Excerpt from an interview with Clark Burdine, a genealogist who specializes in African
American family history. June Cross used him to try to find her
father's ancestors in Virginia and North Carolina.
June Cross: What helps you when you're looking for African-American
Clark Burdine: Well, oddly enough, the very things that made it rough
for an African-American who lived in this country makes it easier for his
descendent to do research on him. Everywhere he went he had to register if it
was pre-Civil War times he had to register as a free man in all the border
states and all the southern states as a free Negro or mulatto. Usually it
gives a very detailed description of him or her. Ah, how they got to be free.
CB: There are differences between a free person of color, and a freed
man. A free person of color probably has been free for many generations. We
think in terms of slavery being the reason that the African-American is here,
but the first African-Americans came... came as indentured servants and were
freed after eight years. And they, in turn, imported other African-Americans
as indentured servants. And the first one in recorded history that became an
indentured for life individual was done so in a court case for the... person
turning him into a slave was a black person who paid for his indenture to come
over. And that was about 1660.
JC: What were the circumstances?
CB: Well, um, I'm... I'm going to try to...
JC: Putting you on the spot here.
CB: Well, no, I'm not going to get stuck, but I believe that the guy
who became the slave was named Casar. And the man who had the indenture was
Johnson. I might have these names mixed up, but if it's important to you I
could give you reference...
JC: Mmm-hmm. Right. I'd never heard this before, it's interesting.
CB: Originally, the man who was indented, sued to be freed, because his
indenture theoretically was up. And the other man said, no, he became... he
was signed on to be indentured for life. And the other guy said, no, if I did,
I didn't understand it at that time. And so the courts found on his behalf and
set him free. He turned right around, and then signed papers indenturing
himself for life to a white man. Then the black man who had originally held
the indenture, sued in court and said, well, look, he understood this. He's
already... he wasn't even...
JC: He just turned around and did it again.
CB: He turned around and did it again to this guy. And he sued to get
him back, and that was the first court case in which somebody was actually
turned into a slave instead of being freed after a certain period of time.
JC: That's wild.
CB: So there are people, black people in America who could say my
ancestors were never slaves. I've had students come up to me and say, is it
possible that my family's tradition that says we were never slaves, is that
possible that it's true? I said, yes, it's very possible. And where do you
come from? Accomack County. Well, Accomack County was one of the first
counties in Virginia and that was where the first African-Americans came. And
there were small communities on the eastern shore of Maryland and Virginia in
which the black people were never slaves. They came just like any white person
who was poor came, as an indentured person.
JC: From Africa?
CB: Well, the white ones wouldn't have come from Africa.
JC: No, but I mean...
CB: Probably they came from the West Indies. Certainly with names
like Johnson they wouldn't have come from Africa directly. Now I'm just
guessing. The records aren't very good in those cases. Recently, I found some
documentation in some records in England that make them think there were slaves
here even before they used to think there were, or servants. They were listed
as servants. And they are assuming that they were slaves, and I think that's
incorrect. Don't assume that they were slaves. I don't think the...the
testimony in the...the files should indicate that they're slaves. Because
certainly my ancestors, the first ones that came here were listed as servants.
They were indentured and they came here in 1630s and 1640s. And they were
indentured servants, and they served eight years just like any other person.
The concept of indenture was active all the way through the Civil War. I found
records where a 30 year old black woman indented herself until she was... I
mean she was 26 years old. She indented herself until she was 35, and she
indentured her children until they were age 35. And at age 35 they were free.
It was an economic...
JC: This was an economic necessity.
CB: An economic necessity. They got free room and board in return for
their work. Well, not free room and board. It's never free when you have to
work for it. But I mean they had a place to live.
JC: They were like boarders and they were working...
CB: And for a woman that's a little more understandable than for a man,
because women had very free rights. And they weren't independently wealthy on
their own. And they could be seriously taken advantage of. It's much like the
Mormons, when they moved west everybody said, well, they were polygamists.
Well, they were polygamists because the guys in the east had murdered off ten
of the men for every woman that was left, and women had no rights unless they
had a husband. So that solved the economic necessity by having polygamy. And
then the woman was protected under the law. It actually ended up causing them
more problems than solving but...
JC: Like most solutions that we try to come up with.
CB: Yes. Yes... but in doing African-American research from the modern
times until the end of the Civil War there's no difference. The difference
being is that it will always be identified as black. In my own family I looked
for the Ryan family, which is my mother's family's descent. If I go to a
particular county in Maryland, I can find half a dozen Samuel Ryan's. The only
one I can ever eliminate is the one who is black. And maybe I'm probably
assuming too much in that case too, but they all seemed to have named their
children the same. And there are six or seven Samuel Ryan's with sons named
Jesse, John, Samuel, Henry and Joseph. Then the next generation does the same
thing. And this is in the days before social security numbers and street
addresses and those kinds of things. So it's very difficult to do it. And the
only Samuel Ryan that I've actually set aside is the one that was listed as
black. And of course he may have been a slave, and he may have been a free
man, and he may have been the slave of a Ryan, or he may just have liked the
Ryan's who lived next door and he took their name when he was free. And you
can never know on that. But you just.. guess at that he was the slave of a
Ryan because he took the name Ryan. And that's your first clue. Is what's the
first last name you can find on your ancestor? Generally, your best bet...