“I have traced my great-grandfather, Kinchen Bell, back on the 1850 Census Slave Schedule for Kentucky. He is listed in the slave owners’ column and indicated as being black. There is an adult female listed who I believe is his wife, my great-grandmother, Sarah. There are a number of minor children listed. When I went to the 1870 Census, I found that he was listed as a farmer in Alabama with six children. My great-grandmother is still listed there, along with my grandmother Rhoda.
“His being listed in the 1850 Census under slave owners, with his family listed under him, is puzzling to me. Was he a free man? I tried to go back further and search his birthplace, Virginia, but only found a schedule on which he may have been on.
“Where do I go from here? I know that my grandmother, Rhoda, ended up in Clarksdale, Miss., listed as a widow. We were told she had 14 children, but only four are listed. Her first husband's name was supposedly Daniel Bell. Apparently she remarried, because somewhere along the way, because she became Rhoda Davis. She and the four children relocated to Memphis in the late ‘30s. I would appreciate suggestions that will put me on a more direct path to securing my relatives' information.” —Ina Wilson Edwards Price
Your predicament reveals two interesting questions: 1. How do you verify information about black ancestors whose lives began before the 1870 Census started to record full information on African Americans? 2. Did black people own slaves? First, we’ll tackle the records search.
Fill in the Details of More Recent Family History
It is important to work your way backward from known records to bring your research into focus. It is also useful keep in mind the various sources of information you will come across and understand why those records were created and what the information contained within really means.
If Rhoda was still living in the late 1930s, it is likely that there was an official record of her death, as most states had adopted official registration of vital records by this time. Since her last known residence was Memphis, Tenn., you will want to begin by searching for death records there. FamilySearch.org has a collection of Tennessee death records from 1914 to 1955 that can be accessed free of charge. If you are able to find her death record, it may have information that will be useful, such as her parents’ names, including her mother’s maiden name and her spouse’s name. If you are unable to find her death record, talk to other living relatives to find out more information, which might give you more clues. You could also search for death records of her siblings, which should also have information about her parents.
Next, you’ll want to search for a record of her marriage to the man with the surname Davis. If you do find her death record, it may have his name already; if not, you can use census records to narrow down the time period of when she got married. Once you have an approximate year and place of marriage, you can begin to search online marriage indexes on genealogy sites such FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com. You can also use these sites to search for birth records of her children as well. As you find more information about your family, you begin to put together a timeline to help you organize your research.
Continue to Work backward From the 1870 US Census
From your own research, you have already found an 1870 U.S. Census record that shows Rhoda Bell living with her parents, Kinchen and Sarah Bell. Does this information match what was found on her death record? If so, you have a pretty good idea of where the family was living just after the abolition of slavery. If the information doesn’t match the records you found for Rhoda, you might want to keep searching the 1870 Census to see if you can find any other records of Rhoda with information that matches her death and marriage records.
Once you have a definitive record of Rhoda and her parents in the 1870 U.S. Census, the next task is to find the origin of the family’s name—was it taken from a slave owner?—to determine if your kin were enslaved or granted their freedom. Our previous posts on pre-Civil War research in the South and finding the origin of the surname of enslaved African American ancestors have some useful tips on finding information beyond the 1870 Census.
Former slaves were not listed by name in the census records until 1870. In contrast, free African Americans were enumerated by name beginning with the 1850 Census. Prior to that year, only the heads of the household were listed in the census records. If a free African American was the head of the household before 1850, they would be listed by name, but the rest of the family would only be enumerated gender and a broad age range. If Kinchen Bell was free in 1850, you should be able to find a record of him in the 1850 U.S. Federal Census.
You mentioned that the 1850 slave schedule entry for Kinchen Bell shows that he was black and that he also owned slaves. We should note here that the 1850 and 1860 Census slave schedules usually did not list the race of the slave owner. They also do not list the enslaved people by name; instead, they list age and race for the enslaved population. There are also columns to show if the slave was a fugitive from the state and then the number of slaves manumitted (or given freedom) by a slave owner.
The 1860 slave schedules have an additional column to show how many slave houses the owner had. Usually, the slaves are listed from oldest to youngest; therefore, it is difficult to see if there are any family connections amongst the slaves. Sometimes, especially for larger slaveholders, they were grouped by families, but there is not any way to confirm that the groups of slaves were, in fact, related. Before 1850, there were not any separate slave schedules, but the number of slaves was listed in the household entry for the slave owner. Here only a range of age is given, so there is even less information.
It may seem like these records aren’t very useful for finding your ancestors, but there are some instances where they can provide direction for your research. If you know approximately where your ancestors lived, you can use these schedules to see if there were any slaveholders with your family’s name in the area. Furthermore, if you know that your ancestor was freed from slavery before emancipation, you could search for slave owners in the area that manumitted slaves.
