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Tracing my African American genealogy

An African American genealogist can reconstruct the past and understand their ancestors’ lives


Kenyatta D. Berry
November 25, 2018 12:30AM (UTC)
Excerpted with permission from "The Family Tree Toolkit: A Comprehensive Guide to Uncovering Your Ancestry and Researching Genealogy" by Kenyatta D. Berry. Copyright 2018 by Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

I believe we all have a desire to understand our heritage. Genealogy is a thriving area of study for enthusiasts and hobbyists. It’s actually the second most popular hobby in the United States after gardening. Since the introduction of the Internet, there has been a tremendous growth in the genealogy industry. Using a variety of websites such as Familysearch.org, Fold3.com, Newspapers.com, Myheritage.com, Findmypast.com, and Ancestry.com, genealogists are able to access federal census records, vital records, newspapers, and more. African American genealogy is especially challenging because many records of African Americans are listed by their first name without a surname or by the name of the enslaved individuals. However, with some work and dedication, an African American genealogist can reconstruct the past and understand their ancestors’ lives, even as enslaved individuals. Using court documents, tax lists, federal and state census records, as well as plantation documents and church records, African American genealogists can paint a picture of their genealogical past.

This quest has been attempted by many and has resulted in some useful teaching tools such as "Roots" by Alex Haley and "Slaves in the Family" by Edward Ball. By using a variety of techniques and after investing years of research, these authors, African American and white respectively, have been able to tell the stories of their ancestors. About eight years into researching my family, I was able to identify the last enslaver of my fourth great-grandfather, visit the location where my family was enslaved, and see and photograph a building where some of my family once lived and worked. I have since learned so much more about my ancestors and connected with cousins around the world.

The Discovery

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In 1996, while in law school in Lansing, Michigan, I wrote to the town historian in Le Roy, New York, requesting information on my great-grandmother, Esther Lewis Kendrick, and her grandmother, Emily Carter Sellers. The Le Roy historian at the time put me in touch with my first cousin three times removed, Marion Sellers Phillips. During a conversation with her, I learned that Emily Carter Sellers had migrated to Livingston County from Culpeper, Virginia.

After graduating from law school, I moved to Arlington, Virginia. I never lost interest in my family roots in Livingston and Genesee counties. During those three years of school, I began to weave a story of their lives as slaves in Madison and Culpeper counties. I discovered Culpeper by accident while traveling to a golf tournament in Gainesville, Virginia. When I saw a sign that read Culpeper 38 Miles, my heart jumped and my mind began to race. Was I really just thirty-eight miles away from my family’s ancestral home in Virginia? The next day I drove to Culpeper and walked the downtown streets, wondering if my ancestors had roamed them, too. After discovering Culpeper, I began to make biweekly trips there and to neighboring Madison County to research and photograph the area where my family had once lived and worked.

Walking in the Footsteps

While in Madison County, I discovered that Lewis Carter and Martha Payne—my fourth great-grandparents—were enslaved there and were the proud parents of seven children, all born there. At that time, I knew very little about the lives of Lewis and Martha while they were enslaved. Evidence suggests that he was an “agent” during Reconstruction and worked on the farm of J. W. Taylor. Fannie Belle Carter, the third child of Lewis and Martha, was also known as “Fair Belle.” She was twice married, once to a man thirty years her junior, and she outlived both of her husbands. Fannie had eight children by her first husband. When she married for the second time, her eldest son was older than his stepfather. When Lewis Carter died, Fannie sued Emily and their sister Mary Carter Price for their inheritance. At that time, Emily and Mary were both residing in upstate New York. The crux of the dispute was land located in Culpeper County that was purchased by Lewis and his son Marcelleus Carter. Unfortunately, I have not been able to learn the outcome of the chancery case. During one of my visits, the records were being restored by Culpeper County and were not available for public viewing.

Of all my ancestors, Fannie intrigues me the most because I know the least about her life in Culpeper County. I am confident that she has descendants in the Culpeper area, and I intend to find those descendants and to expand my family’s connection to that area. The descendants of Lewis and Martha in Virginia include the surnames Green, Murray, Perry, and Price in Culpeper County, and Mallory in Madison County.

According to the 1870 census, Lewis and Martha lived next door to a prestigious boys’ school, Locust Dale Academy. This school was founded in 1858 by Andrew James Gordon, a native of Vermont, and was adjacent to the property of Gordon’s father-in-law, Larkin Willis. Willis lived with his wife, Lelia, and children in a white home with green trim at the corner of Routes 634 and 15 in Madison County, Virginia. Upon obtaining a map of Madison County, I ventured to locate the Willis home.

