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Part 1 - Kenyatta D. Berry - Finding your Ancestors and African American Genealogy

Part 1 - Kenyatta D. Berry - Finding your Ancestors and African American Genealogy

Listen to episode here. I’m excited to share with you the first half of my interview with Kenyatta D Berry today! She is a professional genealogist, attorney, author, lecturer, and TV host. She has extensive knowledge of African American genealogy and enslaved ancestral research. Her book, The Family Tree Toolkit: A Comprehensive Guide to Uncovering Your Ancestry and Researching Genealogy, is a valuable resource for anyone interested in learning more about their genealogy. It’s a wonderful resource guide and also provides helpful steps for how to get started.

Kenyatta is a host on PBS’ Genealogy Roadshow, where I first saw her. She’s a contributor to The New York Time’s groundbreaking “1619 project” which commemorates the 400th anniversary of the arrival of enslaved Africans in the colonies.

I asked her to join us because of her vast knowledge of African American genealogy, and so that she can help us understand the voices that are missing in epistolary history. She also provides insights for those who want to find out more about their own genealogical history. I’ve heard many of you who have letters from your ancestors, but don’t know where to start your genealogical research. Kenyatta has so much to teach us with her vast knowledge, quick wit, and in-depth explanations. I know you’ll love learning from her!

Kay: Welcome Kenyatta, it’s a joy to have you with us! Could you give us an introduction to your work?

Kenyatta: Sure! I’m excited to be here and share about the work I’ve been doing for the last 20 years. So, since early in my career, I’ve chosen to focus primarily on what I call “enslaved genealogy.” It’s part of African American genealogy, but it’s very complex and difficult, both from the research perspective, and from an emotional perspective.

For the past 20 years, I’ve sought to make it easier for African Americans to find their enslaved ancestors. I want to help them not only have access to the records, but also to understand what those records mean. In any genealogy, it’s not enough to just grab a reference set, a data point, or just a name. That won’t do you much good. The real questions you need answered is, “What does it mean?” “How does it impact my story?” That’s what I’ve focused on, and it’s been my passion and life’s work.

Kay: I can imagine one of the things that makes this type of genealogy so unique is the absence of records, or records that aren’t in the voices of the people you were studying. As my readers have been going through letter-writing history, I wanted to bring in some of those voices that might be missing. So as you build these stories, where are you finding the puzzle pieces?

Kenyatta: For telling stories, especially the stories of the enslaved, there’s a couple places to find the slave narratives. The Library of Congress has a collection that happened during the 1930’s, when they went around and collected these stories of the formerly-enslaved. However, there was some controversy around that, based on if they embellished some of the things, or even if they recalled the right information. But that is one of the largest collections that people can easily access today.

One of the most popular is the Freeman’s Bureau of Refugees in Abandoned and Confiscated Lands. This Bureau was established to rebuild the south, and as part of that, they have records that focus on the stories of the enslaved as they tried to move forward with their lives.

These records hold all sorts of things, from contracts to complaints. This department helped these people answer their questions: How am I going to get paid for this work, when I wasn’t before? How do I get justice if I’m not paid? How am I going to get an education? How am I going to get land to farm? There were a lot of different pieces. So these Freeman’s Bureaus are great places to find records and the stories of the enslaved, as there were locations throughout the South.

Kay: That’s fascinating. So it’s part of the war department, and there was the Freeman’s Bureau within it. I know there must have been major challenges with that—could you tell us about the kind of work they would do?

Kenyatta: The Freeman’s Bureau and the Freeman’s Bank were both started at the same time. The Bureau is a large collection of records, but the Freeman’s Bank also had a lot of information. Many of their depositors were former US Colored Troops that fought in the Civil War—and because the majority of them couldn’t read or write, the deposit slips would have a plethora of information to help identify them. Today, when you open a bank account, they’re not getting your whole family history, but they did there. These slips will have information about their birth, their parents and siblings, whether their parents were still alive, where they lived, their occupation, and as much information as they could get. They were creating a history for you within this little depositor card.

Historians today can learn so much from these deposit cards. Not every card has the same amount of information—it depends on which one you get. You could get one that tells you everything, or one that’s basically blank.

When you’re doing enslaved genealogy, and access to the records and data can vary. You can walk away with a very clear picture of your ancestors, or you could come away with a very small bits and pieces, even when you have the Freeman’s Bank and Bureau.

Kay: And with that, there are regional offices also, so it could be hard to compile all that information! Have those different offices made it difficult to put it into a bigger story?

Kenyatta: Because it’s part of the war record, some of those records are a micro film, and most are digitized. Not all of them are indexed, which is a challenge. Also, the organization of those records isn’t very easy to navigate. For example, from Madison County VA, letters were sent to headquarters, and then letters received. But for some reason, they would write on both sides of the paper. It makes it very difficult to read what is in that particular letter. So they would write sideways on top of something that was already sent to them. That makes it difficult to see if its applicable to your ancestors.

But regional offices are the most important thing to look at when you’re looking for your genealogy. There’s a site called “Mapping the Freeman’s Bureau” which is useful because it shows where you ancestors were in 1870—the first federal census to enumerate the formerly enslaved.

Kay: Just so I understand, in the 1870 census, that’s the first time we’re able to track people who were enslaved?

Kenyatta. Yes. 1870 was an important census for several reasons. It was the first federal census, as well as the first one to include formerly enslaved people by name. That’s one thing to remember—if someone listed in the 1860 census is listed by name, and they were a person of color, then they were free. If they were listed by name, they’re not enslaved in 1860. But before 1870, they had these “slave schedules” which enumerated the enslaved, but not by name. They used a tick mark, based on their age, gender, and race. They’re listed under their enslaver. So if Dr. John W. Taylor had 10 enslaved individuals on his farm, the census would list Taylor’s name, and then the age/gender for those individuals beneath his entry.

So using those Freeman’s Bureau records help you to find your ancestors once their name is enumerated. For example, my 3rd and 4th great grandparents were in Madison County in 1870, so I’d look for a Freeman’s Bureau there, or the nearest one. At that regional level, they would manage the contracts, the rations, the education. Those offices may have had more or less records, depending on their size, especially as some served more than one county. But knowing the regional office is critical, because they may have complaints that tell that story. They’ll have complaints saying “this person still holds my child in bondage” or “I didn’t get paid for this.” Those are going to be by region.

Those records are available at Familysearch.org. Some are indexed, and some are not—and those not indexed can be about 500 pages—so grab a cup of coffee or tea, because it’s going to be a long road.

This is a heavy topic, but one that is important to understand. We’ve only just begun this conversation with Kenyatta, and have learned so much! Join us next week to hear about ways to find original sources, and to understand what those little points of data mean.

Want to dive deeper into tracing your genealogy? Check out Kenyatta’s book, The Family Tree Toolkit: A Comprehensive Guide to Uncovering Your Ancestry and Researching Genealogy.

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