Piecing Together Stories Of Families 'Lost In Slavery' In Help Me to Find My People, Heather Andrea Williams uses artifacts from the post-Civil War era to explore the emotional toll of separation on families during slavery, and of their arduous journeys to reconnect.
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Piecing Together Stories Of Families 'Lost In Slavery'

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Piecing Together Stories Of Families 'Lost In Slavery'

Piecing Together Stories Of Families 'Lost In Slavery'

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Jennifer Ludden in Washington. For decades, slavery tore apart African-American families. Children were sold off from their mothers, husbands from their wives. Many desperately tried to keep track of each other, even running away to find loved ones.

After the Civil War and emancipation, this effort intensified. Freed slaves posted ads in newspapers and wrote letters seeking any clue to a family member's whereabouts. In a new book, author Heather Andrea Williams examines the emotional toll of separation during slavery and the arduous journey to reconnect.

Are there stories of separation during slavery in your family? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org, and you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, sleep apps that claim to help you get a good night's rest. Have you used one? Send us an email, talk@npr.org. But first Heather Andrea Williams joins us from member station UNC in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She's professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her new book is "Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery." Welcome to you, Heather.

HEATHER ANDREA WILLIAMS: Thank you, thank you, very happy to be here.

LUDDEN: To start off, can you explain the significance in your title, the term my people?

WILLIAMS: Well, I end the book discussing this term in an epilogue. People placed ads, as you said, in newspapers starting in 1865, right after slavery ended, looking for family members. And they searched for individual family members, and they kept placing ads up until about 1903.

LUDDEN: Wow, decades.

WILLIAMS: So that - exactly, for decades. And I started to see a change in language. Not everybody used the term, but starting in the 1890s, I started to see people saying help me to find my people. I'm looking for my people. And they would then list individual family members.

So my mother's name was, my father, et cetera. But this term was new. And so the way that I've interpreted it is that so far away from slavery, with such small chance of really finding family members, people were making some claims through these ads.

So they wanted to find their relatives. But I interpret it also that they were making a broader claim, stating, really, that they had had people, that they came from people, that they had a history. And so I decided to use that term because I thought something had changed in those years after slavery.

And of course, as I give talks, people - some African-Americans have said to me yeah, that's a question that comes up. When you meet people, they'll say, so who are your people? Tell me who your people are. And so it's a term that's still used by African-Americans.

LUDDEN: Well, you go back in the book. You start with some history on just how hard it was to be a people, to be a family unit during slavery. And you talk about these wrenching scenes of separation. Some of them, you had these northern visitors coming down and writing about the auction they saw down in Washington, D.C., or something. Tell us about how this separation happened.

WILLIAMS: Well, I have many, many accounts of separation in the book. And I start the book by looking at people's experiences as children, being separated from their parents. And what I found was that often they said that, as a young child, I had no idea that I was a slave. I just didn't know. I was a child playing in the yard, maybe doing some small chores.

And then it was at the moment that an owner died or when the enslaved people got word that an owner was deeply in debt, that the people in the slave quarters, in the small slave community on that plantation, began to worry and to cry and to - the adults were having these conversations about what would happen. Who would be sold?

Would a mother be sold with her children? Would the father be sold with them? Sometimes after a death, it was that - how would the will divide up people? And they knew, the adults knew, that there was no guarantee that they would be together. In fact, the threat was that, very often, they would be separated.

And so the children began to realize, through this impending separation, that they were slaves and that being a slave meant that you could be sold. And they describe just, I mean, the pathos is, it's profound. They describe scenes of separation in which a mother just throws herself on the ground. She's begging an owner or a trader to keep her with her children or just let me keep even one of my children.

One person spoke of his father, who, he said, had been a happy person, had come home in the evenings, brought them little gifts, but once his wife and most of his children were sold away, he really sunk into depression and eventually escaped - leaving his son behind with his grandfather, who then raised him.

