HomeArticlesLibrary of Congress African American Collections – Ahmed Johnson
Library of Congress African American Collections – Ahmed Johnson
August 29, 2019
Well, thank you, William. I’m really happy to be here. My name is Ahmed Johnson. I’m
a reference librarian, as William said, at the Local History and Genealogy Reading Room.
Now, when I first got the call to do this presentation, I was really excited. Right?
Come in, talk about your collections and resources relevant for African-American genealogical
research, and then I was told I only had 15 minutes. [laughter] So. [laughs] I’m going to get started, right?
Because I think I’m at almost 14 now. So, once again, that’s my name and title.
Now, I always like to start with a historical background about the Library of Congress and
our African-American collection. So I’m going to read this really quickly. I hate to read,
but — for over 200 years, the Library of Congress has amassed resources bound about
African-Americans as part of its mission to promote the comprehensive study of American
history and culture. Right. Since 1870, because of copyright deposits, our collection has
enhanced. We have books, microforms, maps, music, and so forth. Many of these deposits
reflect the African-American experience in the context of slavery, reconstruction, and
the civil rights movement, among others. So we’re not just books; we’re maps, we’re newspapers,
we’re city directories, manuscripts, and so forth. But we don’t have every book every
published. I get that all the time. [laughter] Now, relating to our African-American collections,
no count has ever been made of all the subject areas comprising African-American history
and culture. Why? Because it’s spread throughout the general collections, as I mentioned earlier:
literature, slavery, the slave trade, Civil War, civil rights, and et cetera. Just some really basic genealogical research
methods; these are really basic, once again, I want to emphasize that. Usually I tell people
to begin with yourself. Don’t start with great-grandma, great-grandpa. Start with yourself. Because
we all have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, right? And you may
find a connection further up the tree. I always mention that. And then, of course, you want to document
it with vital records. What are vital records? They’re birth, death, marriage, sometimes
even divorce records. Right? And you can trace your family history. That should say 1940
now, because recently, the 1940 census, and primarily for African-Americans, you can go
back to 1870. You want to interview your oldest living relative
and investigate things lying in the attic. The trunk, not the truck — trunks, basement,
and so forth. And, of course, after you exhaust all of your resources at home, you want to
get out into the community, visit your local genealogical society, county courthouse, state
archives, et cetera. Like I mentioned earlier, trace your family
back to the 1870 census. Before that, in most cases, African-Americans are trying to identify
the last slave owner. Okay. How can we, at the Library of Congress,
help you with this research, right? Okay. The best place for information about our resources
and collections is our website. Great information on here. I didn’t put an arrow on this, but
that “Ask a Librarian” link, that allows you to submit a question via email directly to
the reference staff. And we will return your — we will respond to your question within
five days. Also, we have a link on our website titled
“Bibliographies and Guides.” These are guides created by reference librarians. And because
we’re here today to talk about African-Americans, I figured I should focus on the three African-American
guides that we have: “African-American Family History,” “Generations Past,” and “Afro-American
Genealogical Research.” The first one, “African-American Family Histories,”
this allows — this is a selected list. Not everything. It’s not comprehensive. This is
a selective list of family histories about African-Americans. So this is probably the
first place you want to check to see if we have anything relating to your family history.
Also, we have something called “Generations Past.” Similar to the first one, but this
includes your local histories: state histories, county histories, and so forth. Right? Then we go to our online catalog. What would
we be without our catalog? If you don’t find anything in the first two resources I mentioned,
you want to come here to our online catalog. Really simple to do. I live in Prince George’s
County. Right? You just simply put in “Prince George’s County,” followed by the state; you
do a subject browse. This will give you every book that we have relating to Prince George’s
County. So let’s see. See all the different subject headings? We have 30 books relating
to Prince George’s County and genealogy. What type of records will you find in these books?
Transcriptions of marriage records, tax records, land records, and so forth. So, just an example of a titles list: 1828
tax lists, records of the White Marsh Church, probate records, which is critical for African-Americans
because usually slaves were willed down to descendants, so you may find something in
those probate records as well. And here’s an example of an actual record.
Index of marriage licenses in Prince George’s County from 1777 to 1886. And if you wanted
to order that book, you just simply write down that call number, and the Library of
Congress is a closed stack library. What that means is you don’t get the material for yourself.
