Coming to the Table (CTTT) is a U.S. non-profit “working together to create a just and truthful society that acknowledges and seeks to heal from the racial wounds of the past, from slavery and the many forms of racism it spawned.” The Linked Descendants Working Group includes CTTT members who “want to know the truth about their ancestors, discover their connections, maybe even heal a bit of the wounded past.” Members descend from enslavers and enslaved and some are connected through slavery and some as family. Members discuss how to make connections including genealogical research methods, practical matters regarding communicating with potential linked descendants, and the emotional aftermath of slavery. Members descended from enslaved people are searching for their family history. Other members seek to share the information they’ve uncovered about enslaved people through researching their own family history. That’s where the U.S. Black Heritage Project comes in.
The U.S. Black Heritage Project’s mission is shown below.
The similar interests of the two groups have provided me an opportunity to support the Linked Descendants to begin using WikiTree. Once they feel comfortable with WikiTree, they can join the many projects within the U.S. Black Heritage project (such as the Plantations Project, or the one I am involved with the Heritage Exchange Profile Improvement Team.)
If you would like to know more about using WikiTree to support your family history, including your Linked Descendant journey, I’d be happy to share resources if you contact me. An introductory video I created is available via the Virtual Genealogical Association.
For most of my education, American History started with the Pilgrims and ended sometime around World War II. History books largely ignored contributions of women, impacts on Indigenous people, the horrific middle passage of enslaved Africans, slavery, and ongoing inequities experienced by anyone considered “the other.” In 8th grade our history book contained an image that upended the paper pilgrim hats, George Washington’s cherry tree, and Lincoln’s log cabin.
The image of the slave ship Brookes haunted me: black figures, lying chained together in the hold of a ship, layers of unwilling human cargo. Considered one of the most important infographics of all time, English abolitionists posted it on walls of taverns and published it in newspapers and pamphlets. It contributed to the passage of laws abolishing the slave trade throughout the British empire in 1808. On seeing the image in 1974, I began to doubt the history of the just and righteous founding fathers. Three years later, the miniseries Roots caught the attention of the nation and demonstrated that memories of capture, the harrowing trip across the ocean, and enslavement survived the passage of time. Alex Haley based his novel on stories his grandmother told of his seventh great-grandfather stolen from Gambia.
By 1998, the publication of Slaves in the Family by Edward Ball invited Americans to look at the past. He wrote:
No one among the Balls talked about how slavery had helped us, but whether we acknowledged it or not, the powers of our ancestors were still in hand. Although our social franchise had shrunk, it had nevertheless survived. If we did not inherit money, or land, we received a great fund of cultural capital, including prestige, a chance at education, self-esteem, a sense of place, mobility, even (in some cases) a flair for giving orders. And it was not only “us,” the families of former slave owners, who carried the baggage of the plantations. By skewing things so violently in the past, we had made sure that our cultural riches would benefit all white Americans.
Edward Ball, Slaves in the Family, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998), p. 13-14.
I am committed to unlearning, “to discard or put aside certain knowledge as being false or binding.” The history I learned in school denied reality. My unlearning has taken on new urgency as the world continues to struggle to address racism. A new wave of book censorship threatens our ability to unlearn. I believe my grandchildren deserve history lessons that face the past. It is only then that we can create a better future.
Judge and others were denied freedom while living in a free state by the Washingtons’ practice of sending enslaved people back to a slave-holding state just as they became eligible for emancipation. George Washington misused his power during attempts to return her to slavery. New Englanders sympathetic to Judge blocked Washington’s efforts and helped Judge maintain her freedom.
In this surprising book, Henry Louis Gates revises an ambitious and not totally factual book of the same name first published in 1934. The original author, Joel Augustus Rogers, introduced many African Americans to their history during the Jim Crow era. Henry Louis Gates corrects Roger’s misunderstandings and creates a fascinating look at the many ways African Americans shaped world history.
