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Black Families Can Now Recover More of Their Lost Histories

The New York Times [Dr. Fields-Black is the author of “Combee: Harriet Tubman, the Combahee River Raid, and Black Freedom During the Civil War]: “…African Americans searching for their family histories often have only small irregular pieces of an enormous puzzle. Most of those pieces are missing because enslaved African Americans were not recorded by their first and last names. Until recently, identifying enslaved and formerly enslaved people who lived before that time was virtually impossible. To complicate matters, professional historians typically analyze and interpret plantation owners’ records, which identify enslaved people as property and by first name only, and describe the violence that was done to them, how their labor was exploited and their bodies abused. These records deny our ancestors’ humanity. Because of these limitations, it had become accepted as fact among historians and genealogists that efforts to recover African American family histories reaching back to the time of slavery would hit a brick wall. Today, I’m excited to report, the brick wall, or at least a large part of it, has been dismantled. Projects to digitize enormous troves of once difficult to access records are giving African American families opportunities to recover more of our lost past and offering historians the potential to enrich and rewrite the history of slavery…”

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