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Review: Williams, _Help Me to Find My People_

Heather Andrea Williams, Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2012. Pp. xii, 251).

Help Me to Find My People is a befitting capstone to the edifice of knowledge about the interstate slave trade erected by scholars over the cornerstone work of Frederic Bancroft in 1931. [Note 1] Although Heather Andrea Williams does not position her book as a study of the state trade, Help Me to Find My People, by focusing on family separation, is the first scholarly study of the immediate emotional impact of separation by slave trading, and the long-term impact of scarred emotional memory and longing for reunification resulting from the practice.

Williams states, “Help Me Find My People is an effort to explore the thoughts and feelings of enslaved people as they tried to make sense of their status as slaves and as they reckoned with their feelings of love, powerlessness, and loss” when their masters split families by sale (p. 3). Williams examines how “slave-owners, slave traders, abolitionists and visitors to the South” exhibited a wide range of “sympathy, indifference, hostility, empathy, and the seemingly purposeful blocking of empathy” toward the people enslaved by their peculiar institution (p. 3). Williams ends with her thoughts on the motivations and contributions of African-American genealogy today.

A study of forcible family separation in Old South slavery could easily degenerate into a mere catalog of horrors, but Help Me to Find My People transcends that approach. Williams has a deeper purpose. She explores different individual emotional responses to separation, how people intellectually engaged with their emotions, the coping mechanisms enslaved people employed to deal with loss, and the coping mechanisms whites employed to suppress or mitigate their own guilty complicity in those separations. In six chapters Williams explores the emotional toll of children separated from parents, wives and husbands, whites’ attitudes toward separation, strategies used by the enslaved during slavery to locate relatives, the search for family after emancipation, and reunification.

Chapter 1, “Fine Black Boy for Sale” delves into the minds of children sold away from their parents, and the minds of those parents, based on the words of former slaves. The chapter addresses surrogate care-givers and religious faith as sources of solace. One example from the chapter will suggest the rich insights that Williams offers. Laura Clark remembered being loaded into a wagon with nine other children in North Carolina, bound for Alabama. With the children in the wagon was an old woman, Julie Powell, purchased to care for the youngsters. Laura Clark was enjoying the candy the slave trader had given her, and did not understand why her mother collapsed on the ground in tears after exhorting Julie Powell to “Take care of my baby chile . . . and iffen I never sees her no more raise her for God” (p. 40). For good reason, slaves and masters likened separation by sale to death. Laura Clark’s mother died before the end of the Civil War so Laura never saw her again. As for the surrogate care-giver, overseers in Alabama eventually beat old Julie Powell to death.

Chapter 2, “Let No Man Put Asunder” describes the strength of emotional bonds between enslaved husband and wife in the absence of legal recognition for slave marriages. Williams explores the emotional advantages and disadvantages of marriages in slavery, and explores the tension between masters and slaves over the implicit moral standing of marriage. Masters exercised control when they required slaves to ask permission to marry, but in the case of “abroad marriages” where the man and woman belonged to different masters they lost some control when they wrote passes for the husband to leave the farm or plantation to visit the wife. In astonishingly cynical advice to his sisters, future governor of Georgia and justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, Charles J. McDonald, described how he lowered expectations of couples he owned: “I have a negro preacher who marries them for the union to last as long as they live or until it is the pleasure of their owners to separate them” (p. 65). In a reprise of the concept that separation was akin to death, some southern evangelical churches allowed slaves to remarry if spouses became separated and unlikely to ever be re-united. Masters and mistresses troubled by breaking slaves’ marriages consoled themselves with the fantasy that blacks as a race felt emotions more intensely for shorter time, and thus could get over separation much more easily, than white people. The consequences of multiple marriages in bondage complicated many freedpeople’s lives after Emancipation as they reconstructed nuclear families.

