Black Man Buried With My White Kin; Why?

Tracing Your Roots: A white reader wants to learn about a Civil War vet interred with his ancestors.

4th United States Colored Infantry (Library of Congress)
4th United States Colored Infantry (Library of Congress)

(The Root) — In the search for clues about our ancestral roots, answers can lie in the stories of those to whom we are not related by blood. The following reader wonders if that is the case for her.

“I am white, and occasionally my family history intersects with African-American families, especially in New Jersey. For example, there is a man named Alexander Banks who is buried with my ancestors in Burlington. I do not know the reason for this, but I think it’s connected with his service as a sergeant in the United States Colored Troops, and in fact his grave is still decorated, even though he died in 1910. His name also appears on the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C. I think he was hired as a substitute for one of my ancestors during the Civil War draft, but I don’t know for sure.

“Banks is an interesting man who worked in a number of industries, and when he died he was litigating a claim for a $1 million family fortune in ‘the South’ (probably North Carolina, where he was born, I think, as a free man). Do you have any suggestions for pursuing this connection?” –Marian Gold

First you must determine when or if he came in contact with your family. Despite the fact that your relatives and Mr. Banks are buried in New Jersey, a free state, I would suggest that you start by determining whether there was a relationship between any of your ancestors and him during slavery.

Remember that all African Americans (except recent immigrants from Africa) are descended from slaves; the only question about our black ancestors is when they gained their freedom. About 220,000 black people were free in the North in 1860, while another 260,000 were free in the South at the same time. Slavery was legal in New Jersey until 1846, so it is possible that Banks could have been descended from a slave family in New Jersey, even if he was born free.

It is just as important that you determine whether your ancestors in New Jersey had familial connections to slavery somewhere in the South, since it is possible that he moved to New Jersey after his service in the Civil War. (Remember that many of the black men who served in the U.S. Colored Troops were former slaves freed by the Emancipation Proclamation when they fled their former masters.)

Either possibility could explain Banks’ relationship to your family and why he might be buried in your family’s plot. If any of your ancestors living anywhere in the United States owned slaves in 1850 or 1860, their ages and genders will be listed in the Slave Schedules of the federal census. Try to find a male of approximately Banks’ age on the slave schedules of any of your ancestors who were, in fact, slaveholders.

Otherwise, try searching for Alexander Banks in the U.S. federal and state census records. Depending on when he died, he may appear in the 1910 census; if not, then you would need to search the 1900 U.S. federal census and continue to trace him backward. The state of New Jersey took state censuses from 1855 to 1915, and these are available at the New Jersey State Library, Rutgers University. The most relevant censuses would be the 1855, 1860, 1865 and 1870 censuses because they were directly before and after the Civil War.