Genealogy of Afro-Americans

(Genealogy of Afro-Americans by Alex Haley was published in Afro-American History: Sources For Research by Robert L. Clarke.)

The National Archives Conference on Federal Archives as Sources for Research on Afro-Americans was held on June 4 and 5, 1973, the twelfth in a series of conferences sponsored by the National Archives and Records Service. The choice of Afro-American history as the subject of this conference seems particularly appropriate at this stage in our national life. Interest in the role played by Afro-Americans in our nation’s past has increased dramatically over the past two decades, as has the interest in primary sources that shed light on that role.

We at the National Archives have welcomed this growing awareness of the research potential of original materials. The archives of the United States are, in a sense, the collective memory of the nation, and within these permanently valuable records of the federal government are rich reservoirs of information on the history of Afro-Americans. This volume, and the conference that generated it, represent one way in which the National Archives has attempted to introduce researchers to the potential of our holdings.

Robert L. Clarke, National Archives specialist in Afro-American history, directed the conference and edited this volume. As a researcher and a reference specialist, he knows well the archival records that bear on Afro-American history and the needs of researchers for guides into their abundance.

It is his hope, and mine, that the publication of this volume will stimulate research on Afro-Americans, thereby contributing to a better understanding of our nation’s past.

Genealogy of Afro-Americans By Alex Haley

In 1965 shortly after I had completed writing the Autobiography of Malcolm X and it had been published, I felt a sort of void or emptiness. While fiddling around in that state, I thought about the stories that my grandmother and various members of her generation had told me while visiting her home in Henning, Tennessee. It was from my grandmother’s lips that I heard the story, which had come down across generations, about the slave family and the original “African.” These bits of treasured oral history led to my research at the National Archives.

Actually, the story began in a little town called Henning, Tennessee. I grew up in that little town, which was fifty miles north of Memphis. Every summer grandmother would have as visitors family members of her general age range, the late forties or early fifties. They came from places that sounded pretty exotic to me—Dyersburg, Tennessee; Inkster, Michigan; and Saint Louis, Missouri. They included Cousin Georgia, Aunt Plus, and Aunt Liz. Every evening after the supper dishes were washed, they would go out on the front porch and sit in canebottomed rocking chairs, and I would always sit behind grandma’s chair. Unless there was some particularly hot gossip that would overrule, they would talk about the selfsame thing—their parents who had lived in Alamance County, North Carolina. Their parents and grandparents were slaves and had lived there during the Civil War and emancipation. The family had come by wagon train from Alamance County, North Carolina, to the Murray plantation and finally to west Tennessee to the community called Blackfoot, which subsequently became Henning, Tennessee. It was these bits and pieces and patches of what I later learned was a long narrative history of the family that had been passed down, literally across generations.

At that time, I did not understand their conversations. Sometimes they would talk about incidents that happened in these places. The furthermost person in the family history that they ever talked about was someone called “The African.” Over the years, time and time again, I heard them repeat the African’s story of his capture while he was chopping wood to make a drum and how he had been brought on a ship to “Naplis” where Marse John Waller of Spotsylvania County, Virginia, bought him and later sold him to his brother, William.

Although the African was now chattel, he resisted slavery. He fought to keep his African name until he was forced to accept the name Toby. He escaped several times but was recaptured each time. And the fourth time that he escaped, he was caught by a professional slave catcher and given the option of being castrated or having his foot amputated. The slave chose amputation, and his decision had great significance, for that act played a major role in the keeping of a narrative that was passed down across generations.

The African was now crippled and worth far less on the auction block. In the middle 1700s in Virginia, almost all slaves were sold at auction. A male slave in good condition would bring on the average about $750. At the end of every slave auction they would have what they called the scrap sale, and those who were incapacitated, ill, or otherwise not so valuable for market, would be sold generally for amounts of $100 or less in cash. Although this particular African managed to survive, he posed an economic question to his master. But despite the African’s physical limitations, the master decided that he would be worth more kept on that plantation than he would be worth sold away for cash of less than $100. And that was how it happened that this particular African was kept on one plantation for quite a long period of time.

The African mated with a slave named Bell, the big house cook. Of that union was born a child named Kizzy. While Kizzy was still on the same plantation, the African passed a good deal of his heritage to her. He taught her the names for natural objects such as tree, rock, cow, sky, and so forth. The names that he told her were of his native tongue, but to the girl they were strange phonetic sounds. In time, with repetitive hearing, she could repeat them. He would point at a guitar and he would make a single sound as if it were spelled ko. And she came to know that ko was guitar in his terms. There were other strange phonetic sounds for other objects. Perhaps the most involved of these phonetic sounds was one which described the river (Mattaponi) contiguous to the plantation. Whenever this African would point out this river to his daughter Kizzy he would say to her “Kamby Bolongo.” And she came to know that Kamby Bolongo in his terms meant river.