We deliver the material for you. So you’re a VIP when you come to the Library of Congress. [laughter] Right? Now, you can do the same thing for
your family history, as I mentioned earlier. If you don’t find your name in that selected
bibliography, you can come to our online catalog. My family name is Peters, so I just simply
type in “Peters family,” do a subject browse, and see what I get. See that number there
that says 33? We have 33 books relating to the Peters family. Now, I can’t guarantee
any of these books are related to your family. Right? That’s your job. You’re looking for
names, dates, or locations relevant to what you already know about your family history. And here’s an example. None of these books,
by the way, were related to my family. Right? I went through them. Guaranteed, not a one.
So now it’s my job to do that family history and put it in the Library of Congress, donate
the publication. Okay. Primarily, people come to the Library of Congress
to use our subscription databases. Everyone here is familiar with ancestry.com, Heritagequest,
Proquest, historical newspapers, Proquest black newspapers. You can use all of these
databases for free at the Library of Congress. If you do it from home, they want to charge
you money, right? You can print from the Library of Congress, you can save it to your flash
drive, you can even email it to your email account. Okay? So come on down to the Library
of Congress. [laughter] Okay. Now, all of you aren’t from D.C., I’m
assuming, some people are from out of town. Everybody can’t get to the Library of Congress.
So how can we help you off site? We have a huge collection called American Memory. Right?
Over 20 million digitized collections. And for the purposes of this lecture, I focused
on African-American. But as you can see, there are several other topics and subjects. Okay, if you go to African-American, you see
about 17 collections. Right? I selected African-Americans in Ohio. The coolest thing about this database
is it’s all keyword searching. You can make it your own. You can put in a name, you can
put in a location, you can put in an occupation, and see what you get. I think I put in — oh,
William P. Hold [spelled phonetically], this is a slave narrative. We have the slave narratives.
They’re on microfilm. They’ve been digitized, and they’re also within this collection. Okay?
So we have them in several formats. Really critical for people researching their slave
ancestry. Okay. So this is Mr. William P. Hold. Let’s
see what information this has. Once again, this is from African-Americans in Ohio. Okay.
Great genealogical information in the slave narrative, right? He says he was born a slave
in Halifax County. Gives his birth date, he even gives his mother and father’s name, as
you can see there. And then he gives us a migration trail. He says from Halifax County,
he moved to Paris, Kentucky, and he got married. Now, he didn’t give his wife’s name. I wonder
why. I’m married, too. I would’ve given my wife’s name. [laughter] But then he talks about how he moved to Springfield,
Ohio 25 years ago, so we have a trail of Mr. Hold, right, from Halifax, to Kentucky, to
Ohio. And then we even have his current residence. And then we have a physical description of
Mr. Hold. It says, “He’s tall, still straight, and slender of build, and wears a grey beard,
just like his hair.” Right? So if this was your ancestor, this would be great information
because genealogy isn’t just about names, dates, and locations. It’s about what made
people — it’s about physical description. We want to know how our ancestors looked,
you know? We want to know what made them move from one place to another. This is the kind
of stuff you can find on the American Memories site. So not just names, dates, and locations. We also have this great, great resource called
Chronicling America. Right? Digital newspapers from across the country. And I’m not going
to spend too much time with this, because I don’t know how much time I have left. But,
anyway, it’s newspapers from across the country, your smaller newspapers, not your major cities.
And not every state is represented yet, but it’s an ongoing project. And, once again,
it’s all keyword searching. You can put in a name, you can put in a location; what can
you find? Obituaries, right? Obituaries, marriage — when people were married in the newspaper.
You know, back during the 18th, 19th century, newspapers contained all kinds of information,
right? Much more than they do now. And also, if we don’t have the newspaper digitized,
you can look at this directory, and we’ll tell you where that newspaper is, what repository
has that newspaper. I think it’s an excellent site, and it’s free. Okay. Next I want to talk about Built in America,
right? This is the historic American building survey, digital photographs of historic buildings
across the country. So what did I do? Remember that William Hold guy? He said he was born
in Halifax County. He was born a slave, right? So I did a search, and I put in “Halifax County
plantations,” and I got this Berry Hill plantation which was in Halifax County. And look what
I found. I found pictures of the plantation. Right? That’s what they were calling the big
house. [laughter] That’s where the slave owner lived, right?