The next step for many African Americans tracing back their roots before Emancipation is to look up slave owners in the 1850 and 1860 Census records (even for the vast majority of those whose ancestors were owned by whites). This will give you information about the owners’ birthplace, birth year, family members and value of real estate. All of the information will be useful if you then search for probate and land records of slave owners. Such documents might list all of the slaves they owned, by name.
Find the Right Kinchen Bell
To locate more information about Kinchen Bell, we searched for a record of him in the 1850 Census (as opposed to the slave schedule). In our own search, we found one record that shows Kinchen Bell of Union County, Ky., was born circa 1793 in North Carolina. He was a farmer who lived with his wife and four children. There was not a mark made in the race column, which suggests that he was white. From this information, it seems likely that this is a different Kinchen Bell than your ancestor, since the 1870 Census record for your ancestor shows that he was born in Virginia circa 1810.
All of this suggest that your ancestor, Kinchen Bell, was probably not living in Kentucky in 1850. You can now focus your research in the geographic regions in which your family was known to live based on other definitive records you have found, such as the 1870 U.S. Federal Census and Rhoda Bell’s death record.
Did Blacks Own Slaves?
However, if the slave schedule record you found, with Kinchen Bell listed as black, is to be believed, it raises the question: Did blacks really own slaves? This was the question addressed in another series for The Root, 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro, No. 21, which we conclude by excerpting:
"In 1830, the year most carefully studied by [pioneering African American historian] Carter G. Woodson, about 13.7 percent (319,599) of the black population was free. Of these, 3,776 free Negroes owned 12,907 slaves, out of a total of 2,009,043 slaves owned in the entire United States, so the numbers of slaves owned by black people over all was quite small by comparison with the number owned by white people. In his essay, " 'The Known World' of Free Black Slaveholders," Thomas J. Pressly, using Woodson's statistics, calculated that 54 (or about 1 percent) of these black slave owners in 1830 owned between 20 and 84 slaves; 172 (about 4 percent) owned between 10 to 19 slaves; and 3,550 (about 94 percent) each owned between 1 and 9 slaves. Crucially, 42 percent owned just one slave.
"Pressly also shows that the percentage of free black slave owners as the total number of free black heads of families was quite high in several states, namely 43 percent in South Carolina, 40 percent in Louisiana, 26 percent in Mississippi, 25 percent in Alabama and 20 percent in Georgia. So why did these free black people own these slaves?
"It is reasonable to assume that the 42 percent of the free black slave owners who owned just one slave probably owned a family member to protect that person, as did many of the other black slave owners who owned only slightly larger numbers of slaves. As Woodson put it in 1924's Free Negro Owners of Slaves in the United States in 1830, 'The census records show that the majority of the Negro owners of slaves were such from the point of view of philanthropy. In many instances the husband purchased the wife or vice versa … Slaves of Negroes were in some cases the children of a free father who had purchased his wife. If he did not thereafter emancipate the mother, as so many such husbands failed to do, his own children were born his slaves and were thus reported to the numerators.'
"Moreover, Woodson explains, 'Benevolent Negroes often purchased slaves to make their lot easier by granting them their freedom for a nominal sum, or by permitting them to work it out on liberal terms.' In other words, these black slave-owners, the clear majority, cleverly used the system of slavery to protect their loved ones. That's the good news.
"But not all did, and that is the bad news. [In a fascinating essay reviewing this controversy, R.] Halliburton concludes, after examining the evidence, that 'it would be a serious mistake to automatically assume that free blacks owned their spouse or children only for benevolent purposes.' Woodson himself notes that a 'small number of slaves, however, does not always signify benevolence on the part of the owner.' And [the distinguished black historian] John Hope Franklin notes that in North Carolina, 'Without doubt, there were those who possessed slaves for the purpose of advancing their [own] well-being … these Negro slaveholders were more interested in making their farms or carpenter-shops 'pay' than they were in treating their slaves humanely.' For these black slaveholders, he concludes, 'there was some effort to conform to the pattern established by the dominant slaveholding group within the State in the effort to elevate themselves to a position of respect and privilege.' In other words, most black slave owners probably owned family members to protect them, but far too many turned to slavery to exploit the labor of other black people for profit …
"Most of us will find the news that some black people bought and sold other black people for profit quite distressing, as well we should. But given the long history of class divisions in the black community, which Martin R. Delany as early as the 1850s described as "a nation within a nation," and given the role of African elites in the long history of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, perhaps we should not be surprised that we can find examples throughout black history of just about every sort of human behavior, from the most noble to the most heinous, that we find in any other people's history.
"The good news, scholars agree, is that by 1860 the number of free blacks owning slaves had markedly decreased from 1830. In fact, Loren Schweninger concludes that by the eve of the Civil War, 'the phenomenon of free blacks owning slaves had nearly disappeared' in the Upper South, even if it had not in places such as Louisiana in the Lower South. Nevertheless, it is a very sad aspect of African-American history that slavery sometimes could be a colorblind affair, and that the evil business of owning another human being could manifest itself in both males and females, and in black as well as white."
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 the editor-in-chief 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 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.