And so you see these scenes, and of course many of these separations happened on plantations or on farms. But others happened in marketplaces, on auction blocks. And you mentioned separations happening on the street corner in Washington, D.C. And so I have a chapter in which I look at how whites observing these separations or participating in these separations, what they thought and what they felt about separation.

You have abolitionists...

LUDDEN: And what was their thought? And you actually quote Thomas Jefferson, starting off that chapter.

WILLIAMS: Well, Thomas Jefferson has a quote in his "Notes on the State of Virginia" that says - he's talking about African-Americans, and he's talking to a broad audience. And he says their griefs are transient. In other words, they don't feel pain in the way that we feel it. They may feel it for a while, but it doesn't last.

And so I see a wide range of white responses to this separation, but white abolitionists in - would say in Washington, D.C., on the corner of 9th of Pennsylvania, and that's a place where I have worked...

LUDDEN: A few blocks from where we are right now.

WILLIAMS: Exactly - the Department of Justice, the National Archives, the FBI - that there used to be sales of people on those street corners. And they write back to the abolitionist press saying what a shame, what a disgrace. But then I also see white visitors to marketplaces in Richmond or in Charleston, saying, oh - and they use this language - the negroes don't seem to mind it at all. They seem perfectly happy. It doesn't seem to upset them.

And so I try to capture the - I talk at length about Thomas Chaplain(ph) a slave owner in St. Helena, South Carolina, who was selling 10 of his slaves because he was in debt. And he says, you know, it's terrible to tear - he was writing in this journal, and he said: It's awful to tear these people apart for no fault of their own, and their families are disconsolate. The families left behind are disconsolate.

But then he gets close to Jefferson, and he says: But maybe they'll see their families again. Maybe they shall see their children again. And so it's as though it will wash over, it will pass.

LUDDEN: And there was no attempt to - you say there were only two states who even tried to prevent the separation of children from parents, specifically.

WILLIAMS: Right, New Orleans - Louisiana, which of course had been a French colony and was a French colony for a long time, had some legislation that prevented the separation of a mother from her children under the age of 10. Alabama - very, very late, so 1859 - as the abolition movement increased, I think that some white Southerners became - felt ashamed about this business of slavery.

And so they instituted a law that protected children under the age of seven from being separated from their mothers.

LUDDEN: And there was also the fact that the law didn't actually allow slaves marry, legally. What was behind that?

WILLIAMS: Well, the idea was that marriage is a contract and that as enslaved people, these were not people who could - they were not legal persons. They could not enter into a legally binding contract. And if they had been allowed to enter into a contract, then an owner could not have separated a husband from a wife, sow them apart.

And so owners wanted to keep all power to themselves. These people, they had invested money in these people who became their property. And so the people had no legal will. But as I say in the book, many people talk about being in relationships that they considered the equivalent of marriage, of being...

LUDDEN: And it was very poignant. They had ceremonies, but they changed the language because they didn't think they could actually, you know, provide and protect for, hold and have. I mean, they changed the wording.

WILLIAMS: Well, slave owners changed the wording. And so I found a letter in the archives at University of North Carolina, and basically an owner said in a journal: Here is the ceremony. Here are the words for the vows that I use when I marry my Negroes.

And it read very much like the vows that we are familiar with, but nowhere did it say God, and it said we're gathered here before me and these people. And so I went, and I looked at the prayer books from the time period to see if somehow the vows had changed between then and now. But the vows are very much as we know them.

And nowhere in the vows did it say let no man put asunder. And nowhere in his vows did it say before God. So this is something that an owner might allow particular people to get married, in fact encouraged marriage because they knew that marriage would bind people to a plantation, that if you had loved ones, if you had a wife and children, you were less likely to try to escape.

So they performed these wedding ceremonies, but the marriage was not legal. It was not binding on the owner, and the owner could split people apart at will.

LUDDEN: We're talking with Heather Andrea Williams about her new book "Help Me to Find My People." If you have a story, a separation during slavery in your family, we'd like to hear about it. Call us at 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org. I'm Jennifer Ludden. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


LUDDEN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News; I'm Jennifer Ludden. Slavery wreaked havoc on African-American families. They were torn apart at the auction block, moved when their owners moved and given away in local transactions.

