Saturday, March 21, 2015

A Recap of Tony Burroughs for the AAGSNC Meeting

At today's meeting of the African American Genealogical Society of Northern California, those members who had presented talks the previous Saturday at the Sacramento African American Family History Seminar were invited to give short synopses of those talks.  My talk had been on how valuable of a resource the Freedmen's Bureau records are in black family history research, particularly in identifying the last slave owner before Emancipation.  But I also gave that talk to AAGSNC last November, so I didn't think everyone wanted to hear it again so soon.  Instead, I chose to give a recap of the keynote from the seminar, which was delivered by well known genealogist and author Tony Burroughs.  Mr. Burroughs' points were well taken, and I think they bear repeating.

The title of the keynote was "The Next Phase of African American Genealogy."  Burroughs began by explaining the six phases we have already been working through:

• oral history:  Collect stories from family members and record that information to preserve it and to share it with future generations.

• research family history to 1870:  To research family members who were enslaved, it is necessary to find them in 1870, almost always the first census in which former slaves were enumerated by name.  Their locations in 1870 become the springboard to search for them in pre-Emancipation records.

• identify the last slave owner:  Identifying the last slave owner is critical, because then you know where you should look for records that mention the family member by name.

• research the slave owner:  Researching the slave owner and his family helps place your ancestor in time.  You want to learn when your ancestor became associated with the owner, what happened to him, where he was before that, and whatever else you can find.  You may be able to identify family units.  Researching slavery can sometimes help you undertand why an owner might have moved with his slaves, might have hired his slaves out, why one owner treated his slaves differently than another owner did, and more.  Gaining a better understanding of the institution helps you understand how all the players acted in it.

• back to Africa:  Not everyone will be able to accomplish this, but with more original manifests of slave cargoes being discovered and publicized, some people have been able to identity their ancestors on specific manifests and definitively learn their original names and from where they came in Africa.

from the Library of Congress
• research the Caribbean:  More than 90% of Africans kidnapped for the slave trade went to the Caribbean and South America.  Many/most of the slaves who came into North America came here from the Caribbean, not directly from Africa.  Understanding how the slave trade and migration routes worked will help inform your research.

Before Burroughs moved on to the next phase, he talked a little about what he says is not research, and I have to say I agreed with every point.  He finds that too many people are not actually doing research nowadays:  They're just following twitching little leaves and hints on large Web sites and taking them at their word.  People are relying too heavily on online information only and don't look offline in archives and other repositories.  Others are taking DNA tests and letting the results define who they are related to, even if they can't tell you what the relationship is.  According to Burroughs, if you don't analyze the documents you find and take the time to understand what those documents are saying about your ancestors, you aren't doing research.  If you have a DNA "cousin" but don't know how you're related, that doesn't count as research either.  He even mentioned "Skip" Gates — apparently DNA tests show they're related, somehow, but they don't know what the connection is.  So is that research?  A resounding no!

I found his comments about the DNA companies to be spot on.  He pointed out that the information we receive from those companies when we have them test our DNA is not peer reviewed, so nobody but the people selling it to us vouches for it.  (How much do you trust salesmen?)  He explained that only population geneticists are doing research that is actually valid in describing how ethnic groups are related.  And he didn't make exceptions for any of the consumer DNA companies, not even African Ancestry, the one often touted as being the only "reliable" one for people with ancestry going back to Africa.  His commentary resonated with me and made me think yet again of Judy Russell's use of the phrase "cocktail party conversation" as the best description for the autosomal results these companies send us.

So what is the next phase?  The big one is to collaborate with historians.  People did not act in vacuums.  They were part of what was going on around them.  We need to gain a better understanding of the historical circumstances and situations that occurred during our ancestors' lives in order to understand how our ancestors fit into their times, and also to help us determine what the records from those times can tell us about our ancestors.  Studying history can also help us make better decisions on what we can take as "next steps" and where we might be able to find more information.

As a corollary to working with historians, his second comment was that we need to study slavery more, and in particular to study slavery before starting to research ancestors who were enslaved.  We really need to understand this institution, how it worked differently in different areas, how people worked with and against it.  Understanding why actions were taken again helps us make better decisions when directing our research efforts.

Burroughs then told us the records he has on his wish list to be digitized.  Though he had earlier commented that too many people rely on finding everything online, even he had to admit that having information more easily available to more people can improve research.  The list was:
• historical black newspapers (hooray for newspapers!)
• plantation records
• slave trader records
• Caribbean migration records
• Cuban archival records

All of these records tend to be difficult to find and use.  Having them digitized would logically help many, many people make serious advances with their research.  But on a practical level, I suspect it will be a long time before any of them are digitized on any significant level.

As he was wrapping up his talk, Burroughs made a couple of interesting observations.  The first was the benefit of doing real research versus relying on oral history, which many people do when building their family trees.  I have seen people discount historical records because they didn't agree with what Grandma had said.  He talked about research conducted on traditional African griots, the keepers of oral history for many tribes.  After some quantitative study, it was learned that the best trained griots, those who were the best at their work, could reliably remember information going back 125 years.  For Americans with slave ancestry, 125 years does not even take you back to Emancipation.  So relying strictly on the oral history in your family can't get you all the answers you want.

The other interesting tidbit was almost a throw-away right before the end of the talk.  Burroughs said that in all the research he has conducted, he has found that only about 15% of former slaves took their former owners' surnames.  Only 15%!  So if you are trying to find the former slave owner by looking for everyone in the county with the same last name as your ancestor, 85% of the time you will not be successful.  I don't like those odds myself.

Keep in mind, these are my take-aways from Burroughs' talk.  I admit that in my case he was preaching to the choir, because I agreed with almost all the points he made.  But I found the talk educational and inspiring, and I know I'll keep it in mind during my research in the future.


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