Adam Goodheart carefully catalogs the events leading up to the Civil War on a personal and national scale. For those of us who learned the Civil War was about “states rights,” this book provides overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Harriet Jacobs, born in 1813 in North Carolina, recounts the years she was enslaved, sexual abuse by an enslaver, and years hiding in an attic before her escape to New York. The book was first published in January 1861 and you can read it online.
Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Brown brought together ninety authors, each writing about a 5-year period in American history beginning in 1619 with the arrival of the first Africans in Jamestown. Using short story, biography, poetry, essays, and calls-to-action, the authors provide connections to current issues.
As founder of the Equal Justice initiative, Bryan Stevenson fights daily for the rights of people unjustly charged with crimes. His book recounts story after story of last-minute legal maneuvering to save people’s lives. His organization documents the history of racial injustice.
Dorothy Wickendam chronicles the lives of Harriet Tubman, Martha Wright, and Frances Seward who each fought for abolition and women’s rights, sometimes together, and sometimes with differences of opinion.
Harrowing experiences of racism in the south led each of the three people profiled in the Warmth of Other Suns to distinct locations: to the north, the midwest, and the west. Isabel Wilkerson’s comprehensive research, interviewing acumen, and storytelling demonstrate how racism followed each to their destination and continues to impact people today.
The death of the promise of reconstruction is recounted in Zucchino’s book about the massacre of African Americans who had risen to elected office and prominence in business in Wilmington.
 Thomas Clarkson, The History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade by the British Parliament, (London: publisher not given, 1808); digital image and description, British Library https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/diagram-of-the-brookes-slave-ship(: accessed 4 May 2022).
 Michael Sandberg, “DataViz History: The Slave-Ship Chart That Kindled The Abolitionist Movement, 1788,” DataVizBlog.com (https://datavizblog.com/2013/03/09/dataviz-history-the-slave-ship-chart-that-kindled-the-abolitionist-movement-1788/ : accessed 4 May 2022).
 “Biography: Alex Murray Palmer Haley, August 11, 1921 – February 10, 1992” AlexHaley.com (https://alexhaley.com/biography/ : accessed 4 May 2022).
 Edward Ball, Slaves in the Family, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998).
 “Unlearn,” Dictionary.com (https://www.dictionary.com/browse/unlearn : accessed 4 May 2022).
 Annie Gowen, “Censorship battles’ new frontier: Your public library,” 17 April 2022, The Washington Post (https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2022/04/17/public-libraries-books-censorship/ : accessed 4 May 2022).
Genealogists commonly encounter errors in census data. But what about the deliberate misuse of census data to cause harm? The 1840 census illustrates how census data were used for ill.
Family historians rely on information from census records, hoping to identify family units and to trace location and situation over time. The 1840 census, like those from 1790 to 1830, documented families under the name of the head of household and counted other household members by age, gender, race, and status of free or enslaved. The informant was unknown and could be the enumerator, a neighbour, or any member of the family. Over time, the data collected for each census varied, depending on the priorities of the government. Data from the first census in 1790 determined Congressional representation and funding for the new government.
As the government’s need for information grew, the census data accommodated that need. By 1820, naturalization status and involvement in agriculture, manufacturing or trade were assessed. Collection of information about health or functional status began in 1830 with enumeration of those who were deaf, deaf mute, or blind. In 1840, the enumeration included those insane (referring to people with mental illness) or idiotic (referring to those with developmental or intellectual disabilities) and if they were supported by private or public means.
As any family historian knows, the information in the census can be flawed at the individual level. The misinformation may have occurred at the time of enumeration, with ages guessed, misstated, or misunderstood. Location information is primary and most reliable, since the enumerator went from dwelling-to-dwelling collecting information. Errors could be introduced during transcription since each enumerator created multiple copies. Fraud by the enumerator was also a possibility. Data were recorded across large sheets in columns. Standardized forms introduced in 1830 improved collection of census data.
