I’m White. Did My Ancestors Own Slaves?

Tracing Your Roots: A white family receives an invite to a black family reunion, leaving questions.

Generic Image (Thinkstock)
Generic Image (Thinkstock)

(The Root) —

Although we can trace my maternal grandmother’s heritage back to Europe, she periodically received family-reunion invitations from another family with the last name ‘Ellzey,’ which was her husband’s last name. Turns out there must have been a slave owner named Ellzey, too, because I’m pretty sure my grandma was the only white woman invited. How do we research to find out whether or not we are related to the slave owner?” –Mara Blesoff  

Using a variety of methods, you can research not only whether your maternal grandmother married a man descended from a slave owner but also if he was actually related to the Ellzey family sending the reunion invitations.

As with any genealogy project, you should work backward from what you already know. First, gather everything you know about the Mr. Ellzey who married your maternal grandmother. It would be especially helpful to have his full name and those of his parents, as well as to know where they lived. We saw a likely match for this man’s obituary in the Chicago Tribune. If he was the correct man, he was born about 1924 and grew up in Texas.

Usually the easiest way to track a family back in time is through the U.S. federal census, taken every 10 years. Based on the information you have gathered about Mr. Ellzey, you can search for him and his parents. If he was born in 1924, you could expect to find him in the 1930 and 1940 census records (perhaps still living with his parents in Texas). Once you know his parents’ names and approximate birth dates and places, you can continue to follow them back through earlier census records until you have determined the names of their parents and so on.

Based on the 1924 birth, we would expect Mr. Ellzey’s grandparents or great-grandparents to have lived through the Civil War and subsequent freeing of slaves. If you have not been able to clearly follow the line back using census records, try birth, marriage, death and church records; newspaper articles; and wills. The goal is still to identify the family members living before the abolition of slavery.

The census records from 1850 and 1860 will be the most likely to tell you if his family owned slaves. If you can find Mr. Ellzey’s grandparents and/or great-grandparents in these two census records, you can then refer to the slave schedules enumerated with the census records. Typically, the slave schedules only listed the slave owner by name and the slaves by age and gender. Identifying your ancestor by name on these schedules would show that he was a slave owner and even show how many slaves he owned at the time. A search showed us that there were at least the following slave owners with (close variations of) the surname in 1850:

* William Ellzey in Pike County, Miss.
* William W. Ellzey in Fairfax County, Va.
* William Elza in Western District, Calwell County, La.
* Thomas Elzy in Loudon County, Va.
* Robb Elzey in Subdivision 11, Sussex County, Del.
* Letitia Elzey in Baltimore, Baltimore County
* James Elzey in Pontotoc County, Miss.

Even if you cannot place the Ellzey family members in these census records and slave schedules, you may still be able to learn whether they owned slaves at some point. Just knowing where the ancestors lived before the Civil War could indicate the likelihood that they were slave owners.