One of the exciting opportunities in our work as genealogists is showing how one person’s life reflects the experiences of hundreds, thousands, or even millions of others during a particular time. The way we document that person’s life can also instruct us in how to research others who shared similar life events.
In the case of Alfre Woodard, her very personal journey to learn about her great-grandfather Alex Woodard is instructive for all African Americans with ancestors who were born in slavery and later gained their freedom. In fact, what she learned about her ancestry is what we help many of our African American clients learn about their own family.
Alex’s life reflects three major themes in the African American experience during the 19th century: slavery, citizenship, and property ownership.
Alfre learns that Alex Woodard was born a slave in Georgia in the early 1840s. His owner, John Woodard, died when Alex was very young. At about age 14 or 15, Alex was legally made the slave of William E. Woodard, one of John’s sons. William moved his family—and Alex—to Louisiana, permanently separating Alex from his own immediate family back in Georgia.
We proved Alex’s owner’s identity primarily through inventories and receipts from the estate of John Woodard. In the distribution of John’s estate dated 10 July 1856, “One Negro boy named Elic valued at Seven hundred Dollars” was given to William Woodard.
Slaves were counted in federal censuses every 10 years, but their names were not listed. William Woodard had moved to Jackson Parish, Louisiana, by 1860 and his three slaves were listed by age, sex, and color (black or mulatto). Although we cannot be completely sure, we are almost certain that the 16-year-old black male slave in William’s household was Alex.
One of the fundamental rights of U.S. citizens is the right to vote. Alex became a free man with the close of the Civil War in April 1865, when he was in his mid-20s. Alfre finds out that Alex’s first opportunity to exercise his right to vote in a national election came in 1868, which led to his being listed on multiple records.
Leading up to the national election of 1868, eligible men across the South registered to vote—including virtually all African American men age 21 or older. (Women would not gain the right to vote until 1920.) This was the first time that black men in the South were able to participate directly in the process of government through voting. It is also the period when all black men across the South were first recorded by name in important government documents.
Poll taxes had been in use in the United States since the 1770s. At the beginning, they expanded the ranks of voters beyond just white landowners, but following the Civil War they were used to restrict black participation in elections. Alex was assessed his poll tax in Jackson Parish, Louisiana, in 1867. Poll tax assessments can be found in tax lists that are generally held at state archives.
Private land ownership has been one of the defining characteristics of the American economic system since its early years. Former slaves immediately went about trying to acquire land following the Civil War, which was a difficult task. They were starting with no money and had to work hard for cash to buy their own land.
By 1881, Alex had purchased 80 acres in Jackson Parish. We know that because he was paying taxes on the property. We also found the deed created when he sold the land. On 15 April 1898, Alex Woodard and his wife Elizabeth sold their 80 acres to Aaron Stell. Aaron was Alex’s brother-in-law. Alex had moved to Wharton County, Texas, by then.
Through Alex, we can see how many other African Americans experienced slavery and the transition to freedom. As a slave, Alex was at the mercy of his owners, separated from his immediate family, and moved over 500 miles away. As a free man, Alex exercised his political freedom through voting. He worked hard and saved enough money to be able to buy his own land, allowing him economic freedom and his own chance at living the American Dream.
Learn more about Alfre’s journey or watch episode recaps from previous seasons on TLC.com. Watch more celebrities discover their family history on all-new episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? Sundays 9|8c on TLC.