Congressional reports collated census data to inform policy, and the 1840 census was no exception. The Compendium of the Enumeration of the Inhabitants and Statistics of the United States, as Obtained at the Department of State, from Returns of the Sixth Census supported arguments of politicians in slaveholding states because it reported that the percentage of “colored persons” who were “insane and idiots” was higher in northern states compared to southern states. The statistics showed that “the negroes and mulattoes of the north produced one lunatic or idiot for every one hundred and forty-four persons, while the same class at the south produced only one lunatic or idiot for every fifteen hundred and fifty-eighth.” Politicians like Senator and former Vice President John C. Calhoun of South Carolina claimed that slavery benefited “the African race.” In an 1837 speech he said, “I may say, with truth, that in few countries so much is left to the share of the labourer [referring to enslaved people], and so little exacted from him, or where there is more kind attention to him in sickness or infirmities of age.” The census bolstered Calhoun’s pro-slavery politics and his personal finances as an enslaver. The John C. Calhoun household in 1840 included seventy-seven enslaved people.
Dr. Edward Jarvis, a specialist in treating mental disorders, used the time he was convalescing from a broken leg to study the 1840 census records. Jarvis reviewed the entire census and recalculated the totals, noting multiple errors in the tallying of the data for free colored people. An example is the census of the community of Scarborough in Cumberland County, Maine. No free people of color were enumerated in Scarborough, but the totals include 6 “colored persons” who were classified as “idiots and insane” as shown in the image below.
Jarvis determined that the Worcester, Massachusetts enumeration contained a more flagrant error. The totals page, shown below, noted 133 “colored persons” who were insane or idiots and cared for at public expense. The entire “free colored” population shown on the prior page was 150. Dr. Jarvis’ investigation revealed that the 133 people were white residents of the state hospital for the insane.
Jarvis’ analysis became known to members of Congress and on 26 February 1844, John Quincy Adams brought a resolution to the House of Representatives that the “Secretary of State be directed to inform the House whether any gross errors have been discovered in the printed …census…[of 1840]…and, if so, how those errors originated, what they are, and what, if any, measures have been taken to rectify them.” On April 10 1844, John C. Calhoun was appointed Secretary of State and on 6 May 1844, he responded to the House Resolution of 26 February “stating that no such errors had been discovered.” Efforts to address the errors continued for decades, with Jarvis continuing to publish and refute publications that cited the erroneous data.
The 1840 census errors remain. John C. Calhoun used the results of the faulty census to justify slavery to the British government, who had pressured the United States to abolish slavery in Texas. A report in 1900 concluded that errors were present in 1840 and attributed the errors to “ineffectiveness of the machinery by which the census was then taken” including the amount of data being collected, inadequate compensation, and improper supervision. That these errors remain serve as a testament to people who would misuse data to further the ill treatment of other members of society, such as the enslavement of 2,487,355 people counted in the 1840 census. As family historians, our experience with individual errors can help us understand how the magnification of errors combined with nefarious political actions furthered the cause of enslavers and underpins myths that survive to this day.
 United States Department of Commerce, U.S. Census Bureau, Measuring America: The Decennial Censuses From 1790 to 2000, Report Number POL/02-MA(RV), September 2002, United States Census (https://www2.census.gov/library/publications/2002/dec/pol_02-ma.pdf : accessed 19 March 2022), p. 5-65.
 “The First U.S. Census is Taken,” Jeremy Norman’s HistoryofInformation.com (https://www.historyofinformation.com/detail.php?id=1347 : accessed 20 March 2022).
 U.S. Department of Commerce, Measuring America, September 2002, p. 5-7
 U.S. Department of Commerce, Measuring America, September 2002, p. 119.
 Tammy Hepps, “When Henry Silverstein Got Cold: Fraud in the 1920 Census,” Homestead Hebrews (https://homesteadhebrews.com/articles/when-henry-silverstein-got-cold/ : accessed 25 March 2022).
 U.S. Department of Commerce, Measuring America, September 2002, p. 5-65.
