Sunday, July 10, 2011

Tracing African American History

Ask Rufus: Tracing African-American history

July 9, 2011 11:50:00 PM

One of the questions I am frequently asked is; "What resources are available for local African-American genealogy and history?" There is actually a lot more information available than people realize. Some of the little-used resources include old plantation records, church registers of early white churches, legal or court documents and political broadsides and materials. These are all a largely untapped source.

Archives such as the Billups-Garth Archives at the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library and Special Collections at the Mississippi State University Library are full of collections detailing the lives of people, black and white, who lived here during the 1800s. In Columbus, old Lowndes County legal records are found in the Billups-Garth Archives. In other area, counties those records are still at their county courthouses.

The earliest legal records in this area are in Monroe County, which was established in 1821, and originally contained all of Mississippi situated east of the Tombigbee River. One of the earliest records there concerns William Cooper. He was a free black man working and trading along the Tombigbee River during the 1790s.

Before the Civil War most African-Americans in the South were slaves and were considered property. Because they were property, their names and some information about them are given on property inventories contained in probate or estate records. In Lowndes County, some of the official county slave record books have survived. Pre-Civil War plantation and farm records, which can found in archives, often contain lists of and information about slaves and post war records contain similar information about tenants.

An example are the records of the T.C. Billups and James Sykes farms in Lowndes County. Those records are located both in the libraries at Columbus and Mississippi State. They contain much slave and tenant information from the late 1840s to the 1880s. One late 1840s through the 1850s Billups plantation account book even lists slave births, marriages and deaths. An 1863 Sykes letter even tells of a family servant acting as a Confederate spy during the Vicksburg campaign.

Old legal records may contain not only useful genealogical information but also examples of the horrors of slavery. Lowndes County criminal files from the 1850s include cases of people being charged with the felony of inhumane treatment of a slave and several people charged with murder for the killing of a slave. There is one interesting case where several prominent Columbus slave owners were sued and had to pay damages for helping another person's slave escape to freedom.

There are many court cases involving the ownership or the hiring out of slaves. These cases usually provide names, ages and sometimes other family information.

Political materials, especially from the volatile Reconstruction period, are full of information about people. Often broadsides, or single page printed notices, were circulated providing names and occupations of person either for or against certain candidates or issues. While their original intent was not good, they now give very useful information. One such circa 1870 document from Lowndes County tells how people voted in an election and gives their places of employment.

Early African-American records can often be found at older white churches. For example, the following African-Americans records are found in the Parish Register of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Columbus.


Dick a slave of John Dixon age 35 on 30 January 1864 burial at Negro Cemetery

Nanny a servant of b. S. Green age 64 on 28 September 1864 burial at Negro Cemetery

Mary Sturdivant (Colored) [no age given] October 1853 burial at City Cemetery


Jim Evans (Colored) to Ella Baskerville (Colored) 21 October at Methodist Chapel by Rev. William Mumford

John Greenfield (Colored) Margaret Newlan (Colored) 20 November 1867 at St Paul's by J T Pickett

Mrs. C C and Miss Annie Hopkins.

Ralph (Lee) slave of Mr C E Lee to Josephine (slave) of Thomas C(B). Bailey 27 September 1862 at residence of Mrs Caroline Lee by John Coleman

Phil (slave) to Virginia (slave) of Mrs Ross 15 May 1865 at residence of Mrs Ross by Bishop W M Green

Albert Vaughan (Colored) to Clarisa Halbert (Colored) 18 February 1866 at residence of Dr. Vaughan by Bishop W M Green

Lizzie [Young] (slave) to ________ 19 February 1859 at residence of Col. Young, Waverly by Rev. James D. Gibson.

When researching the history of area African-American families, there are a lot more resources available than most people realize. These primary sources can provide a gold mine of information.

Rufus Ward is a local historian. Email your questions about local history to him at

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