When Kizzy was sixteen, she was sold to Tom Lea, the owner of a small North Carolina plantation. He became the father of her first child George, or Chicken George. When George was in his mid-teens, he was given the nickname Chicken George because he had learned to handle the master’s fighting gamecocks.

At the age of eighteen, Chicken George married a slave girl named Matilda, who gave birth to seven children. One was named Tom who became an apprenticed blacksmith. He was sold in his mid-teens to a man named Murray who had a tobacco plantation in Alamance County, North Carolina. On this plantation Tom married a slave named Irene. Their youngest child was named Cynthia who was my maternal grandmother. I grew up in her home in Henning, Tennessee. The oral history of the family was passed down from generation to generation until I heard it on grandmother’s front porch in Henning. And I wanted to know more.

In 1967 I visited the National Archives to research the Civil War and post-Civil War census tables for Alamance County, North Carolina. When I entered the Archives, I got a researcher’s pass and went into a reading room. A young man at a desk asked me if he could help me, and I became mildly embarrassed because it seemed ridiculous to say that I was just curious about some ex-slaves that I had heard about from my grandparents and others. I just said that I wanted to see some Civil War and post-Civil War census tables for Alamance County, North Carolina.

This young research assistant was very helpful. He immediately showed me how to get the microfilm and in a few minutes I was at a microfilm reader ready to start. I turned the crank and the enlarged images of the materials on the film appeared on the screen and I began to see the names of the people. If I turned it slowly, the names went slowly; and I had the feeling of discovering people from yesteryears, from long, long ago. Then when I would tan it fast the names went by more briskly, and there was a mystique about it. I went through that sort of feeling for about three rolls of microfilm. But I did not find anything. By now I was really more taken with the physical motion of the film across the screen than I was with the contents, and I was pretty bored. So I just left the film there.

I was walking through the main reading room when I saw something that made a visual impression upon me. Generally people are relaxed in libraries. They lean back in the most comfortable positions that they can find. But in that library every single soul at every single table in that room was bent forward over the table engrossed in whatever was in their hands. And I saw the various records in their hands had the look of old rare documents. Some of them needed repairs, some needed to be reproduced, and some had already been reproduced. The scene gripped me and it dawned on me that perhaps 90 percent of the researchers were women and perhaps the same percentage were over sixty years of age. It seemed so very interesting that when people had lived most of their lives one of the things they wanted to know before they died was where they had come from.

That concept intrigued me so much that I returned to the microfilm reader. I began turning the microfilm again and I guess that I was on my eleventh roll when I suddenly looked down and read the names, written in that old longhand script, of my grandmother, my aunts, my great aunts, and others. It was not that I had not believed grandmother; you simply did not, not believe her. The point was that I had found a document, a government record, that said the same thing that grandmother and other members of the family had been saying for generations.

I began practically commuting between New York City, where I then lived, and Washington, D.C. I worked three months off and on in the National Archives, where a most interesting relationship developed. There may be a kind of mental telepathy among black people. One thing is certain, the National Archives black research assistants were so glad to know that someone was doing research in black history that they gave me a great deal of professional assistance. There was one fellow, who I would recognize to this day, who finally, indirectly as we will do sometimes, began to ask me questions and focus in on what I was doing. From that time on, when I put in a slip requesting materials, I got it twice as fast as anyone else in the Archives got theirs. It was a beautiful thing to watch. It also was a beautiful example of how starved black people are for good black history.

I discovered information that led me into the Library of Congress, where I began to work in county records, for further documentation. What I was doing all this time was little by little, piece by piece, facet by facet, documenting things that had always been a part of my family’s history. Periodically, information that I found in a document coincided with what I knew of the oral history, which is such a strong part of the history of black people.

I began flying out to Kansas City to see Cousin Georgia, the youngest of the group that had sat and talked on grandmother’s front porch when I was a kid. She was the only surviving member of that group. I would just walk into her house and she would start talking, like echoes from the past. She would say such things as: “Yeah, boy, they said this and that and the other. The family lived in such and such county on such and such plantation. Old Marse so and so had them.” Then I would research the records and I would find that the records said exactly the same thing that Cousin Georgia had said. I would make copies of some of the records and show them to her, and she would become indignant that I had ever thought that her accounts were not true in the first place. And so it went.