 Department of State, Compendium of the Enumeration of the Inhabitants and Statistics of the United States, As Obtained at the Department of State, from the Returns of the Sixth Census, (Washington: Thomas Allen, Printer, 1841); digital images, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/library/books/viewer/195136/ : accessed 19 March 2022).
 Edward Jarvis, Insanity among the Coloured Population of the Free States (extracted from the American Journal of the Medical Sciences for January, 1844, (Philadelphia: T.K & P.G. Collins, Printers, 1844), p. 6; digital images, Internet Archive (https://archive.org/details/101475758.nlm.nih.gov : accessed 20 March 2022).
 John C. Calhoun, Speeches of John C. Calhoun: Delivered in the Congress of the United States from 1811 to the Present Time, Chapter XIV, “Speech on the Reception of Abolition Petitions, February, 1837,” (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1843), p. 225; digital images, Internet Archive (https://archive.org/details/speechesofjohncc00incalh/page/224/mode/2up : accessed 19 March 2022).
 1840 U.S. Census, Pickens County, South Carolina, population schedule, Pickens District, p. 354 (stamped), John C. Calhoun household, line 12 (hand counted); digital images, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33S7-9YT5-9L1P and https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33SQ-GYT5-9PDH : accessed 20 March 2022).
 Robert W. Wood, Memorial of Edward Jarvis, MD, American Statistical Association, (Boston: T.R. Marvin and Son, Printers, 1885), p. 10-12; digital images, GoogleBooks (https://books.google.ca/books?id=amKMsWB1Jy8C : accessed 19 March 2022).
 Edward Jarvis, Insanity among the Coloured Population of the Free States (extracted from the American Journal of the Medical Sciences for January, 1844, (Philadelphia: T.K & P.G. Collins, Printers, 1844), p. 7.
 “Mr. ADAMS offered the following….,” Congressional Globe, U.S. House of Representatives, 28th Congress, 1st session, p. 323, col. 3; digital image, A Century of Lawmakingfor a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 177401875, (https://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=llcg&fileName=013/llcg013.db&recNum=346 : accessed 20 March 2022.)
 Journal of the House of Representatives, Vol. 39, 6 May 1844; digital images (https://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=llhj&fileName=039/llhj039.db&recNum=876&itemLink=D?hlaw:3:./ : accessed 20 March 2022)
 Albert Deutsch, “The First U.S. Census of the Insane (1840) and Its Use as Pro-Slavery Propaganda,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Vol. 15 (May 1944), p. 475; digital images JSTOR (https://www.jstor.org/stable/44446305 : accessed 19 March 2022).
 Peter Whoriskey, “The bogus U.S. census numbers showing slavery’s ‘wonderful influence’ on the enslaved,” The Washington Post, digital edition,17 October 2020, (https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2020/10/17/1840-census-slavery-insanity/ : accessed 20 March 2022).
 Albert Deutsch, “The First U.S. Census of the Insane (1840) and Its Use as Pro-Slavery Propaganda,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Vol. 15 (May 1944), p. 477.
Carroll D. Wright, The History and Growth of the United States Census prepared for the Senate Committee on the Census, (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1900), p. 37; digital images, Census.gov (https://www.census.gov/history/pdf/wright-hunt.pdf : accessed 20 March 2022).
 Department of State, Compendium of the Enumeration of the Inhabitants and Statistics of the United States, (Washington: Thomas Allen, Printer, 1841), p. 368.
A couple of months ago I was researching my 5x great-grandfather and came across a Deed of Gift in the courthouse records in Rockingham County, North Carolina. My ancestor, John Barnett, gave his nine grandchildren (including my 3x-great grandfather) a present on 6 March 1823. The Deed of Gift began innocently enough:
“To all people to whom these presents shall come. _ I John Barnett of Rockingham County & State of North Carolina send greetings Know ye that I the said John Barnett for and in consideration of the natural love and affection which I have and bear unto my beloved grand children, namely, James Walker, John Walker, David Walker, William Walker, Thomas Walker, Samuel Walker, Lucy Walker, Martha Walker & Henry Walker, chil- dren of my Daughter Ann who intermarried with Adam Walker…”
At this point, my genealogist brain said “excellent, I now have an original document with primary information directly linking Ann Barnett to her father, her husband, and all of her children in Rockingham County, North Carolina in 1823.” These generational links form the foundation of a well-documented family tree.
