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A white mother and black daughter encounter the genealogical “brick wall” so many people face while researching African-American families during slavery.

Dear Professor Gates:

I have worked very hard to trace back the ancestry of my adopted daughter Rasa Braswell, who is African American. (I am Caucasian.) However, I hit a snag once I got back to the time of slavery. Rasa’s original maternal family line is named Plair. They are based in Starkville, Oktibbeha County, Miss., along with people who have surnames I have noted being related to the Adger/Player plantations in Louisiana. The histories of families that were enslaved there are documented on the wonderful website Caddo Trees. Based on them, we think perhaps my daughter’s ancestors originated in Fairfield County, S.C., and then relocated to Bossier Parish, La. (near Caddo Parish).

The Plair family seemed to arrive in Starkville just after 1865 and are first noted in the 1870 census. I believe my daughter’s direct descendant from that time is Paul Plair, who had a brother named Pompus or Pompey Plair. He also had a son, Shepard Plair (born in 1897), with a woman named Charlotte or Schollotte. However, the couple appears to have been born in the 1830s, so I wonder if there is a missing generation in between them and Shepard.

I would like to trace Paul back before emancipation, and also confirm if his line is connected to the families that were enslaved on the Adger/Player plantations in Louisiana. Can you help us, please? —Cecilie Keenan, with daughter Rasa Braswell

Cecilie, it’s wonderful that you and Rasa are taking this journey together into her heritage. The “snag” you experienced tracing her roots back before the end of slavery—known in genealogy circles as “the brick wall”—is very common for African Americans because of the way in which enslaved people were generally regarded in records as property, and, therefore, unnamed. For instance, the 1850 and 1860 U.S. Slave Schedules identified slave owners by name but listed the human beings they owned only by age, gender and color (e.g., black or mulatto).

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A Missing Generation?

The first question you will want to address is the parentage of your daughter’s great-great-grandfather Shepard Plair (born about 1897). The information you have comes from the 1870 U.S. census, where Paul Plair is the head of the household and the wife is named “Chartta.” Her birth year was recorded as being about 1832, which would have made her 65 years old when Shepard was born. It is highly unlikely that she could have had a child at that age, so you are probably correct in guessing that a generation is missing and they might not be his parents.

Before moving on from this record, note a couple of things: Paul’s birthplace is listed as South Carolina, which is also the birthplace for 75-year-old Mary Plair, who was living under the same roof. Would this have been Paul’s mother? If so (and assuming that Paul is either Shepard’s father or another blood relative), then the fact that Mary was born in South Carolina may push back the possible time frame for connecting Rasa’s Plair ancestors to the families who were enslaved on the Adger/Player plantations in Louisiana into the 18th century. That is before the births of the people listed in Caddo Trees and even before the U.S. bought the massive region that included current-day Louisiana from France in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.

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Who Exactly Were Shepard Plair’s Parents?

We decided to jump ahead to the most recently available federal census and trace Shepard Plair backward to see if we could identify his parents that way. You will find him on the 1940 U.S. census with his daughter, Maudine, in his household. The family was residing at Rural, Oktibbeha County, Miss.

During the enumeration of the census 10 years before this, Shepard Plair was recorded as “Shep Plair” residing in the household of his brother, Dan Plair, at Beat 1, Oktibbeha, Mississippi. This record states that Shepard was married at age 20 and was still married at the time of this record, though his wife is not in the household. Since Shepard and Henrietta only had young children in 1940, perhaps his marriage to Henrietta was his second marriage and this record is referring to a previous marriage.

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A few things from this record you’ll want to note is that Shepard’s brother, Dan Plair, was born about 1875 and owned his house. Knowing this, you may be able to locate a deed for him to determine if he acquired the property from another family member. There are also a number of individuals in the household with the surname Washington who are recorded as Dan Plair’s nieces and nephews. This means that the Washington family is a related family you could investigate further to see if records for them lead you to more information about your daughter’s Plair ancestors.

