This past week's episode of Who Do You Think You Are? focused on the ancestry of actress, Alfre Woodard. Specifically it focused on her paternal grandfather, Alexander Woodard, and his enslaved father, Alex or Alec Woodard.
Alfre's grandpa died when her father was a child and at many points throughout the episode Alfre stated that she was doing this research not only for herself but for her father. I have encountered this with many of the friends and patrons I have helped with their family trees. Even though their mother or father is long deceased, the person feels they are answering the questions their parents had about their family history. For example, I had one client burst into tears when I discovered her father's long lost brother in the Social Security Death Index. Through her tears she announced that that her father had wanted to find his brother so badly and "now he's dead too." Um, had the uncle been alive he's have been 96. Hmm. But I digress...
Woodard's journey really was an homage to her father and her African-American ancestors.
Although it is true that African-American genealogy research can often hit a dead end due to a lack records identifying slaves by name, a great deal of information does still exist in post Civil War documentation including census, deeds, wills etc. The unfortunate truth is that enslaved African-Americans were considered property, however, they were indeed a valuable property and often documented in records of their owners. It was an obviously emotional experience for Alfre to see her great-grandpa at age 10 listed among the property of the estate of John Woodard, the slave owner.
That too can be a startling fact to most novice African-American genealogy researchers; that the African-American's family name is often derived from that of the white slave owner. I recently had to explain to a researcher that just because two African-American families in the same community have the same last name doesn't mean they were biologically related; it is probably more likely an indication that they were owned by the same white man or by white families that were related.
I think what was most moving to Alfre was the fact that this man who had been a slave with no possessions of his own had prospered after Abolition.Through tax records and land deeds we learned that Alex had become a land owner in Louisiana and paid the poll tax of $1 to become a registered voter.
The journey back in time through African-American ancestry can be emotional but it can be done. If the notion that you won't find any records because of slavery, or the Holocaust, or some war, or what-have-you, keeps you from researching you family history, don't be silly. Records do exist and you can uncover the stories of you ancestors who accomplished overwhelming feats.
Tune in again this Sunday for a special episode of WDYTYA called "Into the Archives." Can't wait to see what that's all about...
Tune in again this