Chapter 3: “They May See Their Children Again,” explores how white people with consciences coped with their own emotional conflicts over the pain and suffering they caused separating enslaved families. For some, there were cowardly ruses to avoid personally witnessing the suffering—like having someone else take the slaves and sell them out of sight and hearing, or like moving slaves to a neighboring farm pretending that the separation was a short-term relocation, and then having the slave trader pick the people up before family members left behind knew what was happening. Other masters wanted to believe as Thomas Jefferson claimed, that “Their griefs are transient . . . and sooner forgotten” (p. 90). White people were quick to interpret slaves’ coping mechanisms; for example, singing or dancing—sometimes forced—to temporarily distract from the inescapable pain and despair, as proof that black people were innately happy and soon forgot their troubles.

Chapter 4, “Blue Glass Beads Tied in a Rag of Cotton Cloth,” tells how slaves tried to keep track of separated family members while still in slavery. Williams found several letters written by slaves, part of archival collections of slave-owning families’ papers. These heart-wrenching letters appealed to the humane emotions of former owners to hear the distress of their former servants and take actions to help the enslaved reconnect or reunite with family members. Other slaves relied on the grapevine telegraph—that word-of-mouth network of slaves and free persons of color whose work gave them some mobility—to carry and pass messages. And some family members who had escaped slavery used advertisements in anti-slavery newspapers to solicit information of the whereabouts of family members still in bondage. Williams convinces us that “losses were profound, the memories persistent, and the search frustrating” (p. 138).

Chapter 5, “Information Wanted,” delves into the logistics of family restoration after the end of slavery in 1865, assisted by organizations like the Freedmen’s Bureau. Freedpeople used the mass communications medium—newspapers—through which freedpeople sought their families. Williams introduces readers to one of her most significant sources, never before tapped in a systematic way by historians. These “information wanted” ads pack much information into few words. Atypical ad includes who the writer seeks by name and relationships and ages if known, followed by a chronology of former places of residence, former owners, possible name changes, and finally the name of the ad’s writer and address where she or he may be contacted. If published in a church newspaper, there is often an appeal for all pastors to read the ad from their pulpits. Reaching back into decades of memories, freedpeople sought to re-unite with people they might not even recognize; children last seen as youngsters who would be full-grown adults, mothers and fathers about whom a child might remember little more than their love and their nurturing touch, brothers and sisters now old men and women and scattered who-knew-where.

The last half of the chapter reprints a small sample, thirty-five of the 1200 or so “information wanted” ads found by Williams, that freedpeople had placed in newspapers. These brief ads are gold-mines of biographical information. [Hopefully Williams will consider publishing all 1200 ads in searchable form online (perhaps as a supplement by her publisher, UNC Press, to promote use of her book, or as an e-Research project sponsored by UNC libraries).]

Chapter 6, “Happiness Too Deep for Utterance,” deals with the joys and challenges of reunification, which could be “powerful, overwhelming, and even baffling” (p. 183). Even when face to face, recognition was not always easy. Robert Glenn went to seek his mother in Roxboro, North Carolina. When they met, she cautiously but hopefully asked, “Tell me ain’t you my child whom I left on the road near Moore’s before the war?” (p. 179). When each confirmed the identity of the other, their joy was inexpressible. Reunion evoked mixed emotions as two brothers discovered on meeting again after the war: “As we related our varied experiences the hardships, the wrongs, and sorrows which we endured and at last the coming of brighter days, we were sad, then happy” (p. 182). For many known cases of reunification, the documents do not record the feelings and emotions of the participants. As Williams, writes, “It must have been difficult, once the immediate moments of joy passed, for people to put their lives back together with loved ones. So much had changed for those who had long been separated; they had to adjust to the new people they had found.” (p. 188)

“Epilogue, Help Me to Find My People: Genealogies of Separation,” describes how separations permanently imprinted on people’s minds the places, circumstances, names, events, and relationships associated with separation, and became, in effect, the genealogical stories that slaves told during their bondage and that freedpeople remembered after emancipation. For some, separation from loved ones also fractured their sanity. Williams uses William Wells Brown’s devastating story of a mother in his neighborhood, driven insane by the sale of her son; normally closely confined, she once escaped and ran to Wells’ house with tears streaming down her face, crying out, “Don’t you hear him—they are whipping him now, and he is calling for me!” (p. 190).

Williams’ perception of the motivations and work of African-American genealogists is worth reading (pages 194-200); I think that most family researchers would agree that “[g]enealogy is personal, it is individual, and it is private; but it also contributes to a larger work of naming people, of recognizing their existence, and of saying that their existence is worthy of remembrance” (p. 197).

