February is Black History Month and for genealogists, a chance to reflect on how we can help researchers with African American heritage discover their ancestors. As a southern researcher, I come in contact with many records naming enslaved individuals and have wondered how best to share those with others. I’ve written previously about the Slave Name Roll Project and the Beyond Kin Project. In this guest post by genealogist, Connie Davis, we learn about another excellent way to share records naming enslaved individuals -the US Black Heritage project at WikiTree.
Guest Blog by Connie Davis
Have you searched for a way to share records that might help the descendants of enslaved people trace their roots? The US Black Heritage Project at WikiTree helped me solve this dilemma.
I joined WikiTree in 2017 to find a way to share family history with relatives who don’t belong to any of the usual genealogy websites. I can easily share my family tree or the profile of a shared ancestor. I began by creating profiles for my ancestors and linking them to existing profiles on WikiTree. Another option is to import a Gedcom. You may have heard that WikiTree has a “steep learning curve.” I used the many resources available to learn how to create profiles on WikiTree and I created templates to simplify the process.
When I discovered the name of an enslaved woman in a bill of sale from 1857, I knew it could be the key to unlocking someone else’s family history. I shared this information on genealogy forums but wanted a permanent, easily accessible solution. When the US Black History project at WikiTree reached out for volunteers in 2021, I signed up. I discovered there are projects to document large groups of people who were enslaved together on plantations or have a shared history, like the Georgetown University 272. The Slaves Narratives project creates profiles based on the Federal Writers’ Project of 1936-1938. The goal of that project is to create profiles for more than 2000 people born into slavery who were interviewed as part of the Works Progress Administration effort. WikiTree was a perfect place to share the information I had from the bill of sale.
To ensure I was doing everything right, I joined the US Black Heritage Project PATH. I was matched up with a mentor who gave me assignments and checked my work, guiding me through the steps to create a profile for an enslaved person. Because of my experience with “Research Like a Pro,” I found I could easily adapt citations from my research log to create a sourced profile with live links. I also learned more about the terminology chosen for the US Black Heritage project.
After completing the PATH program, I started with the 1857 bill of sale in Benton County, Tennessee, that related the sale of the enslaved woman, Mary Jane, age eighteen, between two of my 3x-great grandfathers, Thomas Adam Walker and Holloway Key.
My first task was to create a new profile for Mary Jane, following what I had learned during the PATH program. As of 26 January 2022, a close look at Mary Jane’s WikiTree profile shows the following:
– 1 Connie Davis (me) as the profile manager
– 2 That Shirley (Thompson) Gilbert edited the profile. This demonstrates the benefit of collaboration. When I created the profile, I gave it a category (Benton County, Tennessee, Slaves) that did not exist. Shirley caught the error and fixed it.
-3 A banner (gold box) that explains how last names for the formerly enslaved are managed on WikiTree. Mary Jane has been given the two last names of the known enslavers until her surname can be determined.
-4 A sticker (box with two silhouettes) that denotes the profile as part of US Black Heritage.
I wrote a short biography for Mary Jane with footnotes and linked her to the profiles of my two ancestors. If by some chance, Mary Jane used the surname of Walker or Key later in her life, a descendant may be looking for her based on the surnames. The footnotes (called Sources) are automatically formatted.
The ability to categorize profiles by geographic region may also help a descendant find Mary Jane’s profile in the future. The category page captures information about the people who were held in bondage in Benton County, Tennessee. Currently, the category only has people I have entered because I am the first person to contribute to the project in Benton County. There is a companion page that lists the enslavers. To see where volunteers have started work, check out the category page for states.
If you are interested in assisting in this project, you can read more about joining WikiTree on the membership page. Contributors sign the Honor Code which describes the WikiTree commitment to accuracy, privacy, and collaboration.
The US Black Heritage project is an ambitious effort to document African-American history. If you descend from formerly enslaved people or enslavers, WikiTree is one option to share your research results and assist others in the process.