African American News and Genealogy

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Friday, December 30, 2005

Family Tree Of Former Slaves Coming Together In Durham

POSTED: 2:20 pm EST December 29, 2005 DURHAM, N.C. -- The family ties of nearly 1,000 slaves from a once-sprawling North Carolina plantation are being pieced together with the help of their owners' records and their descendants. Jennifer Farley, director of the Stagville state historic site, a plantation that once spanned about 47.5 square miles across parts of Durham, Orange, Wake and Granville counties, restarted the project two years ago. "We've just scratched the surface, I feel," Farley said. "But if we don't have this, then these people will be forgotten. That is the worst thing you could do." So far, Farley has uncovered the names of 973 slaves who once helped clear the land, harvest the tobacco and design the buildings of Stagville. She has pulled information from tax records, bills of sale and personal letters of Stagville owners Duncan Cameron and Richard Bennehan. She's also had help from several descendants who still live in Durham. The first phase of the work started in the 1980s at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A student who interned at Stagville sifted through all the Cameron-Bennehan papers on campus and documented the name of every enslaved black he came across. The thick binder filled with pages of names such as Orange, Toast, Mittie, Solomon, Moses and Little Lot sat unused until Farley arrived. "I thought it was amazing that nothing was being done about it," she said. The work is difficult, hindered by a lack of birth certificates, which often were not issued for slaves. When a birth record existed, it usually did not include the father's name, said Tony Burroughs, a genealogist whose company specializes in tracing the roots of black Americans. "Plantation owners did not keep records on enslaved blacks for genealogical purposes," Burroughs said. "The records owners kept were for business purposes, either as profits or sale or taxes. Each (slave) had a value on them based on a property value." Farley has had an easier time than other plantation researchers because Cameron and Bennehan -- early trustees at UNC-Chapel Hill -- kept meticulous records of the plantation. Farley also has benefited from the proximity of Stagville's black descendants, many of whom live within 10 miles of the site. Ricky Hart of Durham is one of them. His father and other family members lived on the Stagville plantation as sharecroppers until the 1950s. Hart grew up a few miles away on land that had once been part of Stagville. Hart had heard rumors that his family worked on the plantation, and after his father died in 1986, Hart said he felt drawn to learn more about his family. "One thing that got me is, is it real?" he said. "Is it true what they are talking about that there is a slave plantation in Durham?" During a visit to Stagville later that year, he found the cabin that he later learned his family had lived in from 1812 until the 1950s. His Stagville roots go back to the 1780s with the sale of his great-great-grandfather to the plantation. Hart worked to piece together his family tree. When he got stuck, he approached Farley hoping to trade information. Other ancestors now come to Farley with photographs, names to add to the links, oral histories and information about other people who may help fill in blanks. She shares with them what she knows. But there are hundreds of names in the binder that she has not yet connected to the web of family members and there are probably others she will never know about. Farley hopes her work will personalize the plight of slaves, as is evident when she picks up a black and white photograph of a somber woman. Her name was Amy Shaw and she was born into slavery at Stagville. "If this were my grandmother and I knew someone treated her that way, I would ache," Farley said. "I want people to understand the sheer number of people who were owned by these two families. I want it to hit them in the face." Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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