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When I arrived at their home, I was stunned at the condition: it was abandoned but in perfect shape. I drove up to the house and stared in astonishment. As I explored the grounds, I looked out to the neighboring property and realized that I was walking in the footsteps of my ancestors. More than 130 years ago, they had stood where I was standing, and as I closed my eyes, I could almost hear their voices in the distance. As I drove away, I decided to head to Culpeper County to find Cedar Grove Baptist Church. During my research, I had discovered that one of my ancestors was a founding trustee of Cedar Grove.

I drove along a tree-lined road to Culpeper County, and with every twist and turn I took in the scenery. Railroad tracks lined the road, and as the sun crept down in the distance, I realized I was home. I had crossed the county line to Culpeper County, and within a few minutes, I arrived at Cedar Grove Baptist Church, which was established in 1883. In 1887, J. P. Sellers, Robert Murray, and Richard Taylor purchased the half-acre of land where the church now stands.

Emily Ann Carter, the daughter of Lewis and Martha, married J. P. on March 7, 1867, in Madison County, Virginia. James Garnett II, the well-known pastor of Crooked Run Baptist Church in Culpeper, Virginia, performed the ceremony. J. P., the son of Phillip Sellers and Delia Green, was born in 1847 in Albemarle County, Virginia. J. P. and Emily migrated from Culpeper County to Livingston County, New York, with their eight children between 1887 and 1890.

P. and Emily would establish the Sellers family in upstate New York, which today includes descendants in Erie, Genesee, Livingston, and Monroe counties. Upon arriving in Fowlerville, J. P. and his sons, James, William, and Phillip, began farming the land, while the women took care of the home. On September 22, 1893, on the Rose farm in Livingston County, Martha Marie Sellers, the eldest child of J. P. and Emily, married John Lewis. John Lewis came to New York around 1884, where he worked as a farm laborer. John and Martha had three daughters: Esther, Emily, and Martha Lewis. When Emily Sellers died on June 29, 1938, she was survived by two daughters, three sons, one sister, sixteen grandchildren, and twenty-one great-grandchildren.

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Upon arriving at Cedar Grove Baptist Church, I parked on the dirt road beside the church. The church was green and white with a chapel in the front and an addition in the back. A small cemetery was located to the right of the church, and upon cursory review of the cemetery, I was not able to locate any relatives. I took several photographs of the church. In my mind’s eye, I could see J. P. and his family walking up its steps.

Coming Home

Six years passed before I got in touch again with Marion Sellers Phillips. During the summer of 2003, I began planning my vacation to my ancestral home of Livingston County, New York. I decided to visit in October when the leaves were turning—it would be a beautiful time in upstate New York. Two weeks prior to my trip, I contacted town clerks, historians, relatives, church members, and whomever I could find to let them know that I was coming.

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I arrived to warm and welcoming receptions from those I met in the tri-county area (Monroe, Livingston, and Genesee counties). With the aid of town clerks in Livingston County, I discovered additional information about the Bundy family and their connection to J. P. and Emily Sellers. On August 17, 1892, Delilah Sellers, the second child of J. P. and Emily, married Charles Pope Bundy. Charles was born in 1863 in Middlesex County, Virginia, the son of free blacks Samuel and Mary Bundy. In 1881, Charles came to New York to join his brother, Thomas H. Bundy, in the trade of barbering. There is confusion about Thomas’s service during the Civil War, since he was born a free man of color. Some accounts affiliate him with the 47th Virginia Infantry of the Confederate Army as a cook. According to "A Complete Military History and Record of the 108th Regiment N. Y. Vols, from 1862–1894" by George H. Washburn (1894), Thomas was captured by the 108th New York Infantry and was then made a prisoner of war. Charles learned barbering from his brother, Thomas. Upon his brother’s death in 1885, he opened his own barbershop. He managed it until his death on the day after Christmas in 1896, after enduring interstitial hepatitis for many years. His funeral was held at the United Presbyterian Church in Caledonia, where he is interred in the cemetery there. When Charles died, he was survived by his wife and their two young children, three-year-old James Samuel Bundy and nine-month-old Benjamin Franklin Bundy.

Delilah and her children moved in with her sister and brother in-law, Martha and John Lewis. Martha died unexpectedly on March 23, 1899, leaving John to raise their small children. On November 21, 1901, John married his deceased wife’s sister, Delilah. John died on September 22, 1929, leaving behind his wife, Delilah, three daughters, one stepson, and six grandchildren. Delilah died on December 18, 1972, at the age of 102. At the time of her death, Delilah was survived by three stepdaughters, twelve grandchildren, and thirty-two great-grandchildren. Delilah died when I was just six months old: how wonderful it would have been to have known her. I continue to learn more and more about her every day.

