The Importance of this History

I did not know what I was getting into this summer when I started this job. Sure, I was aware that I would be digitizing Quaker manumissions, but I didn’t understand the importance of that history. That was, until I started reading Caste.

In the 2020 book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson dissects the phenomenon of caste systems. She urges readers to see that though we may not call it by name, the United States functions through a caste system not unlike those in India and Nazi Germany. Caste in America assigns the Black diaspora to the subordinate caste, a direct result of slavery. Thus, according to Wilkerson, “racism” is not an accurate enough term to describe the oppression of Black people in America. Rather, casteism is the more appropriate—and perhaps more exigent—term.

Caste is a brilliant book, and I found that reading it parallel to my work in Black genealogy this summer enhanced my experience. In chapter 17, “On the Early Front Lines of Caste,” Wilkerson writes about the 1941 Davis study, the anthropological work of two couples, one Black and one white. The goal of the study was to examine how the American caste system dictates the lives of Black people. This study was groundbreaking for many reasons but most notably because Allison and Elizabeth Davis put their lives on the line to expose a caste system that saw them as subordinate. The Black couple voluntarily traveled into Jim Crow era Mississippi and blended in as undercover anthropologists. Their work would have been considered a landmark study, but unfortunately two white anthropologists published similar, less in-depth studies before the Davises. Had Wilkerson not told their story in her book, Allison and Elizabeth’s work would be lost to history, overshadowed by the dominant caste. 

As I read this chapter for the first time, I was struck by the severity of losing pieces of my history. Stories of Black success are too often suppressed. The potential loss of all the Davis’ contributions felt devastating. Thinking of this, I began to consider my own role in preserving Black genealogy and share a history that would otherwise be forgotten. 

Manumissions do not give us much information about the enslaved people that Quakers freed. At most, we get a first name (rarely a last name), age, and assumed gender. The 1847 Philadelphia African-American Census, specifically the census of the Blockley Almshouse, gives us a bit more information (occupation, birth place, sickness), but we still lack a thorough understanding of who my ancestors were. With this limited information, just the awareness that these people existed is more important than anything. The caste system we live in orders for the erasure of people who have come before me. Acknowledgment of their existence is resistance. Any additional information I can provide about the lives of my ancestors is the cherry on top. I realize now that whatever I could do to help Black people take up space in our history books is so important. Perhaps the most important thing I could be doing with my summer. 

Access to these marginalized histories is so precious that I think it is necessary to consider the responsibility we have to treat them with care. History, science, and data has been used against the Black diaspora for too long. Thus, some of the questions I have asked myself in meeting this responsibility are: What does it mean that we at Swarthmore, a predominately white institution, have access to statistical data about the lives of Black people? How are we to best handle that data? In addition to the 1847 Census, other data collections like the 1838 Philadelphia Abolition Society Census and the 1899 Philadelphia Negro by W.E.B Dubois exist to tell the stories of Black folks living in those time periods. Who has control over this data and what narrative does it tell?

I feel a responsibility to treat every manumission as a piece of a person whose story, even if just a piece of it, deserves to be told. I feel a responsibility when digitizing the Blockley records for the outcome to be as high quality as possible. My ancestors did not fight for their voices to be muffled. They did not endure centuries of mistreatment to be forgotten to history. When Black voices are silenced, they are lost to us, and the caste system is reinforced. I understood this summer that my role was to combat this, and nothing else feels quite as fulfilling.

When I work with manumissions and censuses, I am working with my history. This experience has shown me that archival work is a powerful path to take in the future. It is one that has changed the way I interpret, digest, and interact with history—a valuable lesson to learn from some old books and papers.

The Emotional Side of Black Genealogy

In late June, I attended a virtual event about Quakers’ role in paying reparations to the Black diaspora. As someone who is not Quaker but is African-American, the talk was insightful, inspiring, and deeply emotional. In that hour, I learned about instances of traumatizing violence and the reparations paid to compensate for it. Some of this violence was physical harm such as the 1985 MOVE bombing. Some was psychological and emotional like the separating of families—among many other atrocities of slavery. Other aspects of harm include socioeconomic gaps that are ever present in 2022. All of this violence, no matter the category, is generational. It is this generational harm, this generational pain and trauma, that I felt while attending this event. It is a heaviness that is difficult to describe. The experience served as a reminder of just how difficult it is to grapple with history as a Black person.

It was on this day that the weight of my work with Black genealogy clicked for me. Prior to the zoom call, I was stuck in a repetitive loop of scanning documents and indexing them into spreadsheets. When working with sometimes cookie-cutter documents like manumissions and censuses, I quickly learned that falling into a routine was very easy. However, I realized during the zoom that every manumission and every line on the 1847 Blockley Census was more than just a name on a page. These names are slivers of real pieces of history. They are real people who experienced real events that have very real impact to this day. Furthermore, I was not working with information that had to do with just anyone; I was dealing with accounts of my ancestors—people who endured incredible hardships because they looked like me. I learned this summer that part of my job as a Black genealogist was sitting with intense emotions about history that I am deeply connected to. 

In a meeting a few weeks after the reparations event, my boss made a fantastic point about the emotional aspects of this work. She highlighted the challenge of working with information on enslaved people who had no rights in 1780 while watching my own rights stripped away in 2022. Two days after the zoom call, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, a decision that rocked my already waning sense of safety and security as a Black woman in America. I couldn’t return to work after the ruling; I was so overcome with emotion. The moment felt surreal, but it was not anything new. The loss of bodily rights—and not having them in the first place—has been a reality for marginalized groups for centuries. This country was founded on the principle that access to our bodies was reserved for white, wealthy, straight, able-bodied men. The enslaved people I was reading about at work knew that all too well. This week in late June stands out as some of the most important days of my summer. I felt heavy. I felt anxious. It was deep-seeded, intense, and a span of days I will not forget.

Months before reparations, Black genealogy, or Supreme Court rulings happened, my roommate said something that has stuck with me all summer: “Your leftism should stem from a love of humanity.” I started this position at the FHL this summer because it was an opportunity to dive into history and uplift the voices of people I care so passionately for. My intent to work in Black genealogy certainly came from a love for the Black diaspora, but I did not expect the emotional aspects of this work that would cause this love to blossom further. 

I think I went through the full range of emotions this summer. Some of which were familiar to me, and others were brand new. However, every emotion I felt, no matter how positive or negative, was crucial to how this summer would impact the way I move through the world. 

Humans are emotional beings. We have complex emotions that influence our view of the world around us. My biggest takeaway from this summer is that constructing a world void of casteism, racism, and anti-blackness requires us to make the emotional effort to humanize marginalized groups. Enslaved people were considered subhuman; there was no regard for their capacity to think or feel, and this bias against Black people has not entirely disappeared today. A better vision for our world means recognizing the Black diaspora as human beings with deep emotional connections to our dark histories. 

I would never have guessed that working on spreadsheets and deciphering 18th century handwriting would teach me this, but I am incredibly grateful that it did. These reflections are ones that apply to everything I do as a Sociology and Black Studies student, and they enhance how I approach the continued fight for the rights of Black people. This is some of the most valuable experience I could get out of a summer internship.

Black genealogy is emotional. It is fascinating, eye-opening, thought-provoking, and rewarding. Black genealogy gives us the chance to connect the dots. Even when those dots are scattered, this opportunity to tell the stories of my ancestors is priceless. Understanding where we come from is a critical part of understanding where to go. My only hope is that where we go next is productive, transformative, and nurturing for all those in the Black diaspora. Our ancestors deserve it.