Shepard must have lived with his brother for at least a decade, since he was living in Dan Plair’s household in 1920 as well. You’ll note that Dan’s nieces, Luna, Fannie and Nellie Washington, were recorded directly next door in the household of Henry and Fannie Perkins. This gives you yet another family to investigate that is likely closely related to your daughter’s Plair ancestors.

We had difficulty locating Shepard in the 1910 U.S. census. The only Dan/Daniel Plair we could locate was residing with his brother, Pompey Plair, and sister, Allice Lee Plair, at Osborn, Oktibbeha, Miss., but their birth dates are different from the records we have located thus far. Keep in mind that ages can vary significantly in census records, so this does not mean that this Daniel Plair is not the brother of your Shepard Plair. The brother, Pompey Plair, is close in age to Shepard, so this could be yet another brother.

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We located all three brothers in the household of Schollott Plair in 1900 residing at Beat 2 Oktibbeha, Miss. According to this, Schollott was born in September 1868 (not 1832 like “Chartta”) and was a widow. “Pompy” (born October 1891) and “Shepherd” (born February 1896) were her sons and Daniel was her stepson, whose birthdate was unknown but he was about 21 years old, placing his birth about 1879. This record is a good match for your family.

Is This Marriage Record a Clue?

One of the biggest challenges you’ll face is not having the 1890 U.S. census to refer to, since most of the records were destroyed by a fire and flooding. This is likely about the time that Schollott married her Plair husband, based on the ages of her children in the 1900 census.

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A reference to the marriage of Paul Plair and Charlotte Perkins at Oktibbeha, Miss., on April 4, 1890, might confirm this, but is not definitive. Either this is a marriage record for Shepard’s mother, Schollott/Charlotte, who was a second wife and coincidentally had the same name as the prior one; or it could be a record for the late-in-life marriage of Paul and Chartta/Charlotte (both born around 1832), who previously were not officially wed.

The 1890 marriage record was recorded on Family History Library film 900514, which states that the original is at the Oktibbeha County Courthouse in Starkville, Miss. You could request a copy of the original form to see if it contains details that will help you determine which scenario is more likely.

Ten years earlier we found a record for a Paul Plair (born about 1827 in Georgia) and Charlott Plair, with offspring that include the three eldest children who were listed in 1870. His birthplace differs from the one (South Carolina) listed in 1870, though it is not unusual for such details to vary from census record to record, depending on who was reporting information to the enumerator. What’s more important is that it is not Louisiana, where you are trying to connect his line to the Adger/Player plantations. Furthermore, the 1880 census lists his parents’ birthplace as Alabama—again, pushing the possible time frame to make that connection closer to the 18th century.

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Please note one more thing: Daniel, who we know is related to Shepard, is not in the household. The relationship between Paul and Shepard is therefore still not strongly established.

What Now?

One method you could try for finding more leads is to just search for the Plair surname in the 1880 census to see if you can locate Dan Plair residing with his father or any other Plairs that seem to have a connection to what you know about your family. For instance, on this list there are individuals named variations of the name Pompey Plair that may be connected to your family. There is also a Stephen Plair born about 1875 residing with the Perkins family, which we know is associated with your Plair family that is likely connected as well.

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Before you can connect your daughter’s Plair family to the Player family outlined in Caddo Trees, you’ll need to focus on mapping out the Plair, Perkins and Washington families in Oktibbeha County. While we did not locate any slave owners with the Plair surname residing near Oktibbeha County, there were a number with the surname Perkins residing in the county. You could investigate records for these slave owners to see if they mention any of the Plairs you are searching for, and you could also try to see if you can find a connection between the slave-owning Perkins in Oktibbeha and the owners of the Player and Adger family plantations in Louisiana.

Tell Rasa we’re grateful that she shared her story, and we encourage you both to continue the search for answers.


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.

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This answer was provided in consultation with Meaghan E.H. Siekman, Ph.D., 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 1 billion 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.