Q&A: Genealogist helps African Americans trace their origins

02/04/2013 12:00 AM

02/04/2013 12:41 PM

Ever since she was a junior in high school, Karen Burney wanted to know who she was and where she came from. Now a veteran genealogist, she believes her origins began in the Congo more than 200 years ago.

There's a good chance she's descended from Renty Taylor, a small, weathered slave who was taken from the Congo to work a plantation in Columbia, South Carolina.

Thanks to digitized census records back to 1870, slave ship records, bills of sale, slave auctions, plantation records, church records and wills, "it's become much easier to trace your ancestors back to regions of Africa," Burney said. "Many records are free on the Internet."

On Saturday, March 9, she's hosting "Celebrating 150 Years of Emancipation," the 8th Annual African American Family History Seminar offering classes on finding your roots.

How far back can you trace your roots?

Renty Taylor was bought off the docks in Charleston in the late 1700s by Thomas Taylor. His son, Benjamin Franklin Taylor, allowed a Swiss scientist to take nude photos of Renty Taylor and other slaves from Africa using anatomy to study what he believed was the inferiority of blacks to whites. In Renty's photo, you can see the embarrassment and humiliation on his face having to strip nude – he looked all dried up. His daughter was crying profusely.

My ancestors were on the same plantation, and I believe my great-great-grandmother Betsy Taylor, a maid and seamstress, was Renty's granddaughter.

Many African Americans are mixed. How does that come into play?

One of my ancestors, Billy Braveboy, a.k.a. Brayboy, was freed because his grandfather was Joshua Braveboy, an African and Lumbee Indian who rode with "the Swamp Fox," Francis Marion, and his guerrillas, who rescued American troops surrounded by the British at Parker's Ferry, S.C. For his heroism, Joshua Braveboy was granted his freedom.

How many African Americans are linked to slavery?

The vast majority of the nearly 38 million African Americans in the United States are direct descendants of people who were formerly enslaved. Importation of slaves ended in 1807, but slavery existed until 1865. Until we started looking, most of us didn't know our ancestors existed.

Why relive this painful past?

My ancestors' struggles through slavery and segregation have made me stronger. It meant finding these people who paved the way for me. It breaks my heart how much Renty and his family had to endure, and makes me realize how fortunate we are today and all we have now, thanks to their sacrifice.

On the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, I believe all African Americans should trace their roots back to their last enslaved ancestor. The least we can do is to give them back their name and return their memory to future generations because so much was taken away from them. African Americans didn't go from property to people until the 1870 census.

How do you get past slavery to find your roots?

African Americans fought in every American war, so it's possible to find many of their service records including those who fought in the Civil War as part of the U.S. Colored Troops. All African Americans weren't slaves prior to 1865. Some were what were termed "Free Persons of Color" either by birth or when their owners gave them "freedom papers." Others lived in Northern states where slavery was outlawed much earlier.

Although marriage was not legal during slavery, many newly freed slaves legally married after slavery ended, and records of these unions can be found in most states.

The Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 freed slaves in the Southern states that rebelled against the U.S., but the 13th Amendment in 1865 freed all slaves. Some African Americans may still have been listed as property during this two-year period.

How do people react when they discover their slave roots?

A combination of joy and tears. It changes them and makes them more appreciative of what they have and how far they've come: 150 years is not that long ago. I met the great-great-great-grandson of plantation owner Henry Marshall, a founder of the Confederacy whose father came from Wales and in 1806 bought 20 "Prime Gold Coast Slaves," most likely from Ghana and Liberia, at Geyer's wharf in Charleston, S.C. They included my ancestors. There are rumors that one of my ancestors was related to the Marshalls. I believe my great-great-great-grandfather Isaac Jefferson was part white.

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