Recovering Family History For Millions Of African Americans


By Taylor McNeil

(Tufts Now) — Every year, Kendra Taira Field teaches a class called Family Histories in American Culture. For their final paper, students research and write about their ancestors—stories that have over the years included those of enslaved family members and slave-holding kin.

For Field, an associate professor of history and director of the Center for the Student of Race and Democracy at Tufts, it’s a personally meaningful course. She wrote about her own African American and Afro-Native kin relations in her book Growing Up with the Country: Family, Race, and Nation after the Civil War, and her current book project, titled The Stories We Tell, is a history of African American genealogy from the Middle Passage to the present.

As a historian, Field is dedicated to making African American history more accessible to the public. In her latest project in public history, Field is chief historian of 10 Million Names, a recently launched research project of American Ancestors, the oldest genealogical organization in the nation.

It seeks to create a database with the names of the estimated 10 million people of African descent who were enslaved in the territory that would become the United States between 1500 and 1865. She will be helping guide a team of genealogists, historians, and researchers in searching for new sources of information and connections between hugely disparate records.

Finding that information has always been especially difficult. “While those Americans attempting to claim Mayflower ancestry have had ample records to prove it, African Americans who have been collecting their family histories and genealogies for centuries have not generally had easy access to collective repositories of genealogical data,” says Field. “This divergence is a stark reminder of our unequal and uneven access to our familial past.”

The 10 Million Names project stems from genealogical work done to trace the 272 enslaved people sold by Maryland Jesuit priests to raise money to create Georgetown University. Field was first involved in discussions with American Ancestors about this project last year, and began working with their research team in late spring.

“My scholarship sits at the intersection of history and genealogy, and I’ve long been interested in the relationship between history and memory,” Field says. “Because of this, I have taken on a great deal of public history work over the course of my career: working with museums and historical institutions to make history more accessible.”

For instance, just before starting work on the 10 Million Names project, an exhibition she co-curated at the National Women’s History Museum, We Who Believe in Freedom: Black Feminist DC, opened in Washington, D.C. And last month, Field and Kerri Greenidge, associate professor of history at Tufts, hosted the second annual Du Bois Forum, a gathering of writers, scholars, and artists of color in honor of W.E.B. Du Bois, architect of the modern civil rights movement. The forum supports the future of African American intellectual and artistic traditions.

“It’s very rare to find such a perfect fit as the 10 Million Names project, which really matches my personal and professional interests, attempting to bring together the historical record with living descendants in a really big way,” she says.

The Hard Work of Uncovering African American History

Working in the field of African American history, she regularly finds the names of enslaved people, but it’s often piecemeal. “I might come across an interview with a formerly enslaved woman that mentions 10 other individuals, for example,” she says. Some of these interviews were conducted in the 1920s by African American researchers at Fisk University, and others in the 1930s by the WPA—Depression-era Works Progress Administration—which conducted interviews with 2,300 formerly enslaved people from the 1930s, in which each of those people mentioned many other former slaves.

Other sources include plantations, many of which kept records of enslaved people’s names; military records of Black soldiers from the Revolutionary War through the Civil War; and local archives, from church records to county clerk offices.

The central goal of 10 Million Names is to bring all that information together and map the connections between people, so that their descendants today can trace them. “We are attempting to create a place that connects all of this information in one free and publicly accessible database,” Field says. “The really exciting part will be once we have enough datasets, they can start informing one another—so you could see a soldier in the Civil War who also shows up elsewhere on a plantation ledger.”

As chief historian on the project, Field leads the 10 Million Names Scholars’ Council, which includes Greenidge, who is also an associate professor in the Department of Studies in Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora and author, most recently, of The Grimkes: The Legacy of Slavery in an American Family.

Other members of the council include Vincent Brown, the Charles Warren Professor of American History and professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University; Thavolia Glymph, Peabody Family Distinguished Professor of History at Duke University and president-elect of the American Historical Association; and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University.

The project’s researchers will integrate methods of both genealogists and historians. While most of the staff are trained genealogists, the project is “reversing the typical approach, and borrowing from the historian’s toolkit,” says Field. The project will begin with original source material from the period of enslavement (1500s to 1865) and move forward. In so doing, Field says, “researchers will engage with a far broader set of sources as they develop pathways to those 10 million names.”

The generational, decades-long project will involve collaborations with many groups and institutions, is important for so many people, Field says. “African and African American naming and genealog­ical practices were a powerful and often-veiled form of resistance and identity throughout the histo­ry of slavery—and, more broadly, African American history,” she says. The project will help “to recover and restore many of these names to their families, to the history of the African diaspora, and to American history.”

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