Now, we’re going to look at the slave cabin. I’m not sure if this is his plantation, but
probably similar, based on the description that he gave in the slave narrative. It was
a huge plantation. Okay. So then what did I do? I stayed on Built in
America, and I went to Springfield, Ohio, right? And look what I found. African-American
historic district, Springfield, Ohio. And this is an image of the homes around the time
that Mr. William P. Hold would’ve lived in that community. So I’m going to go back. That’s
quite a progression, right? You go from that to that. All right? I think that’s impressive.
I don’t know about you. Right? So then, we have another group of records.
They’re called the Antebellum Southern Plantation records. Gold mine for people researching
their slave ancestry. Why? Slave owners took very meticulous records, and African-Americans,
oftentimes, have the problem of making that connection from slavery to emancipation. These
records — it’s microfilm — it’s over — approximately 1,500 reels of microfilm. Okay? And what kind
of stuff can you find in these records? First of all, it’s such a huge collection that you
have to look at the index. Right? Find out where the plantation was, the name of your
family, and so forth, and look in the index. The index has it by name, name of plantation,
name of slave owner. Right? Two minutes. Yes, sir. Okay. Here’s an example
of the finding aid for the Southern Antebellum Plantation records. And this is the Bruce
family. They also had a plantation in Halifax County. And it gives you a reel-by-reel description
of what’s on each reel of microfilm, each frame of the reel of microfilm. And you can
see there 76, 78, James Bruce business papers, and so forth, business papers, business papers.
And here’s an example of the “List of Negroes” with what, first names. We don’t see that
on the federal record. Right? “First names, Berry Hill Plantation List of Negroes.” I
see a William there, 1826. That’s not my guy. That’s not Mr. William P. Hold, but I thought
I would highlight it anyway. Also, we see occupations of negroes. Carpenters,
blacksmiths, so forth. Stuff you will not get before 1870 on the federal census. And
you could look at some state census records. You may find some slaves and so forth. But
on the federal record, you will not find names of slaves. So this is one of your best resources
to do that research. Also, as I mentioned earlier, slaves were
oftentimes handed down to relatives, right? And look at this. This guy gave away 402 slaves.
Huge plantation, right? One of several plantations. This guy was one of the richest men in Virginia
during his lifetime. Okay? So you get the picture of how much wealth came from the slave
trade. And I always like to emphasize that. But I think that’s all my time. I think I
did it. Thank you. [laughter] [applause] Bill Pretzer:
As promised, if there are any questions for Damani at this point, we’ll also take questions
at the very end of the presentation. Anyone want to run to a microphone at this point?
Yes, sir. Male Speaker:Good morning. My name is Charles
Holden [spelled phonetically], and I have a question for you. I have ancestors, great-great-grandparents
who are escaped slaves that went to Canada, and one of their children supposedly wrote
a manuscript about their escape. And the story I’m told is that decades before I was born,
it was misplaced, and we don’t know where it’s at. I wonder if you have any ideas of
resources at the Library of Congress or elsewhere that I might tap into that possibly could
help me locate this if it’s still in existence. Ahmed Johnson:
Yes. Am I on? Male Speaker:Yes. Ahmed Johnson:
Okay, good. You mentioned Canada? Male Speaker:
Yes, yes. Ahmed Johnson:
Okay, now, it depends on where the narrative was actually lost. So I’m not sure if — like
— Male Speaker:Well, they lived in Windsor,
Ontario, and North Buxton, Ontario, but came to Detroit. Ahmed Johnson:
Right. Male Speaker:And apparently that’s where he
was living when he died. Ahmed Johnson:
The short answer is probably not. But the hopeful answer is maybe at a local genealogical
historical society. I’m just not sure. But if we can talk after the lecture today, I
maybe can give you more suggestions. Male Speaker:Sure. All right. Thank you. Ahmed Johnson:
But hopefully, we can come up with some type of plan for you to continue your research.
Thank you. Bill Pretzer:Thank you all. Our second speaker
is Damani Davis, an archivist in the Research Services Division of the National Archives,
who has published and lectured widely on using government resources for African-American
genealogical research. Damani?