For African Americans, researching family history can take them to unexpected places
A “Historically Black” podcast features two extraordinary family artifacts: a slave’s bill of sale and a long-lost recording of a musician’s work
Sometimes stories take you to unexpected places.
For each item submitted to “Historically Black,” our podcast exploring personal stories of black history, we and co-producer APM Reports dug into the tale behind the item — the grandmother who led the way for black women in the sciences, the father whose participation in the Million Man March changed his path (the two stories we discussed in yesterday’s post). But there were two submissions that led us down surprising paths.
James McKissic’s mother, Margenia Woods McKissic, had recently received from distant cousins a black-and-white copy of his great-great grandfather’s bill of sale. She photocopied it for him and McKissic framed the copy for his living room — a poignant reminder of his ancestry.
The family knew some of the story. Wilson Wood was born in Virginia, the son of his white owner, and moved to Tennessee, where he was sold. After the Civil War, he bought land in Meigs County, Tenn., much of which is still in the family today.
“I often wonder what life was like for Wilson Wood, how it felt to be a slave without agency, or basic human rights. I wonder if he knew that emancipation was just a few years in the future,” said McKissic.
The bill McKissic has is dated Sept. 26, 1862 — just months before the Emancipation Proclamation and about two years before slaves in Tennessee were declared free.
Much of Wood’s life is lost to history and lack of records. But as we looked into the story, we uncovered one thing that was miraculously not lost to time.
In Tennessee, Janie Myers, a Meigs County county clerk who we’d reached out to for our research, searched through the county courthouse archives until she found it — an entry in a book that listed land and livestock records. She had landed on the original copy of Wilson Wood’s bill of sale.
“I’ve been here for 22 years and I didn’t realize what was in the books. And to see that … it was a shock,” Myers said.
“I’m really in my office in tears,” McKissic said when he heard the original had been found.
The episode of “Historically Black” goes with McKissic and his mother as they travel an hour to the Meigs County courthouse to see the document in person for the very first time.
“Can I touch it?” McKissic asked when he saw the entry in the book. And he and his mother each placed a hand on the document, a newfound connection to their ancestor.
LISTEN TO THE EPISODE: TRACKING DOWN A SLAVE’S BILL OF SALE
Follow the journey for the original copy of a family’s treasured heirloom: their great-great-grandfather’s bill of sale.
While James McKissic and his mother were searching for the tangible document of their family history, Raffeal Sears was just searching for any family history.
After his mother passed away, Sears, a singer and performing arts graduate student, began searching for information. He dug through ancestry.com and discovered a name: Bill Driver.
It was an online fiddling forum that helped him learn more about his great-great grandfather’s unique history. Bill Driver was a fiddling sensation in central Missouri from the 1920s to the 1940s, so talented and well-known that he is still treasured today by fiddling historians and enthusiasts. One forum member even mailed Sears a CD of Driver songs, so he could listen to more of his ancestor’s talent.
“The first time I remember sitting in my room, and I pressed play and I felt like I was hearing and seeing a ghost,” Sears said. “After listening to that … I was destined to be a performer. This kind of talent is in my blood.”
Sears submitted an mp3 of one of these songs to “Historically Black,” and we were set to have a story about foot-tapping music in 1920s Missouri.
But putting the episode together revealed another important piece of Driver’s story and Sears’s past.
Driver was welcomed to parties in both white and black neighborhoods. He and his family mixed freely with white community members, even at a time when Missouri had harsh segregation laws. But his family still faced discrimination and racism.
When Driver and his fiancee Violet Mae Williams wanted to get married, they ran into a legal problem. Williams was half-black and half-white, and looked white. Interracial marriage was illegal. The two had to get a justice of the peace to affirm that both were black, and therefore okay to marry each other.
The cabin where Violet was born is still around today— preserved by white descendants of the Williams family, which had owned her mother Esther, and eventually donated to a historical society— and reveals more of Violet’s story. The daughter of a black woman and her former owner’s son, Violet’s light skin, an obvious sign of who her father was, got her family thrown off the Williams’s land.
The episode travels with another of Bill Driver’s descendants, Annette, to see the cabin and explore this piece of their history.
Many families can’t make these kinds of discoveries about their past — documents and artifacts simply haven’t been preserved or weren’t kept in the first place. The same registry book that held Wilson Wood’s bill of sale held a record for “a negro girl, Rebecca” and another for “two children.” Cabins like Ether Williams’s were torn down.
Says Annette Driver of Bill and Violet, “We’re very lucky that there is something here to document their existence and their mark on society … That tells me a little something about what’s in me.”
LISTEN TO THE EPISODE: THE FIDDLER WHO CHARMED MISSOURI
Learn more about how Raffeal Sears uncovered his family’s musical history, and follow the Driver descendants to the cabin in the story.
- Episode 1: How WWII opened doors for one of the first black women at NASA
- Episode 2: The Million Man March changed history — and it transformed this father’s life
- Episode 3: A hunt for his slave ancestor’s original bill of sale unearthed a surprising history
- Episode 4: He went searching for his roots and found the most popular black fiddler in 1920s Missouri
- Episode 5: In photos of ordinary life, James Van Der Zee captured Harlem Renaissance glamour
- Episode 6: What does it mean to be “black enough?” Three women explore their racial identities.
- Episode 7: Her great-great-grandfather was born a slave. Almost 200 years later, she visited the HBCU he built.
- Episode 8: Why it matters if pop culture tells black love stories