I have been fascinated by African American genealogy since I watched the first African American Lives in 2006, both for the often-insurmountable research challenges, as well as the immense personal obstacles faced by those ancestors. This Sunday’s episode of Finding Your Roots, which focused on the “free negro” ancestors of three African-Americans, bypassed the usual research challenges, but came up against the stunning choices they had to make to maintain their imperiled status.
Those ancestors, in Henry Louis Gates’ words, “defy our most basic assumptions about life in the United States during the slave era”: John Legend‘s ancestor, Peyton Polly, who was freed in 1847 when his master died; Wanda Sykes‘ eighth great-grandmother, Mary Banks, who was born free in 1683 (!); and Margaret Cooper’s ancestor, Susannah Speed, who was freed in 1782. At that time free people of color had to carry papers to prove their status, which remained always at risk:
- After Peyton Polly, his brother, and his son were freed in Kentucky, his brother purchased Peyton’s seven other sons and daughters. Evidently this tactic was common! The reunited family moved to Ohio, a free state, for safety. But three years later armed white men from Kentucky kidnapped back the children, ages 4-17. Peyton could not risk going after the men himself. He put his trust in the white legal system, and eventually the intervention of many Ohio politicians managed to free four of the children. Virginia refused to free the others, who remained enslaved for over a decade until all slaves were freed.
- Mary Banks was born free because her mother, Elizabeth, an indentured servant, was white. Her father was an African slave. (In these early years of slavery, the line between the races was quite flexible.) Shortly after the Revolutionary War, Mary Banks’ descendants were recorded as owning slaves! In this case there’s no evidence if they were protecting family.
- In the waning years of the Revolution, Susannah Speed sued her master for freedom. The law permitted this!!! And a month later, her freedom was granted!!! Like Polly, she had to take extreme steps to protect her family. In her case she consigned her children to indentured servitude! This strategy was also not uncommon.
Living in a sick system, Polly and Speed had to take appalling steps to protect themselves and their families. Their lives and Banks’ shed light on this “little known but crucial chapter” of the history of slavery in the US. As a whole, this episode of Finding Your Roots shows that it’s impossible to trace and comprehend your family tree without learning something substantial and even surprising about history. (Ask me about the Oleomargarine Act of 1886!)
For each of the three guests, these lines of free negros were just one set of ancestors in their trees. The rest fell within the typical experience of the 90% of African Americans who were not freed until the Thirteenth Amendment. But how much nuance was added to our understanding of US history just by recalling their lives!