Williams’ archival sources include traditional literary sources: newspapers, Freedmen’s Bureau records, private papers and slaves’ letters, and ex-slave narratives. She enhances her narrative with judicious use of nineteenth-century music and fiction. Although Williams states that she wants “to think more about these people, and to know more about them” (p. 2), the academic Williams finds parts of people’s stories in the archival narratives, but seldom summons supplemental information from sources elsewhere to illuminate the lives of the people she finds. She recognizes that “evidence often comes together in small bits, so I put the pieces together to examine lives and experiences” (p. 4)—but the piecing does not involve finding more facts about particular people, but rather arranging the pieces into “themes” (p. 14). This is the usual method of academic social historians, and is surely a function of their training, rather than disinterest in knowing more about their human subjects. They often seem unaware or unable to use sources that are the bread and butter of research by public historians and genealogists. For example, although Williams writes, “I call on census data,” the censuses apparently do not answer her. I found only one endnote citing any U.S. Census (p. 223, n. 22, cited unhelpfully as “Ninth U.S. Census, 1870”) and one mention of an unsuccessful census search (p. 159). Overlooking such ancillary sources and the evidentiary details they can provide is perhaps the weakest link in the book.

Because Williams does not seek supplemental information to answer her questions, she speculates needlessly about details of her subjects’ biographies. For example, in the first newspaper ad of the book, freedman Thornton Copeland sought information about his mother, Betty, who he had not seen since being sold away from her in Virginia in 1844. Williams speculates whether at separation “he could have been a child, an adolescent, or a young man” (p.2). A brief search on or reveals Thornton Copeland in the 1870 U.S. census, living in the same neighborhood as his old master’s widow, and aged (according to the census informant) 45, making him about age 19 when he was sold—therefore, a young man. [Note 2]

An example late in the book, in the chapter “Reunification of Families”, is an 1869 ad placed by John Walker, a laborer living in Sacramento California. Walker sought the whereabouts of his wife Peggie and their three sons William, Samuel, and Miles, formerly owned by Dr. E. M. Patterson near Nashville Tennessee, from whom Walker had been separated in 1850. Walker also asked about his last wife Cornelia, who had belonged to “Lee Shoot” a Nashville slave trader. Williams states, “It was not likely that he would find either woman, but the ad prompts the question of what would happen if he were to find both” (pp. 184-185). Thus Williams ends her discussion of John Walker and his wives on a note of hopelessness and with her prompted question unanswered.

In fact, Williams could have found what happened to John Walker and his wives, and fairly quickly. The 1870 census enumerator in Davidson County, TN, found John Walker (age 62) and Peggie Walker (age 55) living together in the household of their youngest son, Miles Patterson (age 27), three doors down the road from Dr. Patterson’s widow. Within sixteen months of the time he had advertised his cry for help, John Walker had reunited with his family! As for having to choose between wives Peggie and Cornelia, Walker seems to have been saved from that awkward fate four years earlier. Marriage records of neighboring Sumner County, the same place where ex-slave master Lee Shute lived, attest that Cornelia Shute (“colored”) married John Cantrell on 30 June 1866 (of course, the identity of Cornelia Shute is not certain from this record alone, but is highly probable). This and other validating information was not hard to obtain within a few minutes of logging on to [Note 3]

I highly recommend Help Me to Find My People for shining a spotlight on a seldom-considered source, the “Information Wanted” advertisements, and for Williams’ masterful focus on the emotional toll of U. S. slavery on those held in its thrall. Help Me to Find My People extends the scope of our knowledge by exploring how blacks and whites coped emotionally with the damage inflicted by the trade. Williams focuses on the range of individual reactions to loss of family members under circumstances that even contemporary whites likened to death. Today’s family researchers can empathize with the strategies that nineteenth-century searchers used to find their lost families, and the documentary trails that those searches left in the record can be invaluable clues in our own ongoing search to reconnect family histories.


