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Shaking Your Family Tree!

History of a Southern Black Family

October 24, 1987|MYRA VANDERPOOL GORMLEY

Barnetta McGhee White, a professor of education at North Carolina Central University in Durham, N.C., is the author of a family history.

Many genealogists spend years researching their Many genealogists spend years researching their family trees and eventually get around to publishing a family history. What is unique about "In Search of Kith and Kin: The History of a Southern Black Family" is that it's one of the first published genealogies of a North Carolina black family; it received a well-deserved award from the North Carolina Society of County and Local Historians.

Her story begins with Carolina and Robert, both slaves, who were born in the 1820s and lived in Granville County, N.C.

"One of the most difficult parts of the task of writing the family history was in getting people to talk," the author said.

"Why do you want to do this?" she was asked, and many told her to "Let it lay!"

Most frustrating, she said, was this frequent response: "I can't remember because when we were growing up, we just didn't talk about it." The it was slavery.

White discovered that one of her great-grandfathers bought his own 45-acre farm in 1880. She learned that some slaveholders let their slaves grow their own private crops "in their spare time," and keep the profits.

White's extensive genealogical research took her into county deeds where she found records pertaining to the transfer of slaves. She not only shares her family's history, she also explains the research and documents she found that enabled her to write the book.

She examined hundreds of entries in the Granville County deed books. In them were the names of more than 600 slaves. Most of us think of deed books as pertaining only to land records, but White found them a rich source for her genealogy.

She learned that some transactions involving slaves were never recorded, but that many were named in their owners' marriage contracts and settlements and in documents called mortgages. Deeds of gifts help reveal the relationships between devisors and devisees. Deeds of trust were often made for specified crops of corn, tobacco, cattle and the like, and slaves were often named in these deeds, along with land and crops.

Contrary to popular belief, White said, none of her relatives used the surname of former owners. Slaves did have surnames that they themselves knew, even if the slaveholder did not know of them. In the records, most slaveholders referred to slaves by a first name only, which is why tracing black ancestors can be so difficult.

"The trend to record the last name of a particular slave seemed to depend somewhat on having more than one slave with the same first name, and therefore needing some method to distinguish between them," the author said.

In addition to the history of her McGhee family, White's excellent book tells about the daily life of rural black North Carolina families in the early part of this century. She relates with warmth and understanding stories about cooking in the fireplace, hunting, home life, courting, superstitions and family legends.

"In Search of Kith and Kin" was published by Gateway Press and copies ($30 postpaid) are available from the author, 1118 Saxony Drive, Durham, N.C. 27707.

The idea that she is descended from slaves does not bother White. "How can you get upset about history? I get upset about things that are happening now," she said.

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