One thing led to another until finally I had been able to document every major facet of what had been, up to that time, the oral history of the family. It was at that point that I thought about writing a book on the United States side of the story, which I then knew pretty thoroughly. It was also at this point that the African sounds that had always been a part of the story came into play. There were not many of them. Just as others had told the story for years, Cousin Georgia now would tell how the African, as they always called him, would point to a guitar and say “ko,” or point to the Mattaponi River and say “Kamby Bolongo.” The African told his daughter that his name was Kinte and that he had been captured while chopping wood near his village. The fact that I had been able to corroborate or document so much of the oral history of the family in the United States made me feel that maybe it was not totally ridiculous to peer into the African side.

I set out to determine, if I could, what those African sounds meant and where they had originated. I began to go to the United Nation’s lobby and stand around waiting for an African to pass. When one did, I tried to stop him and repeat the sounds to him. The Africans usually took a quick look at me and then kept going. They seemed startled to hear alleged African sounds from someone who had a Tennessee accent.

Having failed with that approach, I searched for a new way to get the meanings of those sounds. My very good friend, George Sims, a master researcher, suggested that I contact Dr. Jan Vansina of the University of Wisconsin, who was an expert in oral history. Vansina kindly acceded to my telephoned request for permission to visit him. There in his home in Madison, Wisconsin, he and some other scholars listened to the sounds and told me that they were of the Mandinka tongue, the language that is spoken by the Mandingo people. They guessed that ko meant kora in Mandingo. A kora, they said, was an old Mandinka musical instrument made of a large gourd covered with goat skin, with a long neck, a bridge, and twenty-one strings.

The pivotal step came next. He finally came to the most involved of the sounds that I had heard and had brought to him—Kamby Bolongo. Dr. Vansina and his colleagues told me, without question, in Mandinka, Bolongo meant river, preceded by Kamby it undoubtedly meant Gambia River. That information gave me a place or area from which the African might have come, and I just had to get there.

It was Thursday morning when I heard those words; Monday morning I was in Africa. On Friday I had discovered that of the numerous African students in this country, there were a few from that very small country called The Gambia, West Africa. The one who was nearest was a fellow who was attending Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. I had gone to the campus and practically snatched Ebou Manga out of his economics class. We had flown out of New York that Friday night and had traveled through the night to Dakar, Senegal. There we took a light plane that flew to a little airstrip called Yundum, where monkeys had to be chased from the landing strip before the plane could land. We hired a van and went into the small city of Bathurst, the capital of The Gambia. Ebou Manga’s father assembled a group of about eight men, members of the government, who came into the patio of the hotel. They sat in a kind of a semicircle as I told them the history that had come down across the family to my grandmother and thence to me.

When I finished the story, their initial response was “well, of course Kamby Bolongo would mean Gambia River.” These Africans reacted to the sound “Kin-tay,” a mere two-syllable sound that I had brought them, without the slightest comprehension that it had any particular significance. They said, “There may be some significance in that your forefather stated that his name was Kin-tay.” They continued, “Our oldest villages tend to be named for those families which founded those villages centuries ago.” And then they sent for a little map and they said, “Look, here is the village of Kinte-Kundah. And not too far from it is the village of Kinte-Kundah-Janneh-Ya.”

There in The Gambia for the first time I became aware of how black Africans keep their history. It is kept by old men called griots, who are in effect walking, living archives of oral history. They are the old men who, from their teen years, have been part of a line of men who tell the stories as told since the time of their forefathers, literally down across centuries. A line of griots might consist of an old man of seventy years of age, and after him successively younger men like sixty, fifty, forty, thirty, twenty, and a teenage boy. Each line of griots is an expert in the story of a major family clan and another line of griots another clan, and so forth.

The stories are narrated, not verbatim, but essentially in the same way they have been told down across time since the forefathers. The way the griots are trained is that the teenage boy is exposed to the story of a major clan for forty or fifty years before becoming the incumbent griot. Such a feat astounds us in our society because we have become so accustomed to the crutch of the printed word that we have almost forgotten the extent to which the human memory is capable of being trained—as it is in Africa—to be a repository of history.

I finally came to realize that for almost any black American who has a few clues like the African name of an ancestor and the approximate time and place of their sailing, there is the possibility for successful genealogical research. It is not improbable that in the back country of black West Africa there is a wizened old griot who literally could tell the ancestral clan from which the black American came.

The Africans could not help me much more at that time, so I returned to New York. It was not long before I received a letter explaining their discovery of a griot who could help me. I rushed back to The Gambia, where I had to organize a safari to go into the back country. I entered the back country village and was introduced to Kebba Kanga Fofana, an old griot who told me in meticulous details the history of the Kinte clan.

