Tracing Your Roots: Where Were My Black Homeowning Ancestors From?

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Records reveal a proud legacy in Mississippi, yet data shows why we should not be all that surprised.


Dear Professor Gates:

My great-great-grandparents were George Derden (or Durton) and Beatrice Derden. My great-grandmother Christine was one of their daughters. I was told by my grandmother that my great-great-grandfather owned land or his own house in Grenada, Miss. She told me she does not know if Beatrice was a slave or not. I want to be able to teach my children something about where they came from, seeing that we, as Afrikan people, are sadly displaced. —Kinnon Hunter

We sense that you are proud to have heard that your ancestor owned his own home, as well you should be. As it was in much of the American South, from the Reconstruction period through the mid-20th century, many black Mississippians labored under a racially oppressive and impoverishing system of sharecropping and tenant farming that kept agricultural land ownership in the hands of white people. Yet despite that, and the fact that Mississippi has the highest poverty rate (pdf) of all 50 states, the state also has one of the highest rates of black homeownership in the nation.

In 2000—before black homeownership rates fell nationwide as a result of the housing crisis of 2008—60.7 percent of black Mississippians owned their own homes, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, second only to black South Carolinians (at 60.9 percent). Still, as it does everywhere in the U.S., black homeownership in the region where your ancestors lived lags that of whites to this day. In Grenada County, the white-black homeownership gap in 2016 was 21.3 percentage points, while in neighboring Yalobusha County the gap was 9.4 percent.

When Did the Derdens Become Homeowners? 

Your great-grandmother Christine was residing with her parents in Grenada, Miss., in 1940 (via FamilySearch; free registration required). Column 4 on the enumeration sheet tells you that in 1940, George Derden owned his home and it was valued at $100. It also reports that the family was residing in the same home in 1935, meaning that he owned the house by at least 1935. This confirms that George owned his home and also means that you will be able to locate a deed for his purchase of the home. Since this is likely a more modern deed, you could contact the Grenada County Clerk about obtaining a copy of the record, which will give you a description of the record and tell you from whom he purchased the home.


You can also gather a bit more information from the 1940 census record about George and Beatrice that can help you locate them in other records. The record states that George was born about 1885 and Beatrice “Bedie” was born around 1887, both in Mississippi. This means that they were both born at least 20 years after emancipation, so Beatrice would not have been born into slavery. However, that does not mean that her parents or grandparents were not enslaved. With their estimated birth years and place, you can search for earlier records to identify the parents of George and Beatrice.

Take it one record at a time. Using their birth dates, we located them residing with their nine children in 1930. This record also states that George owned his home. In 1920, George and “Bedie” Darden were renting a home in Coffeeville, Yalobusha, Miss., with eight children. This tells you that you will be looking for a deed between 1920 and 1930 for George Derden’s purchase of his home, which will help narrow it down when you are requesting a copy of the record from the county clerk.


Is This Where the Derdens Lived During Slavery? 

The first record in which George and Beatrice were recorded as a married couple was in 1910, when they were residing at Beat 1, Yalobusha. At that time they had three children, were renting their home and were working as farmers. We searched their neighbors for anyone with the same surname but did not locate anyone who stood out as a potential relatives. Other records from this decade, such as George Derden’s draft registration on Sept. 12, 1918, provide more details, such as George’s birth date on June 2, 1885, and the fact that he worked at the Moore Plantation.


We could not locate a record that clearly stated George Derden’s name in the 1900 U.S. Census, though it seems very likely that he could be the 16-year-old son of Jenna Derden, residing at Yalobusha, whose first name is illegible in the record. He is the right age and in the right location to be George. There are only a few families with variations of the Derden surname residing in Yalobusha in 1900, and this is the only individual matching his description. It may be worth investigating everyone in the household further, as well as the other Derdens living in Yalobusha, since it is likely that they are all related in some way.

The 1870 and 1880 census records show black and white Derdens in Yalobusha County, but we did not note any free people of color with the name in the 1860 or 1850 federal census records. We did, however, note a J.W. Derden who owned slaves in Yalobusha in 1850. It is possible that all of the Derdens who appear in later census records are related either to this J.W. Derden or to the people he enslaved, so you will likely benefit from looking for more records of him and his family.


Finding Beatrice’s Surname Through Her Children (Perhaps) 

Without knowing Beatrice Derden’s maiden name, it is hard to trace her earlier than the 1910 federal census, when she was married to George Derden. We knew that the first option in determining her maiden name would be to search for a marriage record. A search of the surname Derden in an index of Mississippi marriage from 1800 to 1911 did not return any records for George Derden. We turned to searching for birth, marriage or death records for George and Beatrice’s children, thinking that records for them might include her maiden name.


A death record for their son Mitchell Derden, born in Coffeeville, Miss., on April 8, 1907, recorded his mother as Annie Johnson. This is a transcription of the record, so you will want to examine the original to be sure her first name is transcribed correctly. The Social Security Applications and Claims Index includes another son, Edward Derden, who was born in Coffeeville on April 8, 1918 (via; subscription required), and says that his parents were George Derden and Beatrice Kelly. These are the same names given in a record for another child, Earnest M. (Derden) Taylor. Two records with the name Kelly are stronger evidence that this was her maiden name, though you may want to search for records with both names.

We searched the 1900 census in a variety of ways to locate a record for Beatrice. We searched for just the surnames Kelly and Johnson for those born around 1887 in Yalobush. Although there were families with these names, we could not locate a clear match. We also searched for just her first name and her age in Yalobusha but could not locate a record with a surname close to Kelly or Johnson.


You may want to explore all of these records further to see if you can find a good match for her. Trace the people in these families forward and backward in records to see whether you can connect them to your Beatrice. Once you have identified her parents, you can continue to trace the family back to even earlier generations.

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., the genealogist of the Newbury Street Press at the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family-history research. Its website,, 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.