February is Black History Month, and keeping in line with the theme, there is no better way to celebrate than by delving into African American family history. This Saturday, Feb. 18, the Ventura County Genealogical Society, in partnership with the Camarillo Public Library and Friends of the Library, will host a free family history program featuring two lectures by a specialist in African American genealogy.
The genealogical society was founded in 1978 and is a 501(c)3 nonprofit, with just about 200 members, according to former Vice President Pat Thomas, who is now a member of the programming committee. Thomas says that this year’s event, which acts as a fundraising and membership drive, is a big one for the society. Thomas says that currently there is not much in the way of African American historical studies in Ventura County.
“One of the reasons we’re doing this is to build that history,” said Thomas, adding that the society has reached out to the multicultural studies departments at California State University, Channel Island; California Lutheran University; Ventura College; and universities in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. “It may be that there are stories in Ventura County that we have not uncovered yet, but we’re working on it. There are a lot of people in Ventura County who may not be aware of their own African American history.”
One such story includes Ventura pioneers Cephas and Thomas Bard, who employed Alfred Brady, a cook, as recorded by the 1870 census. Brady would have likely been born a slave in Virginia, says Thomas.
Attempting to find information on African Americans prior to 1870 is like “hitting a brick wall,” however.
The 1870 census was the first one post-Emancipation Proclamation (1863), an executive order signed by President Abraham Lincoln that changed the legal status of roughly 3 million from “slave” to “free.” Prior to that, many slaves were referred to by first name with no surname. Slave owners often kept records, but even then, slaves were often counted as mere tick-marks on the census.
Thomas says that there are ways for African Americans to research their histories in spite of a lack of evidence, including a so-called slave schedule, which lists the age, sex and first name of the slave, or through the wills of the slave owner. Owners would often pass their slaves down to family members, as did one Virginia slave-owner, his will requesting that “my negroes be divided amongst my children.”
“Although this part of history isn’t something we are proud of, it’s history,” said Thomas.
Janice Sellers, professional genealogist specializing in African American, Jewish and dual-citizenship research, will present two lectures during the event, “Freedmen’s Bureau 2.0: A Better Way to Do Slave Research” and “Using Online Historical Black Newspapers for Genealogical Research.”
The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, commonly referred to as the Freedmen’s Bureau, was established in 1865 to assist former slaves. The bureau, created by Abraham Lincoln as a branch of the United States Department of War, attempted to reconnect African Americans with family members, assist individuals and families with obtaining food, clothing, health care and jobs. Though efforts were stymied after President Lincoln’s assassination by his successor, President Andrew Johnson, the Bureau’s extensive records prior to the 1870 census have proven beneficial, if not scattered and varied.
“They were not consistent from one state to another; they weren’t consistent from one county to another, either,” says Sellers. “A lot of it was just written down on paper.”
In the year 2000, the Freedmen’s Bureau Preservation Act, passed by Congress, directed the National Archivist to archive Bureau documents onto microfilm, which have become very useful for modern genealogists. Records include contracts lists of school students and people in hospitals. The information varies wildly.
Sellers says that one of the most important pieces of information obtained from the Freedmen’s Bureau documents is the former slave owner’s name.
“To research former slaves back into the period of slavery you almost have to have that piece of information. Most documents prior to emancipation are going to be under the owner’s name; they aren’t going to be under the person’s name because, unfortunately, they were a piece of property.”
Sellers’ second workshop will focus on utilizing records kept by historically black publications, such as the Chicago Defender and Pittsburgh Courier, both of which have extensive archives.
“In newspapers you can find announcements of births, marriages, reports of people dying,” says Sellers, to name a few. “If someone was a former slave, his obituary might mention his former owner at the time; it just gives you all of that information about the community that wasn’t otherwise being covered.”
Those interested in researching the topic have many resources at their disposal, which can be learned of at this Saturday’s meeting, and Thomas encourages attendance.
“We’d be delighted to have them join, and if we can get enough African American people in the local area we’d be delighted to start a special interest group,” says Thomas.
The Ventura County Genealogical Society will host its Free Family History Program this Saturday, Feb. 18, 10:30 a.m.-4 p.m. at the Camarillo Library Community Room, 4101 Las Posas Road, Camarillo. For more information, visit www.venturacogensoc.org.