By Joel Hall
Two hundred years after the outlawing of the Transatlantic slave trade, those who descended from slaves are still left without many answers to their pasts.
This weekend, people searching for the keys to their African-American ancestry will have a chance to explore their history in ways once unavailable to the southeast.
On Saturday, the National Archives Southeast Region in Morrow will make original, 1800s-era slave ship manifests available to the region for the first time, during an all-day workshop titled, "The African and African-American Family: From Slaves to Freedmen to Citizens."
After the workshop, the manifests will be available to the public during regular business hours.
The manifests, which were transferred just over a year ago from the National Archives in Washington, D.C., provide crucial information on slaves transferred from the major ports of Mobile, Ala., Savannah, Ga., and Charleston and Beaufort, S.C. The documents accurately name the port of origin, the port of arrival, and the names of the owner, the seller, and the slave.
By 1808, "it was illegal to bring slaves from Africa," said Mary Evelyn Tomlin, public programs specialist at the National Archives. Although "just because something is illegal, doesn't mean that people stop doing it. If they were transporting slaves from Savannah to New York ... they have to create a list of everybody on the ship."
"The whole thing about African-American genealogy before the [Civil] war is that it is very hard to trace it, because they were treated like property," Tomlin continued. "You have to do a lot of investigative work."
Tomlin said the manifests provide accurate, geographical, and chronological information about slaves in ways few documents can. In addition to several mini workshops on subjects, such as the Fugitive Slave Act and the history of slave ship manifests, the workshop will leverage the genealogical resources of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS).
The Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah -- the largest genealogical library in the world -- is owned by the LDS church. On Saturday afternoon, representatives from the LDS church will conduct a workshop titled, "Helping a Community to Reclaim its African American History and Genealogy." In addition, CDs containing information from the Freedman Bank will be given out, free of charge.
Established during the Reconstruction Period, the Freedman Bank was established as a place where recently freed slaves could deposit their money for the first time. The CDs contain information from over 480,000 depositors.
"For some African Americans, what [the National Archives] has is a gold mine," said Eric Sawyer, an event coordinator and representative of the LDS church. Sawyer said that moving the manifests to the southeast region would be meaningful for the people there and help them, "gain another piece to the puzzle.
"Without the seller's name, you come to a dead end," in African-American genealogy research, said Sawyer. "The more information that comes uncovered, the better the chances are."
Tomlin said that response to the workshop has been "tremendous," given the timeliness and the current interest in the PBS documentary, "African American Lives 2," by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
"We opened the registration up to 300 people and we're full," said Tomlin. "It's a good problem to have." However, "these records are in the National Archives and are available all the time to anyone."