27 February 2014

“The First Frontier” for African American Research guest post by Sharon Leslie Morgan

If you are the only person in your family who has undertaken the mission of exploring your family roots, you know what a lonely pursuit it can be. That is why it is a good idea to convene with other like minds (albeit unrelated) every once in a while. Among others, the annual NGS conference is a great opportunity to do this.

I attended my first NGS conference in 2011 in Charleston, South Carolina. Previously, I was aware of and attended only conferences specifically targeted to African Americans. I found the convocations of the Afro American Historical and Genealogical Society (AAHGS) and the International Black Genealogy Summit (IBGS) of inestimable value but was skeptical of attending one that I felt was unlikely to address the unique challenges I face as a descendant of slaves. Still, I went to an NGS conference and ended up amazed by the number and quality of presentations, organizations, companies, and researchers I found there. In addition to partaking in conference activities, I took a side trip to Sullivan Island, the largest slave port in North America, where I sat on the Toni Morrison Society sponsored “bench by the side of the road.”

The upcoming NGS conference in Richmond, Virginia (May 7-10, 2014), is equally promising. Under the banner “The First Frontier,” it promises “at least one session every hour of every day for those who have Virginia ancestors.” For African Americans, that is a big promise indeed since Virginia holds such special prominence as the nexus of America’s domestic slave trade. In the wake of the doctrine of “Manifest Destiny” that propelled white settlers ever westward, creating an insatiable demand for slaves, more than 1.2 million people were “sold down river” from Richmond into the deep South. That means many of us will be inexorably led to Virginia in our ongoing quest for genealogical information.

In general, the NGS conference offers a wealth of content to aid in researching slaveholders. In addition, there are three modules specifically related to African American research:
  •      United States Colored Troops Civil War Widows’ Pension Applications, presented by Bernice Bennett
  •           The “Free Negro” Delimma in Virginia: Under-utilized Documents for Blacks and Whites, presented by Leslie Anderson
  •           Records of the Slave Claims Commissions, presented by Michael Hait

If you decide to attend, I would suggest that you read Richmond’s Unhealed History by Rev. Benjamin Campbell (Brandylane Publishers, 2011) in preparation for your visit. It provides a “detailed look at the history of Richmond and examines the contradictions and crises that have formed the city over more than four centuries.” 

Once there, I would urge you to participate in the Hope in the Cities walking tour of the Richmond Slave Trail, which begins at Manchester Docks on the James River and chronicles Virginia’s history as the center of trade in enslaved people from Africa to Virginia (until 1775) and away from Virginia to other locations (from 1830-1865).

Click here for the conference brochure. Through March 24th the cost of attendance is $230 for non-members. NGS annual membership is $65 (which provides a reduced rate of $195 for the conference). 

Sharon Leslie Morgan is the founder of OurBlackAncestry.com, a website dedicated to African American family research. She is co-author of Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade (Beacon Press, 2012). This blog expresses the views of the author and should not be attributed to the National Genealogical Society.

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