The importance of Black History Month cannot be overstated. Beginning in the UK during 1987, this year we will be celebrating the 34th anniversary of the essential event. Although society has made significant progress since 1987, let alone in comparison to the days of the British Empire, the existence of Black History Month is still crucial in 2021, with systemic racism and prejudice still plaguing the UK to this day.
The event, which begins on the 1st of October and ends on the 31st of October, offers a spotlight for black history, culture, and heritage – with the aim of creating stronger solidarity towards the understanding and fight against racism. It offers a key opportunity for society to reflect on the past and present racial discrimination towards members of the black community.
Along with this, it allows us to learn about the often-overlooked achievements of many of the lesser-known people of colour in the past, including people such as Nurse Mary Seacole, who played a major role in nursing the British soldiers of the Crimean War, or Walter Tull, who became the first black army officer to lead White soldiers into battle in the British Army.
The neglect towards the education and commemoration of the contribution of black people in history is not an isolated occurrence. Due to the sheer neglect that POC faced all the way back in the origins of the slave trade up until its abolition in roughly 1834, it can be very difficult to accurately trace black heritage.
In turn, this makes family tree tracing for those who are POC (or those with POC ancestors) significantly harder – comparatively to those with primarily European heritage.
Due to the displacement of people and communities during the slave trade, many families were tragically lost, along with generations of traditions and culture. Quite often slaves would be given new names that related to either the plantation that they would be working on – or the slave owner themselves. This presented its own problems, with hundreds of slaves often being given the same surname, which in turn creates a huge overlap for those looking to trace back their ancestry.
Documentation during this time was also extremely sparse. When slaves arrived in England for example, they would often be baptised (quite frequently as an adult), with extremely minimal information being recorded on the baptism documents – mostly just a new first name, and a reference to the slave owner. These documents completely neglected the history and identity of the individual, making it hard to connect the dots to pre-slavery ancestors beyond this point.
During this period, black men and women were very rarely granted an education. This meant that, unless they were able to find a scribe, they were not able to write their own stories, forcing them to be lost in time. Consequently, the majority of writings about black history and events during this time period were produced by a biased filter, distorting the truth and becoming an unreliable source. Once again, this doesn’t help when tracing heritage, with potential inaccuracies posing as an obstacle during the process of constructing an already difficult family tree.
Like any other family historian just starting out, the first place to start is with your immediate family: parents, grandparents – and if possible – great grandparents. From here, oral history comes in: talk to your relatives, learn about old stories passed down through the generations, old memories – even old sayings. All forms of oral history at this stage can provide valuable ways to break down those initial brick walls, helping to build a solid starting place for further research.
Next up, search relatives’ homes (with permission, of course!) for family memorabilia: photos, old tape videos, heirlooms, and any other objects that may offer clues. You never know what your grandparents may have tucked away in the attic – but it might just be that next clue you need!
After all knowledge has been exhausted from relatives, and a search has been completed for any physical clues, it’s time to begin the search for further clues online! Although there are limitations for those with black ancestry when looking for documentation, more and more resources are being made available. Records that may be of use include:
Armed Forces Records
Including fairly basic – but useful – information, armed forces records can supply useful details on your ancestors, should they have fought during the 1st or 2nd World War. For details on finding 1st World War documentation for British Army soldiers click here, and for more information regarding 2nd World War documentation click here.
Similarly to armed forces records, some professions had to document information on their employees. If you have a general idea of where an ancestor may have worked, perhaps it’s worth searching for any archived documentation made public – it could offer more information, helping you piece together the puzzle!
Sometimes during the slave trade era newspapers would be used to notify communities of slaves that had runaway. These notices tend to include the name of the individual, often with a physical description accompanied. For a useful database of over 800 runaway notices from newspapers, click here.
Will of slave owners
Often when a slave owner died, they would name their slaves on their will – frequently to be passed down to relatives/relations. This can provide especially useful for tracking ancestors during the slave trade time period.
These include information regarding all slaves held in the Caribbean from roughly 1813-1834. This usually consists of the enslaved person’s name, gender, birth date, nationality, owner’s name, colony, and parish of residence. To find a collection of digitised Slave Registers, click here.
Slavery Compensation Commission papers
Following the abolition of slavery, slave owners were given compensation for the freeing of slaves. These papers included basic information on slaves and may be helpful in connecting your freed ancestors to your enslaved ancestors. For an archive of Slavery Compensation Commission papers, following this link.
UK Censuses beyond 1841 & US Censuses beyond 1870
These include basic information regarding individuals, however, can prove pivotal when building your family tree. It’s important to note, if your ancestor was freed from slavery prior to its abolition, they may also appear in the 1850 and 1860 Censuses. Click here for helpful information on utilising online UK Censuses from 1841 to 1911, and here for access to the 1870 US Censuses.
Financial documents may offer insight into individuals’ histories and lives. These may be harder to find, but if located could prove useful for research.
Old photos/film/audios tapes may have been digitised and may offer clues into tracing ancestors.
Criminal and convict records could potentially help in your search for more information. For England and Wales from the years 1791-1892, follow this link.
Finally, personal letters may have been digitised, with stories, insights and information. If you are lucky enough to find a personal letter from an ancestor, it is important to take note of who the letter is addressed to, and who it is from.
It is important to recognise the privilege of having the opportunity to retrace a family tree with comparatively readily available documentation. Being able to create a family tree, allowing you to understand who your ancestors are, where they come from, and fundamentally who you are, is something that everyone deserves to be able to do.
As mentioned before, more and more records are being made available online specifically with the intention of helping POC trace their family history, which in time will hopefully make the experience of genealogy more accessible to everyone.
If you have enjoyed this blog – or found any of the information to be useful in assisting your family history research, why not share it on social media? And of course, if you need any more hints and tips for your genealogy adventures, click here to view more blogs by us here, at Family Wise!