Mending broken families after slavery
“Information is wanted of my two boys, James and Horace, one of whom was sold in Nashville and the other was sold in Rutherford County. I, myself, was sold in Nashville and sent to Alabama by Wm. Boyd, and my children belonged to David Moss… Any information sent to Colored Tennessean office, Box 1150 will be thankfully received.”
Carolina history professor Heather Andrea Williams’s new book, “Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery,” tells the poignant story of separation and the mostly passionate but mostly unsuccessful efforts of separated family members to find each other.
“Babies was snatched from their mothers” a former slave says in sadness . Williams’s descriptions of scenes of mother and children being separated and sold to different owners are heartrending persuasion that the worst part of the horrible American system of slavery was not the backbreaking work. It was the destruction of personhood that accompanied the ever-present possibility of break up for every enslaved family group.breasts and sold to speculators.
Thomas Jones recalled being taken away after being sold to a new owner in distant Wilmington when he was still a little boy. “I was very much afraid and began to cry, holding on to my mother’s clothes, and begging her to protect me, and not let the man take me away… Mother wept bitterly and in the midst of her loud sobbings, cried out in broken words, ‘I can’t save you, Tommy; master has sold you, you must go.’
Williams chronicles efforts of slaves and former slaves, before and after the Civil War, to contact family members. After the war, newspapers were filled with ads like the following published in the “Colored Tennessean” on March 24, 1866:
“Information wanted of our five children, whom we have not seen for four years. Their names are as follows, viz: Josephine, aged 20 years, Celia, aged….They were in Charlotte, N.C., or at Rock Hill when we last heard from them. Any information concerning these children will be thankfully received by their mother.”
Most of these reconnection efforts were unsuccessful, and not all the successful reunification efforts worked out happily.
Williams’s powerful descriptions of the pain of separation and the determined efforts to reunite require us to reflect with humility on this unfortunate chapter in our history. Her talented storytelling makes these painful lessons easier to digest, but no less important.
You can see and hear Williams talk about slave family breakup and attempted reunion when she is my guest on North Carolina Bookwatch this weekend and on Tuesday November 13 at 5PM at UNC’s Wilson Library.