My ancestral journey is remarkable and overwhelming at the same time. I have uncovered a tremendous amount of history about African Americans in Livingston County from descendants who still reside in Caledonia and the surrounding areas. Most of the African Americans who reside in Livingston and Genesee counties have ancestors from Culpeper County, Virginia. Like J.P. and Emily Sellers, their ancestors migrated north, leaving behind family and friends. It is my duty and calling to continue this journey. My goal is to establish a connection between those left behind in Culpeper County and those who left to build new lives in upstate New York. I will continue to walk in the footsteps of my ancestors as I search and discover my ancestral heritage.

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The story of my ancestral journey from Culpeper to New York illustrates some of the techniques I used to find my family history. I share some of the beliefs I had about African American research and methodology when I was just starting out in genealogy. We all come on this journey with preconceived notions and myths about family history research. Since that time, I have learned how to prove or disprove a family story or an assumption.

I want to share my own story to let you know you are not alone! So, whatever narrative you have created for your ancestor will probably be completely different by the time you finish my book, "The Family Tree Toolkit."

Starting Your Family History

Welcome to the first step of discovering your family history! Together we will embark on a journey to learn more about you and your ancestors. You may have a burning question about your identity, a family story you want to prove or disprove, or just an innate curiosity about family history. As one of the hosts of "Genealogy Roadshow," I hear from guests on the show who have unanswered questions about their family history or a family story they want to confirm. In each episode, we attempt to answer those questions with documents leading to sometimes surprising and satisfying results. Gathering your family history is like putting pieces of a puzzle together—except you have no idea what the picture will look like at the end!

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Some relatives will evade you at all costs and at every turn. They seem to have disappeared or just fallen out of the sky. Those are the most challenging relatives and we all have them! To combat those elusive ancestors, we have, what I refer to as, “our family history angels.” Family history angels lead you down the right path and become your guiding light on this journey. They are a gift that keeps on giving by helping you discover more ancestors. Discovering your family history can be a life-changing event that alters your sense of identity and purpose. Everyone has a story, and those stories are waiting to be discovered.

Planting the Seeds of Your Family History

How do you begin? Start with yourself and work backward by creating a biographical sketch about your life and your family. A host of tools are available that can help you on your journey as you begin to document your family history. You can use Evernote, Google Docs, Pages, One Note, or any application that allows you to quickly enter and organize notes. Below is a list of questions to help get you started on your biographical sketch. You may not have answers to all of these questions, and that’s okay.

  • What are your parents’ names? (This applies to stepparents and adoptive parents.)
  • When and where were your parents born?
  • When did your parents meet and where?
  • Is your mother still alive? If not, when and where did she die? Where is your mother buried? Do you know her maiden name and her parents’ names?
  • Is your father still alive? If not, when and where did he die? Where is your father buried? Do you know his parents’ names?
  • What do you remember most about your childhood?
  • Do you have siblings? If so, what do you remember about your childhood with your siblings?
  • Do you have any funny stories about growing up?
  • What was your favorite toy?
  • Is there a particular sight or smell that reminds you of your childhood?
  • Did you have a favorite nursery rhyme or song?
  • What do you remember about your family home?
  • What do you remember about your hometown? Is there anything that made it famous or infamous?
  • What were your favorite and least favorite subjects in school?
  • Did you have anything happen in your childhood that changed your perspective?
  • What did you want to be when you grew up?
  • If you went to college, where did you go and why?
  • How did you choose your major in college?
  • Did you change your major in college? If so, how many times?
  • If you started a family out of high school, how did that change you?
  • Did you go straight to work after high school? If so, where did you work?
  • What was your first job?
  • What was your favorite job and why?
  • Did you serve in the military? If so, what branch of the military?
  • Do you have a spouse or partner? If so, how did you meet and where did you meet?
  • If you are married, when and where did you get married?
  • What was your favorite moment from the ceremony?
  • How long have you been with your spouse or partner?
  • Do you have children? If so, how many children? When and where were they born?
  • What are some of your favorite memories with your children?

Answering these questions will help get your creative juices flowing and give you an idea of the information you can collect on your spouse, parents, and grandparents. The point of this exercise is to help you craft a story. Family history is more than a collection of names, dates, and locations—it’s about providing historical context to document and share your ancestors’ lives.

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Kenyatta D. Berry

Kenyatta D. Berry began her genealogical journey whilst in law school studying at the State Library of Michigan in Lansing. A frequent lecturer, writer and television personality, Berry focuses on African American Genealogy, Slave Ancestral Research, and DNA. She has been featured in numerous publications, most notably, Black Enterprise and Wall Street Journal.

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