White Families, Black Roots
The problem for many people of African-American descent is getting past the “wall” which is slavery, prior to the 1870 census, and tracing further back in time. For the Lytle family of central North Carolina, however, the difficulty is approaching the wall from the other side.
In 1794, Thomas Lytle, a white slaveowner from Randolph County, NC, made a will and died, leaving instructions to immediately free his slave Frank. Six other slaves were to be freed at his wife’s death. That these slaves were his children is not questioned, as he left Frank 200 acres of land, a horse, and a set of blacksmith tools. When Thomas’ executors petitioned the NC state legislature for Frank’s freedom, they explicitly asked that Frank keep the name Lytle. Frank led a propserous life and stayed on his 200 acres. He lived to 96 years of age, from 1773, before the American Revolution, to 1869 — well after the Civil War.
For Thomas’ other slaves, life turned out somewhat more difficult. Thomas’ wife lived another 20 years, and by the time she passed away, these slaves had children and even a few grandchildren. And up to that time they were treated well. However, only those of the first generation were set free, because Thomas had not directly owned the others. This was a technicality proven in court, as Thomas Lytles heirs – nieces and nephews, as he had no children with his wife – wanted the large inheritance from the sale of the additional 40 slaves that had been born since Thomas died. In 1828 these were sold for $5461 and the money divided amongst Thomas Lytle’s heirs.
The history of the Lytle family in the early 1800′s is quite rich. The court procedings and documents create a lengthy story. For the genealogists of the Lytle family, attempting to share that history with the slave descendants has been an enormous challenge. The descendants of Frank Lytle have been easy to trace. Two sons and two daughters passed as white and raised large families (Frank Lytle Jr. had 28 children). One of Frank’s daughters married another “mulatto” man and most of their descendants today are black. Hundreds of descendants have been traced, and most of the white ones, too numerous to contact, have no idea they have African-American ancestry. Frank’s descendants, both black and white, are found in most every state and in all walks of life, some of them quite prominent.
For the other six slaves of Thomas Lytle – Joe, Sam, Esther, Jack, Pink, and Parker – the descendants have been almost impossible to trace through slavery. Sale records in the 1840′s and 1850′s have identified one branch. Members of the Quaker church in North Carolina freed a few of them. But in most cases slavery scattered them far and wide. We approach the 1870 census from the “other side” of the wall, and try to use it to look for names which may have come from the old Lytle Plantation. Today there are presumably a few thousand descendants, but only a very small handful of living descendants have ever been found. Our family reunions across color lines have been a joy. Most of the genealogists researching this family are white, but searching for black cousins. We have over 250 years of their history and want to share it with them, but two or three generations lost to slavery has made this very difficult. We will keep searching.