A Southern chain gang; photo taken between 1900 and 1906  
Library of Congress

Dear Professor Gates:

My paternal great-grandfather, Sylvester Collins, lived in Baker County, Ga., for most of his life. He was sent to prison in the late 1920s. He is said to have died in prison five years later. I have been unable to locate a death certificate for him. I wrote a letter to the Georgia Department of Corrections asking if any records exist, but I did not receive a response. Are there any other references I should review? I do not know Sylvester Collins’ birth date, but his daughter Vivian was born in 1899 or 1900. —Bertha Bailey Whatley

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The best way to gather more information about Sylvester Collins and his incarceration is to start with census records. Even those who were imprisoned were included in the federal census. If Sylvester Collins was in prison during the enumeration of the 1930 census, we can determine where exactly he served time, which will also help determine where to look for his death record.

What Census Records Tell Us

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We first located Sylvester Collins in U.S. census records residing in Baker County, Ga., in 1900. We know this is your Sylvester Collins because his daughter Vivian (age 1) was recorded in his household. According to the record, Sylvester was born in December 1872 in Georgia. The record also tells you that his occupation was a farmer and that he was renting his home. You will also want to note his wife, Susan, who was born in February 1875 in Georgia.

As a rule, when looking at records, you should be sure to note as much information as you can about a person even if it does not seem to relate to your question directly, since it will provide you with information about that person that you can compare with other records to be sure you are looking at the same person, since spellings or dates can vary across records.

With the information about his family, we were able to locate him in 1920, although his name was recorded as Vester Collins. He was still residing in Baker County, and his wife’s name was recorded as Susey. This matches what you know about Sylvester in that he was not incarcerated until the late 1920s, so at this time he was still residing with his family. Vivian was no longer in the household, but there were three other daughters—Ever (age 17), Essey (age 15) and Eliza (age 12)—all living in his household. Keep in mind for future research that records for his children may reveal more information about Sylvester himself, so it is always a good idea to note down family members.

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Incarceration Under Jim Crow

We expected Sylvester to be in prison in 1930 based on what you know about him, and we were correct in our assumptions. We located him as Sylvester Callins in the 1930 census, when he was a prisoner in the “Baker County Chain Gang.” In this record Sylvester was 57 years old, placing his birth around 1873, which matches what we know about him. This means that Sylvester was incarcerated locally. Baker County does have a small jail facility in Newton, which could be where he was held. If you are having trouble getting information from the Georgia Department of Corrections, you could try the Baker County Sheriff’s Office to see if it has any records.

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Your great-grandfather’s experience was a far-too-common one for African Americans in the Jim Crow South. In the chain gangs, shackled convicts were forced to perform backbreaking manual labor in a system that some have likened to a new form of slavery.

As Eric Cummins explains in his entry in the “Criminal Justice System and African Americans” section of Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience: “In Georgia, where in 1908 black convicts outnumbered white prisoners nearly ten to one, convict camps swelled with prisoners convicted of property crimes, including ‘larceny after trust’ (that is, breaking a labor contract). Georgia’s chain gangs were 95 percent black, made up primarily of those convicted of misdemeanors. Chain-gang work on the roads was regarded as ideal for blacks, who were perceived as racially suited to the heavy, unskilled labor it required and in need of the discipline of coerced outdoor labor.” While the practice mostly died out in the U.S. during the 20th century, it is worth noting that a few chain gangs persist to this day in states such as Florida and Arizona.

The fact that Sylvester Collins served time in a chain gang tells you a lot about his time in prison. Chain gangs were used primarily to perform menial and physical tasks, such as road or railroad construction, digging ditches or farming, while the prisoners were chained together at the ankles. This means that your great-grandfather spent his time under incarceration performing physically demanding tasks every day. If Sylvester died while imprisoned, as your family story suggests, it may be that his death was in some way related to the labor he was sentenced to perform.

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We went with the assumption that your family story was correct and searched for a death record for him at the county level, since he would have died at a county facility. In a collection of Georgia Death Records available through the Family History Library, we located his death record in the index. According to the indexed information, Sylvesta Collins died Sept. 28, 1931, at Newton, Baker, Ga., when he was 58 years old. This is a match for your Sylvester, and the place of death in Newton further suggests that he was incarcerated at the local Baker County Jail.

The original death record (which can be viewed with a free registration at FamilySearch) does not directly say that he died while incarcerated, but you can determine this from the fact that the warden, L.L. Hay, was the informant of his death.

The record does provide other helpful information for you. The cause of death is difficult to decipher, though it looks as if it says “infantile paralysis,” which was used on death certificates to describe polio intestinal colic or abdominal pain due to improper diet. He was treated for this over the course of the day that he died, starting at 8:30 a.m. and lasting until 5 p.m., according to the record. To order a certified copy of the death record, contact the Georgia Department of Public Health.

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Learning More About Collins’ Final Years and Burial

The death record also tells you that Sylvester was buried at the Springfield Missionary Baptist Church in Baker County. Although 97 percent of the interments at Springfield Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery have been included in the Find a Grave database, we did not locate a grave for Sylvester Collins. You could, however, contact the church to see if it has any further information about his burial.

To find out more about why Sylvester Collins was incarcerated, you could search court records for his sentencing. Since you know that he was imprisoned at the county level, you could contact the Baker County Court to see if it has any records related to his sentencing. You may also be able to locate information in a local newspaper if it reported on his arrest or sentencing. These sources will likely be held at a local library, such as the Baker County Library. An article or court record of his crime may help you better understand him and the circumstances of his incarceration and death.

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Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also chairman of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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

This answer was provided in consultation with Meaghan E.H. Siekman, a senior researcher from the 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 about researching African-American roots.