In her new book, "Help Me to Find My People," Heather Andrea Williams tells the story of Sella Martin, who was separated from his mother and sister and sold to another plantation owner when he was just a young boy. But his mom sent him a secret message, blue glass beads tied up in a cotton rag sent through a stranger, and that led to their reunion.

You can read more about how Sella Martin found his mother in an excerpt from "Help Me to Find My People." It's at our website. Just go npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And if your family has a story of separation during slavery, we'd like to hear from you. Our number is 800-989-8255, our email address talk@npr.org. Welcome back Heather Andrea Williams. Let's get a caller on the line here. Andrew(ph) is in San Francisco, and I'm trying - there we are, hi, Andrew.


LUDDEN: Go right ahead. What's your family story?

ANDREW: Thanks for having me on, a brief story, and then a question.


ANDREW: My grandmother, whose last name was Brockman, and our family history hails from Huntsville, Alabama, met Tallulah Bankhead at the home of a mutual friend in I believe it was Cleveland in 1929. Bankhead was there performing live at a theater.

And my grandmother, who is African-American, the - when they met, Bankhead heard her name, she immediately asked the question, which is what struck me when I heard Ms. Williams' title, because Tallulah's question was, who are your people?

And my grandmother, you know, said well, we're, you know, St. Louis but originally Huntsville, Alabama, and she said tell me more, and they compared notes. And Bankhead said our family name changed by marriage. We were Brockmans, which is...

LUDDEN: Oh my goodness.

ANDREW: Which is - yes, and Bankhead was notoriously liberal at the time, sometimes just notorious. But the more they compared notes, she became convinced that our ancestors had been part of the slaves of the Brockman plantation. We knew that that was likely, but as you know, many of the freed slaves just took the names of, you know, the family that had been, you know, their owners, especially if there was a decent relationship and not just one of cruelty and, you know, overseers.

But bottom line is Tallulah Bankhead became convinced the there was a relationship there, and she claimed my grandmother as a cousin. I have not been able to bear this out with documentation, although I've gone back some years, you know, with our family history.

And the issue of separation really crosses racial lines, as well, as I think this story demonstrates. And there's the famous story of the Jeffersonian descendants, some of whom are African-American and still have been named the Jefferson, and that's where that TV series got, I think, part of its background, the story of moving on up with a family named the Jeffersons.

LUDDEN: Right.

ANDREW: And then many, many white ancestors are descendants of Thomas Jefferson, and a lot of these people didn't know, and some didn't want to know, that they were related across racial lines. So my question to the author is: Do you explore any of the cross-race relations, as well?

And it's a difficult subject for many people because, you know, of the idea of being related to people who are of a different race, and, you know, it's a shock to some people. Not everybody is so welcoming.

WILLIAMS: Right. No, I don't really explore that. I mean, interracial relationships and cross-race relationships arise in the book just out of the stories of separation so that Sella Martin, who was mentioned earlier, was so - he and his mother and sister were sold because the children were the children of a white relative of the slave owner.

And so it comes up in those instances, but no, I don't really explore that.

ANDREW: Right, the tradition in the South was typically that because of these children of, you know, the slave owners and a slave, it was too awkward to have them on the plantation, and yet there was a feeling of some family relationship, and of, therefore, care.

So typically what would happen is that they would be sold or traded to other plantation owners to become house servants. And there was - there's a derogatory term related to that, I'll clean it up and just say they were called the house negroes.

WILLIAMS: Well, I just want to say that I don't really think there's a typical - a typical pattern of behavior. Some slave owners kept their children on the plantations. We know that in some instances, the son of a slave owner, for instance, might be taught a trade, which would then give him an advantage against - as to other slaves.

Some were sold away, as Sella Martin's family was, to strangers. Others were - Frederick Douglass talks about not knowing who his father was, but the talk on the plantation was that his father was his owner. So, many never acknowledged that these were their children.

