Finding the Pieces to Put Back Together

Reconstructing the lives of African-Americans before the Civil War is hard work, and tracing women, who were overlooked by recorders of history, can seem impossible. For my book, which looks at the lives of real African-American cooks working in Southern kitchens, I searched for clues in library special collections and historical society archives across the South; in the American Memory collection at the Library of Congress; in city directories and census reports; in plantation records, such as cookbooks, handwritten journals, ledgers, diaries, and letters; in African-American folklore, spirituals, newspapers, and music lyrics; in WPA interviews; in American literature; and in sepia-toned photographs.

Earlier this month, Henry Louis Gates Jr., chair of African and African-American Studies at Harvard, used legal documents and genealogical experts to trace family lineage for himself and several noted African-Americans, including Oprah Winfrey, in the PBS special African-American Lives. He offers tips and a resource guide to help families explore their ancestral history. For details, visit the African-American Lives Web site at:

The first step is learning what is already known. For me, that meant visiting family estate files; you might begin the journey by talking to relatives and reading through mildew-stained papers lying around in the attic. The older generation has vivid memories of names, places, organizations, neighbors, and other details that can help you organize a family genealogy, and they are usually thrilled to talk about it.

As you build your own estate file, look everywhere and save everything. Wills, property deeds, birth, death certificates, baptismal announcements, funeral programs, and even family recipe collections contain clues to the people and places in your history.

If you can't find birth and death certificates, which are important because they contain addresses and information about parentage and occupations, ask about them at your church, or at the county courthouse. Contact civic and fraternal organizations and clubs for old files and membership applications.

Armed with a few names, dates, and locations, your next stop is a visit to the local historical and/or genealogical society. Both are rich archival resources.

The Austin History Center contains the following collections and more: tax records, photographs, city directories, census reports, social and school rolls, burial ledgers for city cemeteries, newspaper articles, and maps. The Plantation Collections at the Center for American History at the University of Texas also houses a wide variety of materials for the study of African-American life, history, and culture, including black newspapers.

Slave schedules for the Federal Census catalog slaves by age and gender only, but you can assemble the pieces of their identity from probate and divorce records – a slaveholder transferred his wealth through property and sometimes listed the names of slaves in his will or in tax reports. County court files contain records of property disputes, criminal cases, and sanity hearings. Your family member's name might be mentioned in the transcripts found in these records, as well. Newspaper advertisements for slave sales, runaway slaves, and other slave news adds another bit to the fragments of slave identity.

Together, these remnants represent life for enslaved African-Americans, and the process of gathering them is very much like the art of baking great bread. Individually, the eggs, milk, yeast, and flour are nothing, but with time and perseverance, the result delights the soul.

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  • More of the Story

  • Who Is Mandy?

    The author hopes that history – so cruel to African-American women in the kitchen – can help breathe real life into a 19th-century portrait

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