The search for African American ancestors often reveals a tale of hardship and overcoming trials. Laverne Cox went on the hunt to learn more about the family of her 2x great-grandmother, Georgiana Banks, and discovered a trove of stories that showed the African American experience in the 19th century, as well as expressions of freedom performed by her ancestors.
Census and vital records showed that Georgiana Banks was born in Dallas County, Alabama, about 1863. This was just a few years before the end of the Civil War, so she was likely born enslaved. Georgiana’s death certificate named her parents as Bolden Banks and Lucy Ross. In the 1870 census (the first Federal census taken after the emancipation of the slaves at the end of the Civil War), Georgiana and her parents were listed under surname “Matthews.” The majority of enslaved people were not given surnames while enslaved; after emancipation, white record keepers often assigned newly freed people the surname of their former slave owner. In some cases, the formerly enslaved person kept that surname as their own, but in other cases they rejected that assignment and chose to identify by a different name. This was clearly the case with Georgiana’s family, who changed their surname Matthews (which had ties to their former slave owner) to the surname Banks.
Laverne got to witness another expression of freedom from the Banks family in Dallas County, Alabama. This county was a hotbed for African American political activity after Emancipation, and was full of racial tension. African Americans were often intimidated and threatened by white residents to keep them from voting. Despite this, Laverne’s 3x great-grandfather, Bolden Banks, registered to vote in 1867. This was just two years after the Civil War. It was inspiring for Laverne to learn that, despite all the persecution, her ancestor was not afraid to exercise his right as an American, and as a free man.
Researching African American ancestry requires persistence, and sometimes creativity, to find the correct historical records. But as Laverne learned, it’s well worth the effort. Especially when stories of freedom and sacrifice are uncovered. Understanding the African American experience, their trials and successes as they moved from slavery to free individuals, can lend us strength and appreciation for their sacrifices.
- Find your ancestor in the 1870 census. In many circumstances, newly free people worked on the land of their former owner, or rented the land of another nearby large landowner. Look at the families on the census near the ancestor. Do any own large amounts of land, or have the same surname as the ancestor? These are possible slave owners.
- Check the 1860 and 1850 Slave Schedules for these possible slave owners. Slave schedules do not provide the names of each slave, only the gender and age, but that can be enough to determine if they had any slaves fitting the profile of your ancestor(s). Laverne saw that Virginia Mathews did have a slave about the right age to be Bolden, leading to more research into her family.
- Check for probate records for the possible slave owners. These include wills and estate files, which often contain the names and inventories of the slaves. Remember that enslaved persons will only be named in records before 1865, so if the possible slave owner died after that date, look for records for parents or other family members who died before 1865, to see if they name the slaves of the family. Laverne found her ancestor named in the estate inventory of Virginia’s husband, Peter Mathews, who died in 1856.
- Since many previously enslaved people continued to work for their former owners after emancipation, also check records kept by the Freedmen’s Bureau for your ancestors. These records can contain labor contracts for individuals and large groups of African Americans, providing important clues about family members and former owners.
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