So I think there's a wide range of experiences and practices, and I wouldn't say that anyone was typical, and I wouldn't say that all whites who fathered or whose relatives fathered children with enslaved women thought of them as family and took care of them.

LUDDEN: Andrew, thanks for sharing your story, and thanks for the call.

ANDREW: Thank you so much.

LUDDEN: Heather, Dennis(ph) in Las Vegas writes this letter: Any evidence - questions: Any evidence of slave owners that went to extraordinary lengths to keep slave families together? And I think he's probably referring to maybe not the slave owners' children in this case but the slave families themselves.

WILLIAMS: Right. There are - there is some evidence of slave owners who negotiated, for instance, for let's say this one family owned a woman, and her husband was about to be sold from another owner because very often enslaved people did not marry on the same plantation. They engaged in what they called abroad marriages, because they did not want to run the risk of marrying their relatives.

And so, one owner might try to negotiate for the purchase of the husband, in this case, to keep the husband and wife together. So yeah, there were situations like that. But again, that was not the norm. People were often - I mean, we have - we estimate that about a million people were sold in the interstate slave trade, just the domestic slave trade. And those were people being sold from one state to another.

LUDDEN: And that actually increased over the course of slavery, right? The importation of slaves was cut off, and therefore there was shifting economic needs internally?

WILLIAMS: Exactly. So in 1808, Congress said you can no longer import people from Africa, or Jamaica, or Barbados or anywhere else. And of course some of that still went on illegally. But then you have the rise in a domestic slave trade so that people were being sold from Virginia and Maryland and North Carolina to establish the plantations on the land as the country was expanding.

Right, Indians were being removed from Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and whites purchased those lands and started new plantations with the labor of people from the upper South, so huge expansion of a domestic interstate slave trade. And then of course people were sold from neighboring plantation to neighboring plantation. So that's not included in that large number of the million.

LUDDEN: Let's get another call here. Mary(ph) is in Charlotte, North Carolina. Hi, Mary, you're on the air.

MARY: Hi, how are you?


MARY: Yes, this story is about my great-great-grandmother in Maryland, that's where I'm from, who was a slave on a plantation or a farm there. And she fell in love with and became pregnant by a free black man who was doing work there, who wanted to buy her and marry her. But the slave owner would not allow it because of, when, of course, she was being pregnant. So that would be another slave.

And of course - and as a sad, tragic thing was my great-grandmother was actually the daughter of the slave owner. And the child in the stomach was his granddaughter, but he didn't acknowledge it as such. And so he chased the free black man off. After the war, when my great-grandmother was six, the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, and she and my great-great-grandmother went looking for the man.

They found him, eventually. He had started another family, gotten married, and it was very tragic. But he did, you know, claim them and take care of them even though it was too late for them to reunite as a family. That was a case of, of course, a family being broken up because the slave owner would not allow my great grandmother to be bought by the man who loved her. And as I said, that was also his daughter. But that...

And that was the tale passed on by my great grandmother, Attaway Price, who I remember as a young, young girl being told that the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed. So we always thought that was just such an incredibly cool thing. But the good part is they did reunite, though they could not marry at that point because the time had passed by.

LUDDEN: Oh. Mary...


LUDDEN: ...thank you so much for the call. Heather, you write that sometimes reunite - when families did reunite, it was just more pain.

WILLIAMS: Right. And Mary's sharing that with us is great because it raises a couple of things. And one thing is, she said, of course, the child her ancestor was pregnant with belonged to the owner because early in slavery, in the development of slavery in the 1640s, slave owners wrote into the law that children would follow the status of their mothers. So if your mother was a slave, you were a slave and you belonged to her owner.

But secondarily, she talks about reunification, but things had changed. And of course that happened because when people were searching for family members after 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, people had moved on. And what I found in doing this research was this combination, this resilience so that you might continue to love someone, but you also moved ahead and formed another family.

And so sometimes when people did find each other, you have these really awful situations. And in the chapter on reunification, I talk about a woman who had to make up her mind which husband she would be with. And she decided to be with the one who had no one else, she said, but it was a struggle for them. And you find adults - a parent would be searching for a child, but that child was no longer eight years old. The child is 28 years old.

