Historian David Jackson had been working on his family’s genealogy for around 40 years when he had a surprise.
Jackson discovered his great-great-grandfather was a light-skinned black man born a slave.
“I’ve spent the last five years working with the breakthrough that opened up there,” he said. “So many things came about from that.”
Jackson will discuss his experiences and share research strategies in a pair of presentations at two Mid-Continent Public Library locations for Black History Month.
His presentation will deal with the peculiarities of working with slave histories, narratives that require more intensive research work because of the unique obstacles of counting the uncounted. Slaves were never formally counted in a census, a critical tool for geological research.
Jackson said slaves were listed in quantities and by skin color with owners counting the numbers of “blacks” and “mulattos,” or fair-skin African Americans.
That’s why Jackson’s great-great-grandfather only “counted,” name and all, when slavery was formally abolished in 1865. He was 9.
According to the historian, one of the earliest records he discovered of the name of his grandfather, Arthur Jackson, was in White Cloud, Kan. He was living with a white woman named Ida Jackson.
The two were married, a relationship unsanctioned by some states laws that still prohibited interracial relationships. They moved to Kansas City in 1913 and lived in the Westport neighborhood as an unmarried couple; Missouri’s anti-miscegenation law would survive until the U.S. Supreme Court issued a blanket ban on them in Loving vs. Virginia in 1967.
But Arthur Jackson was fair enough to pass as white. They lived in Kansas City as a white couple, and their children would identify as white children.
David Jackson represents the fifth generation of Jacksons. The historian met a cousin working on generally the same branch of the family tree.
Through her, Jackson wound up at census records from the 1880 listing his ancestor as a black man living with Lucinda Jackson, a white woman and a former slaveholder. Age records of her slaves matched what would have been Arthur Jackson’s age.
The historian said his family’s connection with slavery came up when he heard a story from a relative. Though he was a child when he heard the story, he would later connect his family’s lineage to early generations of Arthur Jackson’s owners.
Through the revelation he had in 2010, he was able to identify two distinct family trees: that of the slave-owning Jacksons and the enslaved Jacksons. The two maintained an amicable and close relationship, something mirroring familial ties, which is likely where the family narrative got mixed up, the historian said.
“I thought it was a family fable. I almost threw those notes away,” he said. “I couldn’t connect them until that census.”
Aside from the emphasis on the historian’s personal slave history, Jackson’s presentation will also focus on how genealogists can leverage the broad range of government records necessary to illuminate the speciously kept histories of the nation’s enslaved.
Jackson said that’s what Black History Month has always been about for him.
“It’s to call attention to how African Americans have helped build this country,” Jackson said.
He says the month is critical in focusing on the point people are still trying to make.
“Even today, you have people trying to call attention to the fact that people are people,” he said.
For Jackson, the institution of slavery is a way in to understanding its subjects in spite of the obstacles researchers face. Within it is a universe of meaning dealing with identity and the particularly confounding challenges of self-actualization.
“We could talk about that whole 150 years” since African Americans were enslaved, Jackson said. “All those people who had been enslaved: What did they do with their lives and what did (freedom) mean to them? How can you grasp that when you and your ancestors had been property for generations?”
“That had been an eye-opener for me. What was it like to all of a sudden be free?”
Jackson’s biography about his grandfather, “Born a Slave,” is available at online retailers including Amazon.