Archives Reveal Family History

Archives Reveal Family History
Paternal Geat-grand Parents, Mittie and Jacob Smith

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Archives Reveal Family History

Before the wave of genealogical reality shows appeared on television, predating and DNA swabs that connect folks to common ancestors, I had begun to do serious research into my ancestral roots. It's ongoing and here is an article that I wrote and published in the New York Gannett newspaper chain in 1984. After reading the book "The Warmth of Other Suns" about the Great Migration of blacks from the South, I have decided to post my original article here:

Gannett Westchester Newspapers Sunday, March 18, 1984 Section B, Page 8

Daily, the National Archives, headquartered in Washington, becomes a beehive of activity. It is a place where tourists gaze into microfilm machines examining census records hoping to connect the branches of their family trees.

An occasional researcher manages to experience the jubilation Alex Haley, author of “Roots,” must have derived in his first association of two clue words, “kamby balongo” (river) and “malonga” (drums”), words passed down to him through stories as told by his African ancestors.

Family histories are often handed down orally and not recorded, so it is rare when the casual tourist does connect the links in his or her family tree. Facts such as county of residence, age, and origin of birth often become distorted so that by the time th serious researcher has assembled useful clues, the processes of gleaning fact from fiction becomes the researcher’s nightmare.

Changes in zoning laws and the names of cities and towns over the years can literally, on paper, displace entire families into different governmental suburbs, towns, villages or counties. Because of dislocations resulting from natural catastrophe, nonuniform census laws and lost census data, only one in 100,000 Americans is able to trace his family origins. The National Archives, located several blocks east of the White House, is a prime source for finding valued volumes of family census and manuscripts.

In 1977 I had written a column for the now-defunct Philadelphia Evening Bulletin that criticized London Times reporter Mark Ottaway’s assertion that Haley’s work was based upon bogus research. Curiosity over my own heritage later would lead me to embark upon a genealogical journey armed with two clues; the name of my great-grandfather, Anderson Day, and the county of Barbour in Alabama. I began.

First, I registered along with the other anxious tourists. I was then given a card that entitles one to conduct research. I came across the Alabama volume and proceeded to seek references to the surname Day.

Hundreds of Days surfaced; all were Caucasian and no blacks were shown. After a conversation with an archives floor supervisor I learned that only free blacks were counted in the Alabama census before 1880, and only those owning property in many cases were even included in 1880 and afterwards until the census laws were reformed.

Now as I reeled through the microfilm, traveling through each of the Alabama counties of 1880, I recalled our family’s brief trips to Phenix City, Alabama, my father’s hometown about which a movie was made entitled “The Phenix City Story.” The film depicted the violence, corruption, and racism in the deep South of the mid 1950’s. There were memories of learning to ride bareback and being baffled by stern parental instruction in proper southern etiquette when found among southern white folk.

The customary, “yes, sir” and “yes, ma’am” apparently were valuable lessons when traveling south for northern black children in the 1950’s. The nostalgia had begun to fade when suddenly the name Anderson Day appeared! Several long distance telephone calls confirmed my finding. But shown among the household reported in the census records was even another black male: Simon Peter Day, 75, relationship to the head of household: father, birthplace: Virginia. Apparently, I had stumbled across an heretofore undisclosed family fact. Patriarch Simon Peter Day had lived with his wife, Julia, 60, and son, Anderson Day, in an extended nuclear family so common in 1880.

By cross referencing census tracts, historical data gathers new information, new births, deaths, marriages, and changes in economic status such as from sharecropper to property holder.

Next, I would spread my search into Virginia, Simon Peter’s birthplace, in search of any references documenting his origins there. By day’s end, I had gone through the Virginia census of 1810 for Fairfax County when I found head of family Simon Peter Day, status: free Negro, servants: two slaves owned.

National Archives supervisors attested to the rarity of my discovery. Only a few free Negroes were even registered in Virginia during this census period. Fairfax County, VA is separated from the District of Columbia by the Potomac. A 1792 law requiring free blacks to register was largely ignored for 20 years, so a number of blacks freed or born free of the estates of George Washington and George Mason, whose Declaration of Rights in the Virginia constitution was an inspiration for the Declaration of Independence, were irregularly recorded.

I found the best theory and clues to my ancestors’ movements in the Fairfax Chronicles, a Virginia history newsletter. By 1782, the number of blacks in Fairfax County was more than 3,600, 41 percent of the population. One hundred eighty-eight of these were owned by Washington and 125 by Mason, whose wealth allowed him leisure time to write his declaration.

The 1782 Virginia emancipation law allowed free blacks to remain in Virginia. Then the 1782 law was amended in 1806. Simon Peter was in his teens. The amended law provided that all newly freed blacks once again were legally required to leave Virginia or risk being sold into slavery.

The incentive to remain free seemed the only reasonable one as I reflected on that memorable day in the archives. Simon Peter Day desired freedom for himself and his family.

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