Did Africans Immigrate to Jim Crow America?

Tracing Your Roots: Family lore of a killed African forebear leaves one reader with questions.

Actress Cicely Tyson as Jane Pittman in The Autobiographhy of Miss Jane Pittman (CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)

There are digital collections of city directories listed on subscription sites, such as Ancestry.com, and many local libraries have physical collections of city directories for their regions as well. For example, the New Orleans Public Library has directories as early as 1805 and directories for every year between 1866 and 1933.

Vital records — records of births, marriages and deaths — are other good sources of information for tracing an ancestor’s origins. Before legislation was passed in the early 20th century, the recording of vital records in the state of Louisiana was inconsistent, and the availability of these records is dependent of the time and place of the event. It turns out that New Orleans Parish generally had better compliance in the recorded birth marriages and deaths. The Louisiana secretary of state has an online index of death and marriage records for events that happened more than 50 years ago and births that were recorded 100 years earlier. This index lists the name, year of death and volume and page number for each entry. Using this information, you can order a certified copy of vital records from the secretary of state for a $5 fee. Our researchers combed this index for a record of Issac Rowen’s death using several spelling variations, but we were unable to find a record of his death.

Since Issac’s death was not included in the index of vital records held by the state of Louisiana, you will have to rely on other sources to find information about his death. In this case, finding a tombstone and the cemetery where Issac was buried might give you more information about him (like if he belonged to a church) and other relatives who may be buried near him. There are many free websites that have searchable databases of cemetery transcriptions, including FindAGrave.com and Interment.net. There is also the site La-Cemeteries, a website that has headstone transcriptions and images for many cemeteries throughout Louisiana.

If you can find a burial record for Issac Rowen, this will provide you with a date of death and possibly a date of birth. If the cemetery is affiliated with a certain church, you can also contact the church to see if the parish records have a record of his marriage as well.

Fact-Checking Family Lore

Finding a record of Issac’s death in a newspaper may also help confirm or disprove the tragic story surrounding his death. There are a variety of websites that provide access to digitized newspapers, including the subscription sites NewspaperArchive.com and GenealogyBank.com, as well as free sites, such as Chronicling America and Google News Archive. When searching for a record of your ancestor’s death in a digital newspaper database, check to make sure that they include papers for the region and time period you are researching. In this case, you are looking for newspapers for New Orleans in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. If you are unable to find newspapers for the time and place you are researching, try local libraries.

Your family’s story also indicates that Issac immigrated to New Orleans some time after the Civil War to work as a fisherman. If he immigrated directly to New Orleans, he may be included on one of the passenger lists that recorded the arrival of passengers into the port of New Orleans. The Family History Library has an online database of passenger lists arriving at the port of New Orleans from 1820 to 1845. A record of him in this database will give you an idea of when and where he immigrated.

As with most genealogical research, it is always best to work from your known ancestors and to use the information you find for them to keep working backward. In this instance, researching the children of Issac Rowen may be particularly useful because their death records may contain the place of birth of their parents and in some instances the occupations of their parents. Also, records of them in the census years between 1880 and 1900 will list their parents’ place of birth.

You mentioned that you found a World War I draft registration card for Issac Rowens Jr. Using the year of birth and place of residence, you can search for a record of him in the 1920 U.S. census to find his occupation, marital status and place of residence. Using this information, continue to search for a record of his death to see if it lists whom his parents were and where they were born. By researching Issac Rowens Jr. you will find more information about his parents, which will hopefully give you more information about Issac Rowen’s life and origin.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.

 This answer was provided in consultation with Kristin Britanik, a researcher from New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, contains more than 300 million searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today.  

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