As I read on, the sinking feeling began as the gift was described:
“…one Negro Boy na- mely Jacob 14 years old, one ditto name- ly Charles eight years old, one Negro wo- man Nancy twenty years old, one other Negro Woman Dafney seventeen years old one waggon & five pair of Giere [geese?] 1 Black Horse 8 years old, 1 Do [ditto] 15 years old, one Bay horse 9 years old 1 Sorrel Mare 12 or 15 years old four feather Beds and furniture, one Sugar chest, also seven hundred dollars, with all the Increase of said property…”
My ancestor gave Jacob, Charles, Nancy, and Dafney to his grandchildren as chattel. He also gave any of their children away as chattel. My ancestor destroyed the desires, dreams, and relationships of these four people by owning them and selling them. This gift took place prior to the Adam Walker family’s relocation to Perry County, Tennessee, and likely tore families apart. My ancestor’s actions are part of the multigenerational transmission of harm to African Americans. This harm, or historical trauma, carries a legacy of “beliefs, ideas, myths, prejudices, biases and behaviors that are disseminated and then inherited by and/or about differing groups.” The aftermath of this legacy is the systematic and structural racism that persists in North America.
I have known for over thirty years that some of my ancestors were enslavers. I found my ancestors in the slave schedules of the 1850 and 1860 censuses with the lists of unnamed people they held in bondage. My mother discovered a scrap of paper in the Benton County, Tennessee, Historical Society records describing the sale of Mary Jane from one ancestor to another. Although never far from my mind, this information had become far from my heart. John Barnett’s Deed of Gift brought it back into my heart.
My response to this knowledge has changed. Instead of logging it away in my genealogy program and citing the sources faithfully, I have begun the process of “Transforming Historical Harms” as recommended by Hooker and Czajkowski:
Facing History Making Connections Healing Wounds Taking Action
I am finding my own way forward to face history, make connections, heal wounds, and take action. It is a small thing compared to the harm so many African Americans experienced and continue to experience. I share these early steps in my journey with the hope of encouraging you on your own.
In the past two years I have focused on learning about racism and the American history that I was not taught in school. This education will continue for the rest of my life. As a citizen of two countries (the United States and Canada), facing history is both a societal imperative and specific to my family. Reading and learning about systematic and structural racism led me to Coming to the Table (CTTT), a non-profit with a core of genealogical research dedicated to facing history and healing racial wounds created by slavery and its impact. I participate in the Linked Descendants group. With support from Coming to the Table, I became a Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience practitioner, and I am learning and practicing ways to address historical trauma. I’ve joined the U.S. Black Heritage Exchange program WikiTree project and wrote about that experience in a guest blog for Research Like a Pro. I am entering the records of enslavers and those that were enslaved into WikiTree in hopes of helping others discover their family history. As a citizen and a health care professional, I will continue to take action, speak out, donate time and resources, and be part of the long process of righting the historical harms written into history, like John Barnett’s Deed of Gift.
The story of Jacob, Charles, Nancy, and Dafney reminds all of us of the debt owed to the people who built the wealth of the North American continent. How can we individually and collectively face history, make connections, heal wounds, and take action? What’s next for you?
 Rockingham County, North Carolina, “Deed Book X,” pages 230-232, John Barnett to his grandchildren James Walker, John Walker, David Walker, William Walker, Thomas Walker, Samuel Walker, Lucy Walker, Martha Walker and Henry Walker, Deed of Gift, 6 March 1823; digital images, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QS7-L98Q-3QYR : accessed 5 November 2021), FHL Film #007517701; citing North Carolina Department of Archives and History, Raleigh.