And so you have an image in your mind of your young son or daughter, but really that person is someone else. Children might find their mothers - a mother comes back to claim her son and he says, I don't know you, I thought this woman who raised me was my mother. And then he says, you know, his mother spoke to him and she held him, and eventually he came to realize that this was indeed his mother and that she loved him.

And so you've got lots of these situations. I think reunification did not happen very often - at least we don't have evidence of it happening very often - but when it did, there were complications.

LUDDEN: All right. Let me just remind people, you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's take another call. Allan(ph) is in Allendale, South Carolina. Hi there.

ALLAN: How are you doing?


ALLAN: My great grandmother was born in 1880. My grandmother was born in - my grandmother was born in 1880. My mother was born in 1913. My great grandmother - my grandmother used to tell us the story about how her grandmother - her mother walked all the way to Savannah to get some of her children that was enslaved.

LUDDEN: Walked from where?

WILLIAMS: From where?

ALLAN: That's about 60 miles away from where I'm at right now, and that's about 60 miles away from Millhaven, which is across the river into South Carolina. And that whole system was a brutal system. I heard her talk about the (unintelligible) vow - how (unintelligible) people marry under God. And that is the main reason the black church emerged in this area because they did not recognize these people - the people as human beings. That's the reason (unintelligible) rebellions against the Americans in this area, saying we're made in the image of God. And that's what caused the fight that emerged during the Revolutionary War in the same area on the Savannah River.

LUDDEN: Hmm. So you had these stories passed down through generations in your family, Allan.

ALLAN: That's - we've been - we lived on the same plantation till the 1960s.

LUDDEN: Really?

ALLAN: Yeah. And that was Millhaven plantation, and of course the river from South Carolina. See, our family comes from the Wade plantation. It was next to Millhaven plantation.

LUDDEN: Heather Andrea Williams, what a story.

WILLIAMS: It's - yeah, it's an amazing story...

ALLAN: And we heard that story ever since we were little children. We always heard that story ever since we were little children.

LUDDEN: Allan, thank you...


LUDDEN: ...so much for the call.

ALLAN: Oh, thank you.

WILLIAMS: It's a familiar story to me, not of people having that much history and that much oral history, but this walking, this trying to find family members after slavery. In the book I talk about a reporter. He wrote for the Nation. And after the war he went South, trying to find out what was going on. His name was Dennett.

And he wrote about finding a black man in - near Charlotte, N.C., who had walked about 600 miles, he estimated, from Southern Georgia, trying to get back to his family in North Carolina. And the point where he found - he met him, he was just about a county away from his family, but he had traveled that far. And you see in the Freedmen's Bureau records people requesting transportation...

LUDDEN: And the Freedmen Bureau, let's say, was a - an agency, a government agency actually set up to help families find each other, but it was not very helpful.

WILLIAMS: Well, it was set up to help - to work with freed people, and help has many meanings. One of its primary purposes was to keep black people working. Who's going to raise this cotton, who's going to raise the sugarcane, that kind of thing. So that was part of it, to come up with contracts for people to continue working on the plantations.

But African-Americans often had different agendas, and so they turned it into a bureau to help them find family members. And they wrote letters to the Freedmen's Bureau, searching for family. So somebody wrote from Virginia saying our son was taken by a trader - and he named the trader - and we think he took him to New Orleans. And in that case the agent went out and found the trader, but the trader said I don't know who this person is.

I don't know where he was sold. In other instances, they were not very helpful, so people appealed to them for - help with transportation. A woman had walked - had traveled. She took the train, traveled from Arkansas to Virginia to find her mother and her sister and her daughter. She found them...

LUDDEN: And we have - we're running out of time here, Heather, I'm sorry.

WILLIAMS: I'm sorry.


LUDDEN: It's a great book. Heather Andrea Williams, professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, wrote "Help Me To Find My People." You can find an excerpt at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Thank you so much.

WILLIAMS: Thank you. I appreciate it.

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