What Responsibilities Does a Descendant of Slaveholders Bear?

Do you descend from people who owned slaves in the US? Are you not sure how to handle this news? Listen as Cheri Passey shares some of her insights into such genealogy research. #slavery #genealogy

If you have ancestors who owned other people, what should you do when you discover you are descendant of slaveholders?

Cheri Hudson Passey, a descendant of slaveholders shared a number of valuable tips with me while we were at a genealogy conference to help folks process this issue. This post follows nicely after the one entitled, “5 Tips for Researching Southern US Ancestors.

Be Aware of the Emotions

When you discover that you have slaveholders on your tree, it can be tough to process. You may experience shock

A celebrity gained trying to hide his slaveholding ancestors from a popular television program. Cheri says, “he was probably embarrassed and thought maybe it would do something negative to his career.”

She stresses that we’re not responsible for our ancestors’ actions, but we can do something positive for descendants of enslaved persons.

Cheri shared that one of her ancestors was an overseer. She found that knowledge hard to swallow. Her ancestor was an enforcer tasked with inflicting punishment. Some owners might have been delightful, but the overseer probably wasn’t.

The first thing to do when you discover you are a descendant of slaveholders is to process your emotions.

Be Open to the Possibility That Your Ancestors Owned Slaves

Many Americans say their parents or grandparents never mentioned owning a slave. Their conclusion is they don’t have ancestors who owned slaves. The common lament goes something like this:

  • “This couldn’t have happened. My ancestors would never do that. They were too poor.”

No matter where we lived in the United States, Cheri says many of us will run across some document indicating that our ancestors either owned slaves or participated in the slavery industry.

Many descendants stop wondering, “Did my family own slaves” and then latch on to the belief that “If my ancestors owned slaves, they were good people.”

Recognize a Descendant of Slaveholders is Not Responsible for Slavery

Today, many do not give grace to individuals who owned slaves in the past. We shouldn’t argue over whether we should laud or condemn the slaveholders of the past.

The key point is we need to agree that the things that our ancestors did in the past do not reflect on us. Descendants of slaveholders are not responsible for slavery. We didn’t live in that time. As easily as we could have been abolitionists, some of us might have participated in the slavery institution. We can not be sure.

We live now and few of us would own slaves given the opportunity.

What Should a Descendant of Slaveholders Do Today?

Slavery often produced records such as bills of sale or lease, disbursement of slaves in wills and probate records, correspondence, and other writings may record slaves. While these records are essential for slaveholding ancestors to document marriage, real estate ownership, and identify relationships, for descendants of slaves, these records are invaluable.

Many descendants of slaves have to stop climbing their tree in 1870. Although the 1850 and 1860 census records began identifying the names of everyone in a household, few slaves names appear in these records.

When you find these documents identifying slave ownership, don’t hide the records. Cheri suggests we transcribe all the information on the record:

  • the location
  • the slaveholder’s name
  • the names of the enslaved

Then, share the document on social media, in a blog post, or in an African-American Research pages on Facebook. As you share the information, share where you obtained the data (we all need to craft citations, right!?!)

Why Share Slaveholder’s Information and Transactions?

Sharing the documents about the slaveholding ancestors provides the clues for descendants of slaves to find THEIR ancestors. Many slaveholders created children with enslaved women. In other words, the records of the enslaved are entwined with those of the slaveholders. Your slaveholding family tree is partially a descendant of slavery’s common family tree.

Don’t Be Afraid to Respond to Descendants of Your Ancestors’ Slaves

As more and more people take DNA tests, you may see that matches with African-American blood. Some will reach out to you. Don’t be afraid to respond. You are being contacted to help these DNA matches reconnect with their family members.

The beauty of these connections is working together to figure out where we all came.

Shine Light on the Records of Slaveholders and Make Connections

In the video below, Cheri explains how she was working with a woman whose ancestor was enslaved by their common ancestor. Through their work together, they are both finding healing. Watch the video to hear more.

In short, if you are a descendant of slaveholders, you are not responsible for the actions of the past. You do have a responsibility to share documents they discover while climbing their family tree with the African-American community. Together, we can all find our families.

If you have further questions for Cheri Hudson Passey, visit her blog at
http://carolinagirlgenealogy.blogspot.com/ or connect with her, the way I love, via Twitter: @CarolinaGirlGen

For additional reading about the responsibilities of Descendants of Slaveholders :

What is your responsibility when you discover you have slave-owning ancestors on your family tree? #genealogy #FHFanatics #FamilyHistoryFanatics #ancestry #slavery
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Devon Noel Lee

Devon Noel Lee

Devon Noel Lee is passionate about capturing and preserving family stories so no one alive today has to be researched, or forgotten, tomorrow. She has authored 6 how-to books, a memoir, two published family history biographies, and over 60 family scrapbooks. She's an enthusiastic speaker who energizes, encourages, and educates at the same time.

13 thoughts on “What Responsibilities Does a Descendant of Slaveholders Bear?

  1. Wow, this is such an important topic. I don’t have any US ancestry, but it is wonderful to see that you are recognising and acknowledging the enslaved–and slaveholders–in such an inclusive way. These tips show respect and encourage truth telling, something we should all strive for, both in genealogy and life generally!

  2. Devon,
    What a great post! So far, I have only uncovered one little note on someone’s summary about my 5th-great grandfather that said he paid taxes on 2 slaves while living in Kentucky for a few years. I have not found those tax records yet, nor any other record of any kind, regarding that note. I am still searching. But when I first saw that note, I did feel devastated at that time. I agree we should not feel responsible, but it does feel a little disheartening.

  3. I also found evidence that my 1st cousin 3x removed’s father-in-law had slaves per the 1860 U.S. Federal Census – Slave Schedules in east Texas. I will do as much as I can to share this information and any names I can find to allay the situation and perhaps help others find their ancestors. That’s all I can do because the ancestor came from North Carolina and may have always been around that kind of life, but until the Civil War, he may have wanted to keep that kind of abhorrent behavior going.

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