In African-American genealogical research, there is a term that describes the dearth of records associated with former slaves prior to 1870. Researchers call it the “1870 brick wall,” and for many people, it literally is that, when it comes to researching their ancestors–the 1870s census was the first time that African-American former slaves were listed by names and surnames. One researcher set out in 2007 to blast through this brick wall and simultaneously digitize as many historical records as possible. Toni Carrier received a masters in applied anthropology from the University of South Florida, and building off the work she did for her thesis, founded Lowcountry Africana, a not for profit research organization and free online database focusing specifically on the region known as the Gullah/Geechee Heritage Corridor which extends from Wilmington, NC, in the north to Jacksonville, FL, in the south. Toni explains that, “the 1870 brick wall is the biggest obstacle to success for those looking to find historical records of enslaved ancestors. The 1870 census was the first to list African Americans by names and surnames. The 1850 and 1860 census enumerated enslaved African Americans, but listed them by age and gender only, not by name. Unless you know who the slaveholder of your ancestor was, it takes a lot of detective work to make the leap back to plantation records.” That’s why Toni and her fellow researchers at Lowcountry Africana gather as many records from Emancipation to the 1870 census as they can uncover, digitize them, and allow free access to online tutorials to enable people to shed light on these records.
For Toni, finding these records and allowing people access to them is not something she does only for a love of history. For her, there is a moral imperative. “Our ancestry is the sum total of our individual experiences. Because of cultural factors, there are important stories out there that haven’t been told, and will be lost forever if someone doesn’t do this work–everyone should care about preserving these records.” For some people, genealogical research might seem like the provenance of a few historically savvy dilettantes, or armchair researchers. But Toni and the researchers at Lowcountry Africana feel that everyone, regardless of race or ethnic origin, needs to know their roots. Toni likes to quote her colleague Robin Foster who says that “anyone can define you if you don’t know who you are.” Robin explains that she looks to the struggles and adversity that her forbearers faced in order to gain perspective on her own challenges. For Toni, her French-Cajun ancestry is her anchor in the world. “I treasure the recipes, stories, and heritage of my ancestors–and anyone can learn their family’s heritage if they know how and where to look.”
For descendants of enslaved people from the Drayton network of plantations, Toni’s research has unearthed a goldmine of important historical information. Using Charles Drayton’s diaries, she has uncovered stories of sacrifice, struggles, and heroism. Because two-thirds of the slaves that were owned by Charles were sold, there are many families in the Lowcountry that had roots at Drayton Hall but were separated from them during the mid-1800s. Their ancestors were later freed from other plantations in the area but may have important Drayton Hall roots. For Toni, Charles’s diaries shed a human light on the Drayton family history that until now hasn’t been fully explored. “These diaries really “people,” the historic landscape, and bring the human experience back to a history that can be seen as simply facts, places, and lists.”
Toni and the researchers at Lowcountry Africana are busy compiling over 30,000 pages of historical documents pertinent to Drayton Hall that will be available to the public starting this fall. Once all the documents are uploaded onto the website, researchers can query the database and look at all sorts of information, seeing across the spectrum of births, deaths, and incredible experiences.
Of the 30,000 documents that Toni and her team have uncovered and are busy uploading to their database, one story in particular has stood out to her and stands as a shining example of the intrinsic worth of their particular type of historical research. “In our research we uncovered a story about a group of enslaved ancestors at Jehosee Plantation, near Edisto. One of the women in the group went to gather berries in the woods and was bitten by a rattlesnake. Two of the enslaved men that were there, quite possibly without the permission of the overseer, carried this woman on their backs to Charleston to be treated by Dr. Charles. This story is downright heroic and shows the sheer determination and fortitude of these enslaved ancestors.”
For more information, please go to www.lowcountryafricana.com