights: The oral historians discovered that some interviewees were initially reluctant to participate in interviews because they “didn’t know enough.” They thought the Getting Word team wanted to know what they had learned from reading, from “official” or “book learned” history. Once they understood that Swann-Wright and Stanton wanted to hear about what they had learned from their elders and about personal memories, the conversations flowed. Project participants were universally welcoming and cooperative.
At first, the oral historians were surprised that there were almost no stories of daily life at Monticello “back in the day.” Then they realized that while, after five to eight generations of time, details may have faded, core truths about individuals and families remained intact. What was still preserved in memory was what was most important to the families: stories about ancestors who had been indispensable to the Jefferson family, had demonstrated remarkable skills, had ensured their children learned to read and write and get further education, and had always striven for dignity and freedom. The oral history research took the project from slavery in the eighteenth century to civil rights leadership in the twentieth.
In spite of the years of experience among the research team members, their first encounter with Monticello descendants brought them a surprise and new learning. At the kick-off meeting, where about 40 descendants were expected, one of the first arrivals was a distinguished looking man that Beverly Gray, Dianne Swann-Wright and Cinder all assumed had come to the wrong room in the Historical Society building. He looked white, and they were expecting black people. When they told him the room he was in was for the Monticello descendants, Hemingses and Fossetts, he replied that he was a descendant. Subsequently, the Getting Word team learned that there are communities of fair-skinned African Americans in the region, people who have tended to marry others of lighter skin color, but who firmly identify as African American and whose oral histories contain incidences of discrimination, pain and sadness resulting from retaining that identity. In the same family lines are stories of relatives who passed into white society, to become either mysterious presences that occasionally showed up in their hometowns, or relatives who disappeared, lost for years or forever.
Conclusion: Since 1993, the research team has logged thousands of miles and met almost 200 people. One stage of the research culminated with a gathering of Getting Word families at Monticello in 1997, but the Project’s work continues in a variety of ways. Historians at Monticello keep on finding more information and connecting with more descendants of the site’s enslaved community.
Tips on the Research Process from Beverly, Cinder & Dianne:
By Marian Baker, Opinions Editor Furman University. FU. “Furmie.” Or most commonly, Furman. These are the names with which we refer to our cherished university. However, many studen…