A project called Last Seen—Finding Family after Slavery has been documenting the efforts of African Americans to find their families and other loved ones after the American Civil War.
Most of the documents that the project has collected and put on-line are newspaper notices like this one about a family in Perquimans County, in northeastern North Carolina.
A woman named Caroline Jacox placed that newspaper notice. Prior to the Civil War, she had been held in slavery in Hertford, a small town on the Perquimans River.
By the time that notice ran in the Richmond Planet, she had not seen her daughters Mary Jane or Margaret for at least 31 years.
She had no idea where they were or whether they were alive. Yet she had obviously not given up hope.
Thousands of such newspaper notices were placed in newspapers in the decades after the Civil War.
For the South as a whole, the project’s documents tell a story of homes being broken apart, children being torn from their mother’s arms and whole families being scattered to the winds.
Not on some small scale, either. But on a scale that is hard to imagine: hundreds of thousands of people. Not a few families, but most families. Not just here and there, but everywhere.
In those stories, I also found incredible love, measureless hope and almost unbelievable determination.
In today’s post, I’m going to look at some of this project’s stories and explore what they have to teach us about slavery, family and homecoming in the history of the North Carolina coast.
“I desire information about my people”
Directed by Dr. Judith Giesberg, a Civil War historian at Villanova University, Last Seen– Finding Family after Slavery is supported by her history department and by the Mother Bethel AME Church, an historic Philadelphia church that was deeply involved in the anti-slavery movement and the Underground Railroad.
After gaining their freedom in the Civil War, hundreds of thousands of African Americans sought to find family members that auction blocks and slave traders had taken from them .
In the first years of freedom, former slave laborers who found their loved ones celebrated joyous homecomings across the U.S.
But many former slaves were not so lucky. Some looked for years to find a lost child or a husband or wife that had been taken from them .
As the years passed, a relatively small, but important number of those former slaves placed notices in newspapers looking for their loved ones.
In those notices, they indicated whom they were looking for– they gave the name of a spouse, parent, child, brother or sister, niece or a nephew, grandmother or grandfather.
Some, such as Alfred Skinner from Chowan County, had lost everybody: as we can see in the newspaper notice below, his mother, brother and seven sisters had been sold away from him and transported to South Carolina.
Christian Recorder, 14 April 1866.
In such newspaper notices, the former slaves indicated for whom they were looking, how they were related to them and where and when they had last seen one another.
As part of Last Seen—Finding Family after Slavery, Dr. Giesberg and her colleagues have been searching for those announcements in newspapers that were published all over the U.S.
When they find such an announcement—and they have found thousands—they place the names and the announcements on the project’s web site.
They are heartbreaking, to say the least: in a way, they are the written evidence of the whispers and cries of hundreds of thousands of people aching for those they loved and lost.
A Second Middle Passage
As I looked through the project’s database, I noticed that many of the newspaper notices referred to African Americans from the North Carolina coast that had been transported into the Deep South.
That was very common. Slave traders and slaveholders transported vast numbers of enslaved people from North Carolina and other Upper South to states in the Deep South.
By most estimates, they forcibly transported approximately one million enslaved laborers from the Upper South to cotton, sugar cane and other plantations in the Deep South between 1790 and 1865.
They were scattered far and wide, but the largest number probably ended up in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi.
Slave traders and planters transported some of those enslaved laborers with their families. However, they transported a large percentage of them without their families or with only part of their families.
The trauma was so great that many historians have begun to refer to that forced transport of enslaved people from the Upper South to the Deep South as the “Second Middle Passage”– the first “Middle Passage” being the transatlantic slave trade from Africa to America.
I’ll be discussing this “Second Middle Passage” and the economic factors behind it in greater detail in a future post.
In Last Seen–Finding Family after Slavery’s data base, I found many examples of that “Second Middle Passage.”
In the newspaper notice below, for instance, a woman named Dianna Johnson described how she was taken from her family in North Carolina and transported against her will to Alabama and later to Texas.
By 1885 she had not seen her father, mother or her eight brothers and sisters in at least 20 years.
The Black Press
In the database for Last Seen– Finding Family after Slavery, we see that some former slaves placed their announcements in the pages of local newspapers. More, however, placed their announcements in national newspapers that African American churches published and distributed.
Published by the African Methodist Episcopalian Church, the Southwestern Christian Advocate was widely distributed among black Methodists in the southern states.
For many years, it had a special column for former slaves searching for their families.
From 1876 to 1882, the paper’s editor had a strong connection to coastal North Carolina. His name was the Rev. Hiram Rhode Revels, and he was born into a free African American family in Fayetteville, N.C. in 1827.
In Fayetteville he was part of an extended family that became known for its militant resistance to slavery and its role in the Underground Railroad. One of Rev. Revels’ second cousins, Lewis Sheridan Leary, was killed during John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry.
You can read more about the family in my story “Portrait of a Rebel.”
Rev. Revels became the first African American to serve in Congress when he represented Mississippi in the U.S. Senate in 1871-72.
During his career, Revels was also a Union army chaplain and the founding president of what is now Alcorn State University.
Many of those newspaper announcements show how widely the slave trade scattered enslaved families from North Carolina’s coastal plain.
Consider this notice from the Southwestern Christian Advocate in 1882, for instance. In the notice, Isabella Joseph requests help in finding her mother, father, six sisters, four brothers, a grandmother and two uncles.
At one time, they had lived together in North Carolina. However, over the years, slave traders had scattered the family’s members among at least four states– North Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia and Louisiana.
In such cases, the struggle to re-unite a family could easily take the rest of a man or woman’s lifetime.
“He wept for joy”
Theirs was a hard journey, and of course many of those that placed notices in newspapers– probably the very large majority– never located their missing loved ones.
Imagine the kind of lonesomeness they felt. Imagine the kind of love that sustained their fragile hopes after all those years.
We do not know how often they were successful. In most cases, the documents in Last Seen– Finding Families after Slavery do not tell us if a man or woman found the loved ones for whom they were searching.
In at least a few cases, though, we do know that their efforts paid off. One example is a couple from North Carolina that found one another after being apart for 32 years.
In 1883 the New York Sun described their story.
Writing history for me has always been about the unseen, and I mean that in more ways than one.
These old newspaper announcements are a case in point: they reveal a kind of invisible geography not of mountains and seas and continents, but of love and longing and heartbreak of people who lived long ago.