Byline: Catrina Satterwhite
When we think about our Black ancestors, there is normally a stopping point at our great-grandparents. If you’re lucky enough, you are aware of your great-great-grandparents. Of course, this all depends on factors such as your age and if you had access to those family members. With the history of the slave trade, many family members were separated forever under new names and new families.
But all hope hasn’t been lost. In the last few years, websites like Ancestry and 23 and Me have made learning about your ancestors, as well as finding your kin, a lot easier. Boasting billions of records and users who have opted to submit their DNA, you’re likely to find some information you didn’t know you needed or even thought of.
Pamela Bailey of The Antebellum Diaspora Project has utilized DNA as well as genealogy tools to connect with her family (both known and unknown) and the search is still on. But this never stops right? Let’s take a trip down memory lane through Mrs. Bailey.
Bailey resides in Dallas, Texas but is originally from the Carolinas. South Carolina to be exact.
“It was a really good upbringing. I grew up in a small community, a very loving community but particularly in the African-American community, everybody knew everybody, and even if you didn’t know how you were related, you treated everyone as such. My father started telling me stories when I was a kid and we lived in close proximity to the places where my family had been enslaved. My father wanted us to know our value and that our family had contributed so much to this country and to our community,” said Bailey.
When she began her freshman year at South Carolina State University, she noticed in her business classes that she had two instructors that were from two different countries in Africa ask her where she was from.
“Each would approach me and ask me where I was from. I would tell them that I’m from this little town that’s like two hours away. They would be like no, where are you from? I’d say South Carolina. Then, they would ask me where my parents were from. They assumed I was first generation and that my parents were from an African country,” said Bailey.
Of course she never really thought about this due to most of the people in her community sharing the same physical attributes.
Bailey has since discovered that her family has been here before the United States was even a country, before the Revolutionary War. She graduated and moved to Charlotte, North Carolina and got into the banking industry and she continued to be asked by well-traveled people what country she was from. This really made Bailey curious as to what people were seeing in her. She relocated to Dallas, and the narrative still didn’t change. She continued to be frequently asked questions about where she was from.
Though her genealogy research began 13 years ago, in 2017, she wanted to take things a bit further in discovering where her family really came from. She found one big factor through DNA testing.
“I learned that the overall majority of people that come from slavery are going to have at least 12-25 percent of European blood. And for me, I only have three percent of European blood. I’m 95 percent African still, two percent Native American and a three percent mix of Swedish, French and Norwegian. So that was really interesting to me that my family has been here for so long,” said Bailey.
Bailey was able to confirm that she was in fact from all of the places that people assumed she was from strictly based on her physical features. Not only that, her ancestry wasn’t only confined to South Carolina, but from coast to coast. She was particularly surprised that she has so much family in the South because she didn’t understand why her ancestors wouldn’t be in the North to have escaped the strife of the South after reconstruction.
Bailey later came across a book, Slavery and Forced Migration in the Antebellum South by a scholar named Damian Alan Pargas. One of her colleagues suggested that she reach out to Pargas. She was able to continue her research through reaching out to various scholars for assistance. She had always been told by her mother that her maternal grandfather was in the World War, but was never sure which war. Deep into her research, she was able to find out that her grandfather was on a ship called USS Leviathan and he was there during the outbreak of the flu pandemic of that time. He was on that ship when Franklin D. Roosevelt was and was ill. But her grandfather survived it. Ironically, she found out this information right before our current pandemic. She considers it all serendipitous.
“The ancestors will be found when they’re ready to be found. To know that things like that are a part of my history made this research very interesting,” said Bailey.
“Since doing this work, I’ve discovered that many Americans, not just African-Americans, and even some historians who do work around Civil War history did not know about the massive separations, permanent separations of families, of which there are over two million. By 1865, four million people were living in this country of African descent. So that’s a large number and all of us are affected in one way or another. Just knowing these stories has made me so proud, not from ego, but to know that I come from the people that I come from. One of the reasons that the history was hidden for so long was to keep Blacks from having that sense of pride,” said Bailey.
She explains that our ancestors that were in the military were not photographed in groups or in pictures amongst dignitaries that came to visit in places because the thought was that if people back home saw them serving in uniform, it would instill pride.
“There are so many people ashamed of this history because it’s still the survival of the fittest, so for us to be here, we have had to come through some amazing people and if you look, the stories are there. We have to start looking at our families as being three-dimensional. Our families in spite of being enslaved, they still got married, they still loved their children, they danced at weddings, they sang songs. Sometimes, in spite of having to go to a slaveholder’s church, they would sneak off in the woods and have their own service because no one was going to tell them how to serve God,” said Bailey.
“I met a man here in Dallas at a lecture by Eric Foner about slavery history and reconstruction. During the question and answer segment, I got up and shared my story because most of his lecture was about my family’s history in South Carolina. He was able to let me know that I was spot on with the information I had gathered. Later, I was approached respectfully by a White gentleman who asked if he could have a few minutes of my time and I agreed,” said Bailey.
During the conversation, the gentleman said that prior to moving to Dallas over 40 years ago, his mother gave him a box, but he never got around to the box until months later. Upon opening, he found a document from his family’s progenitor that confirmed that his family was slaveholders. He didn’t know his family had enslaved people until that moment. He was particularly interested in Clarendon County in South Carolina, where Bailey is from. It just so happens that half of Bailey’s DNA originates from that county.
Though the gentleman had never approached anyone else with this information, he felt that Bailey was approachable enough to ask. When she asked if he had ever asked anyone else, he said there was never a segway to really bring that up.
Though this can be an uncomfortable conversation for many, they were able to share a lot of information and they were able to link together their families, proving that his family had enslaved her family at one point. This gentleman has been a huge supporter of her project ever since.
“A lot of people want to do this and they should do this if they are on the other side of this history [too] because when we find their families, we are going to find our families,” said Bailey.
If you are interested in learning about your family history, Bailey uses genealogy, DNA testing, various databases and social media to help with her research.
Bailey is currently working on her documentary, Information Wanted. Be on the lookout for deeper conversations.