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Researching Communities of the Formerly Enslaved

Robin Foster
by Robin Foster

You can discern a lot about the life of your ancestor from the descendants of those formerly enslaved that lived in communities that they established. If you are not fortunate enough to know of living descendants or surviving communities with which to start, search the following resources that mention the locality where your ancestor lived and names of people that lived in those areas:

  • manuscript divisions of local university libraries
  • local history in county/parish libraries

 

Archivegrid

Archivegrid.com – An Invaluable Resource for Locating Archival Collections

ArchiveGrid

One of the best tools for searching historical documents, family histories, and personal histories is ArchiveGrid which helps researchers looking for primary source materials held in archives, libraries, museums and historical societies.”  An unbelievable number of resources documenting the communities of formerly enslaved people and their descendants are available through 1,000 different institutions.

The following records were discovered by searching ArchiveGrid using the search terms:  “South Carolina, slave, lowcountry”

  1. Wando-Huger: A Study of the Impacts of Development on the Cultural Role of Land in Black Communities of the South Carolina Lowcountry – This study examines the role that land plays in the culture of the slave descendant community. “Study results indicate that there are five factors that create community identity and place attachment in Wando-Huger: land settlement patterns, family ties, shared historic memory, religion, and education. Land ownership is key to place identity: historically the site of oppression, many slaves bought the very land upon which they were enslaved, thus creating a landscape of freedom. The perpetuation of the unique communal culture developed during slavery depends upon land remaining in an autonomous and contiguous state.”
  2. Papers of the DeSaussure, Gamewell, Lang, and Parrish Families, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina include “family correspondence, legal documents, and other items of family members in the lowcountry, and the counties of Darlington, Kershaw, and elsewhere in South Carolina.” It includes the pocket diary of Rev. Gamewell (1866) and his account of a dinner invitation from local freedmen.
  3. The Typescript of Samuel Cosmo (Catawba) Lowry’s diary gives accounts of “campaigns in lowcountry South Carolina; Wilmington, N.C.; second battle of Manassas, and Petersburg, Va.. It also includes descriptions of music provided by Negro slaves.”
  4. Among the 2,022 items in the William Moultrie Reid Papers 1800-1916 collection is an account of missionary efforts among enslaved people of South Carolina.

ArchiveGrid has catalogued records from each of the Southern states were slavery existed. Search the database for resources in the area where your ancestor lived and for institutions that were important to them such as churches and schools. It may be even more beneficial to research the records of the family or individual who enslaved them.

Local County/Parish Library

Charleston County Public Library home Page

You can learn a lot about the local resources of an area through the library. Search the library catalog using keywords like genealogy, land records, probate records, wills. Some of the resources may not circulate, but you will discover books that may be available to you locally, through interlibrary loan, or on Amazon.com for a reasonable price. If you are fortunate, you will find the contact information or a chat room on the library website where you can request someone to check the index for your ancestor’s surname.

In the Charleston County Public Library (SC) you can perform two different searches. Enter “Gullah” in the search field at the top of the page. Click “Search.” In the search results, you will find the article, “Gullah Heritage.”  You can also search the CCPL Catalog for books about Gullah heritage.

Now search the catalog for Morris Brown AME. This leads you to a souvenir booklet on the church. Traditionally, a souvenir or anniversary book contains church history and the history of pioneer members of the congregation.

Even if you feel you have exhausted all the resources you are familiar with, it does no harm to widen your search to include resources that you may discover through ArchiveGrid or the local library.

Sharpen the Saw

Take a moment to search ArchiveGrid and the catalog of the local library where your ancestor lived for resources that may document your ancestors and the community where they lived.  Tell us about the resources that you discover as a reply to the Facebook post for this article.

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