Personal appreciation: After reading Heather Andrea Williams’ Help Me to Find My People, I found two “Information Wanted” ads in the Christian Recorder related to my area of research, and both ads supplemented by other sources led to startling and useful discoveries about the interstate slave trade and the origins of two local people who lived in Upson County, Georgia.

[Note 1] Frederic Bancroft, Slave Trading in the Old South (1931) established in 400 pages of relentless and devastating examples that the “peculiar institution” was not based on benign paternalism, but on cold, cruel marketing of human beings across the entire Old South by thousands of white people, publicly and without shame. Six decades later Michael Tadman, Speculators and Slaves (1989), picked up Bancroft’s baton, amassed more evidence that profit, not paternalism, motivated slave owners, quantified the horrific magnitude of the interstate trade and its impact in breaking families, and showed that slave traders were not the social outcasts that slavery’s apologist had portrayed, but rather were often pillars of their communities. Edmund L. Drago opened a shocking and frank window into the daily activities of professional interstate traders when he published A. J. McElveen’s letters to Z. B. Oakes in Broke by the War Walter, Letters of a Slave Trader (1991). Walter Johnson’s Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (1999) exposed the elaborate posturing, deception, and negotiation that composed every sale; the fantasies played out by white buyers and sellers who jousted in the marketplace for honor and manhood by displaying their supposed ability to read the value of black bodies; and how the enslaved acted specific parts to flatter whites’ self-image, and thereby manipulate, however they could, the outcome of their sales. Robert Gudmestad’s A Troublesome Commerce (2003) explored the discomfort to pro-slavery white apologists caused by the most visible and cruel aspects of the trade, how they tried to mask the worst images from public view, how they invented the myth of the debased and despised slave trader as a scapegoat, and how the enslaved put the lie to pro-slavery arguments about the benignity of slavery by forcing public gaze to witness their humanity in outpourings of grief, in running away, and even in suicide. Steven Deyle, in Carry Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade in American Life (2005), argued that the slave trade was more troublesome to the consciences of many southern whites than previous scholars had admitted, even while he agreed that the trade was inherent and essential to the national economy at the time. Deyle’s last chapter describes resistance by the victims of the trade, the slaves, to their commodification. These and other scholars had always felt the plight of the enslaved, but had largely focused on demographics and the magnitude and mechanics of slave selling and buying. Help Me to Find My People is the first book to place human emotional impact of slave trading at the center of its entire narrative.

[Note 2] 1870 US Census, Schedule 1 (Inhabitants), Tennessee, Williamson County, 17 District, page 24, Dwelling 165 (Thornton Copeland, 45, M, M, Far[mer], $800 real estate, $100 personal estate, born in VA, cannot read or write. The indication that Mr. Copeland could neither read nor write causes us to ponder who helped freedpeople craft their ads.

[Note 3] 1870 US Census, Schedule 1 (Inhabitants), Tennessee, Davidson County, 8th District (Nashville P.O.), p. 302, Dwelling 52 Elizabeth Patterson [widow of Dr. Everitt Patterson], F, W, 62; Dwelling 55 Miles Patterson, M, M, 27, works on Farm, and in his household John Walker, M, M, 62, and Peggie Walker, F, M, 55, both "at home" which we can take to mean they were retired from the labor force. Researchers familiar with the 1870 census know that it does not explicitly state relationships within each household, but taking all known information holistically we can often reliably impute relationships. The 1850 US Census, Schedule 2 (Slave Inhabitants), Tennessee, Davidson County, 9 Civil District, [pages not numbered], slaveholding of E. M. Patterson gives a useful snap-shot of Patterson's nine slaves in the year he sold John Walker. Among the enslaved were three boys, ages 12, 8, and 7, and two enslaved women, ages 33 and 32, one of whom was most likely the three boys' mother, Peggie. The only man in the slaveholding, age 47, may be Walker enumerated with a large age disparity, or Walker may already have been sold. The 1870 census listing Miles Patterson as age 27 makes him a perfect match to the youngest boy in the 1850 census list (as we would expect from the order in which Walker listed his sons in the ad). Walker's "last wife" Cornelia may be person in Marriage Record, Sumner County, TN [unnumbered pages], John Cantrell m. Cornelia Shute, 30 June 1866.

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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