Fofana said that the Kinte clan began in Old Mali. Traditionally, the Kinte people were blacksmiths, potters, and weavers. A branch of the clan moved into the country called Mauretania. Kairaba Kunta Kinte, a son of the Kinte Clan, left the country of Mauretania and settled in a village called Pakali N’Ding in The Gambia. He later moved to another village called Jiffarong, and later went to the Juffure Village. In that village, he married a Mandinka maiden named Yaisa. Of that marriage, two sons were born, Janneh and Saloum.

In a second marriage, a son named Omoro was born to Kairaba Kunta Kinte. The three sons grew up in the Juffure Village. The youngest of the sons stayed in the village until he had 30 rains [years] and then he married Binta Kebba. They had four sons—Kunta, Lamin, Suwadu, and Madi. The griot stated, “About the time the king’s soldiers came, the youngest of the sons went away from the village to chop wood and was seen never again.” While growing up in Henning, Tennessee, and practically all my life, I had heard the story of the African who said that his name was Kunta Kinte and that he was kidnapped while chopping wood near the Juffure Village. And now it had been put together, both the American and African side of the story.

From the time I was a child, grandmother had always said that the ship that brought Kinte to this country had sailed to “Naplis.” The only place in the world that she could have meant was Annapolis, Maryland. I knew specifically where that slave came from, so obviously some ship had come from that area of the Gambia River and sailed to Maryland. I went to England to get some documentary evidence of such a ship because these events happened while Maryland was still an English colony.

I began to search for the records of ships that had sailed from Africa to this country. There were cartons of records that had never been opened of slave ships, of ships in general, that moved two centuries ago. In the seventh week of an almost traumatizing search, I found the name of the ship that sailed from the Gambia River to Gravesend, England. She was the eighteenth ship on the list, and was called the Lord Ligonier, a 170 ton vessel under the command of a Thomas Davies. On September 13, 1766, she reached the Gambia River and for several months she lay there gathering a cargo that included 3,265 elephant tusks, 3,700 pounds of beeswax, 800 pounds of cotton, 32 ounces of gold, and 140 slaves. On Sunday, July 5, 1767, she set sail for Annapolis, Maryland.

Having found out what cargo the Lord Ligonier had when she left Africa, I now returned to the United States to try to find out what cargo she had when she arrived in Annapolis. I began searching tax records—the one kind of record that exists in some form back to the time of Christ—to see what cargo taxes the Lord Ligonier had paid. She arrived in Annapolis after a voyage of about five thousand miles that took two months, three weeks, and two days. She had almost the same cargo, but only 98 of the 140 slaves she had sailed with survived the voyage; the number of slaves who died enroute was about average for slave ships. That same ship left Gravesend, England, with thirty-six crewmembers and arrived in Annapolis, with only eighteen alive. So they lost proportionately more crewmembers than they lost slaves. But slaves had value. The crewmembers had no value once they had gotten the slaves on the ships. In some instances, members of the crews were encouraged to commit suicide so they would not be around at the end of the voyage to collect the wages due them. Slavery was indeed a totally brutalizing system for both the captives and the captors.

After searching the Maryland Gazette, I found the ad that listed the slave ship, Lord Ligonier. The ad stated: “the Lord Ligonier with Captain Davies, had just arrived with a cargo of choice healthy slaves to be sold at Meg’s Wharf . . . and the agent of the ship was John Riddout.” (A descendant of his has written me seeking forgiveness for her ancestors’ connection with slavery.)

Now that I had found documentation for the ship that brought the African from the Gambia River to Annapolis, I wanted to find written evidence linking him to his Virginia owner. I knew that most transactions involving slaves were legal matters. So I went to Richmond, Virginia, to obtain the legal deeds. I found a deed that was dated September 5, 1768, transferring goods between the two brothers John and William Waller of Spotsylvania County, Virginia. On the second page in this fairly long deed were the words “and also one Negro slave named Toby.” So that was the documentation of my family’s lineage, down to the legal deeds.

I hope that this paper will project a worldwide correction of a fallacy that plagues not just black history, but the history of all peoples: History has been written and stored predominantly by the winners. More stories of black family lineage will spread an awareness that black history is not just some euphemistic cry on the part of a people trying to make some spurious case for themselves, but that black history is a matter of disciplined, documented, dedicated truth. The National Archives has opened the door to researchers, and more important, reemphasized that black history must become a viable part of the history of this nation. ~ Alex Haley.

(Genealogy of Afro-Americans by Alex Haley is presented under the Creative Commons License. It was published in Afro-American History: Sources For Research by Robert L. Clarke. © 1981 by Howard University Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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