Beyond Kin: a New Approach to Genealogy
Posted March 29, 2019
A few days ago, I sat down with Donna Baker and Frazine Taylor. Both are warm characters who immediately set me at ease. “We bounce off each other,” Frazine said of their friendship and collaboration. Together, they are the driving force behind Beyond Kin, a project that seeks to extend the enslaved person genealogical network to include data and information belonging to the descendants of slaveowners. In so doing, they give a leg up over the so-called “Brick Wall,” of around 1865, the year slavery was abolished in the United States.
Donna is an historian, and describes herself as a fledgling genealogist, although her expertise far outweighs this reporter. However, Frazine towers above us both as a font of knowledge. Humbly, and speaking as someone who has deeply considered the weight of her pursuit, she calls herself “a baby in studying the genealogy of enslaved persons.” Despite the weighty topic, probably because of it, both Frazine and Donna derive pleasure, satisfaction, and joy from Beyond Kin. Donna put it this way: “It draws us together. The people who are working on it. Our protective bubbles evaporate.” Exiting personal historic and cultural silos is in fact both a necessary element to and welcome outcome of Beyond Kin. The idea behind this project is a simple one; understand that slaveowners kept better business and legal records than they did personal ones. Because enslaved people were property, this route provides more effective hooks on which genealogical searchers can hang scraps of family lore, which may be the sole identifiers available.
The name “Beyond Kin,” emerged as a moniker to describe the connections within it that go beyond biology. As Donna said “something that indicates the interconnected lives. They may not be happy about the connection, but they were connected.” It’s precisely this connection, intimate and terrible, that Donna and Frazine think is a missing link for descendants of enslaved people who are searching for clues to their ancestors’ lives. As Donna said, “this approach helps us get out of our boxes, of who’s related to who.” Frazine described how she had come to this conclusion many years ago, saying “I’ve worked at the archives for 23 years, and I’ve done many workshops with families. And in the ones that I did pertaining to African Americans and the enslaved persons we are oftentimes looking for records that are with the slaveowners family. And we don’t always know that. So, this is how Donna and I got together, because her family had more than one enslaved person in it as well.” It was Donna’s discovery that she had an enslaved ancestor that prompted her to pursue Beyond Kin. “At the beginning, I had not even looked at a slave schedule. But my colleague Susan Reynolds and I were teaching a genealogy class and she put a bill of sale up on the screen. And I realized that “wow, the white people had the records.” Now of course Frazine had for 25 or 30 years known things that I was just finding out. But I’m suddenly just completely fascinated because you know that all the history is my history, not just black and white. Now I know the ancestor I want to find, I want to go after her. But I start to realize how completely hard that is.”
As Donna dived further into her own genealogy, she started to challenge her own family history. An ancestor who was famous for building bridges suddenly became a man who had sent enslaved people to build bridges. According to a will, this ancestor had owned 42 people. It was only when she examined a legal document pertaining to property that she made that discovery, one that directly challenged the accepted line of history. This method is indicative of what Beyond Kin hopes to achieve. Rather than focusing on one person’s name, the focus is moved to an entire institution, a plantation, a farm, or a mill, and the legal documents that hold their records. Frazine commented: “See, business is about profit, and you had to keep records, to keep track of the growth. There were many who kept these types of records. There are a lot of enslaved databases in the universe. They’re just out there. But they’re not connected to anything, to a person or to a plantation.”
Finding the records is often difficult and requires practice. Frazine described a hypothetical situation: “Sometimes, trying to find that relative or that slaveholder, you have to search around the whole area, to find that document, that diary, will, or record book. And other things too, the first name, in the 1870 census, that name goes with that person until they die. Because the enslaved person may have taken the name of a person there, but maybe to another state. These are things that you have to learn and study. We have to look for these nuances, subtle nuances.” She also commented on the hesitation some people feel at sharing records; “just this past week I spoke with people who have bills of sale, wills, and plantation records. They’re ashamed, they don’t want to share because they’re ashamed. So, I tell them, we don’t want the shame, we want the records.”
Ultimately, they hope to perfect the software used to organize these connections. Donna said “in the census schedules you usually don’t have names. Just floating heads. Name, age, gender and maybe an occupation. That’s what you’ve got. And the name of the slaveholder. So, we have to give a human person a human place in the tree. This is what we hope to achieve with the software. But we must come together, to work together, or it won’t happen.” Frazine had only recently encountered about 20 more EP databases. One of the most gratifying things for both Donna and Frazine is that Beyond Kin is starting to take care of itself. “Somehow people are carrying it, and we’re seeing it grow.” Donna said. Frazine added, “I think that’s what we intended, we just didn’t know that’s what we intended. Other people are jumping in and saying this is what happened in our community. It’s really community-based. About 1500 people now.” The approach that they are both advocating and pioneering may be nudging a shift in the major players in the genealogy game. If this is true, it could revolutionize genealogy as we know it, and at the same time challenge our common and personal perceptions of history.
For more information visit https://beyondkin.org/, and Beyond Kin on Facebook.