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African American Research: Case Studies

by Roseann Reinemuth Hogan, Ph.D.

In this article, several case studies will be presented to illustrate useful resources in building an African American family history. These case studies show that it is possible to discover precious information on African American families.

The Accidental Discovery of an African American Hero 
E. Belle Mitchell Jackson and her accomplishments were resurrected almost by accident. A book was being written about the Lexington, Kentucky Colored Orphan Industrial Home, when the role E. Belle played surfaced. In seeking additional historical sources for information about the Home, E. Belle and the history of the Home became intertwined. The Home was purchased in 1892 by a small group of African American women and led by Jackson. The Home provided food, shelter, and clothing to hundreds of destitute children. During its early development, the Home also served as an old folks home, a hospital, and a lending institution. The Board intended the training program not only for resident orphans but also for all colored youth who desired to avail themselves of this training.

E. Belle was born in Perryville, Kentucky in 1848 to Mary and Monroe Mitchell. Her parents were born as slaves but bought their freedom before the war. Little is known about her early years except that she attended schools in Kentucky and Ohio. She started her teaching career in 1865, at Camp Nelson, a Union military installation, and was hired by the famous Rev. John G. Fee who later founded Berea College.

E. Belle’s husband, Jordan Carlisle Jackson, was a businessman, banker, politician, author, and advocate for education. Though he was born a slave in Fayette County, Kentucky, in 1848, and had no formal education, he was self taught and his respect and reputation for education was reflected in his being elected trustee at Wilberforce and Berea College. In addition, he ran a livery and undertaking business in downtown Lexington. In 1907, Lawrence Harris in The Negro Population of Lexington in the Professions, Business, Education and Religion, described Jordan as "the most up-to-date undertaker in Kentucky among our race."

As is typical in the case of African American families, obtaining pre-Civil War information about E. Belle has not been productive. No slave sales, estate records, or family bibles or diaries have been found. Neither of E. Belle’s parents left wills. However, obtaining information on E. Belle’s post-Civil War activities have proved relatively simple. Her marriage to Jordan is documented in the Freedman’s Bureau records, as well as census records. Other sources have fleshed out the person that E. Belle was. For example, oral histories of relatives and others who knew E. Belle tell about her personality and values. The local African American cemetery gave information on other family members. E. Belle’s husband Jordan left a will which showed that he left all of his property, stock, goods, and accounts to E. Belle. There were published accounts of her and her family: John G. Fee’s autobiography describes his initial meeting with E. Bell. W.D. Johnson’s Biographical Sketches of Prominent Negro Men and Women of Kentucky, provides biographies of E. Belle as well as Jordan.

Other sources of information include the Lexington City Directory which showed the type of businesses and addresses that the couple operated. The 1900 census provided valuable information about the family beyond their birth dates and places. It showed that they had an adopted daughter who was a school teacher, and that they had two boarders who also lived in the house. Church records along with accounts of church activities in the newspaper provide examples of programs sponsored by E. Belle. The local newspaper had a column entitled "Colored Notes" which provides an invaluable source of information regarding her civic as well as church related activities.

An Example of a Kentucky-Ohio Migration 
In contrast to E. Belle’s accidental discovery, information about the Williams family of Lexington and Cincinnati, Ohio, was actively researched using a variety of sources. The information known about the family at the beginning of the research was that great-grandfather Washington Williams was born between 1864 and 1867 in Kentucky, and that his mother’s name was Fanny. Here is what is known about him now and the sources used.

Walter and Fannie Williams came to the Fayette County courthouse on 21 July 1868 and declared that they have been, and desired to continue, living together as husband and wife. This is found in the County Declarations of Marriage book dated 1866. The 1870 Fayette County Census lists the household and family members: Walter Williams and his wife Fannie, along with their children Walter, Isaac, Abram, Jacob, Washington, and Fanny. The daughter, Fanny, may have died young as a record of a Fannie Williams was found in Kentucky dated 1901. This Fanny’s age is consistent, and her residence is listed as Ohio.

Beginning in the 1870s, Walter and Fannie begin to buy property in Fayette County. The tax rolls, which were kept separately for black and white, list, beginning in 1874, Washington and Williams, along with his brothers Abraham, Isaac, and mother Fanny. The absence of the father, Walter, from the tax lists and the city directories during this time indicates that he may have died between 1870 and 1874. The family is no longer listed in either the tax lists or the city directory of 1877, indicating the probable date of their move to Ohio. The 1880 Ohio census confirms their re-location and shows Fannie living with her children, but without her husband Walter. By 1900, Fannie is living in Ohio with a white family working as a servant.

An Example of a Slave Family 
Knowledge sought about the Dodson-Beam family had been greatly aided by family oral tradition and bible records. Based on these, the earliest family members identified are Solomon Beam and his wife Sharlotte Dodson, both of whom were born in the 1820s in Nelson County, Kentucky. Sharlotte’s mother was Nancy Dodson, but no father had been identified. The research for this family was difficult since it involved pre-Civil War realities of a slave family. Avenues attempted include contacting the famous bourbon distillery Beam family to determine if any family records existed that might mention slaves who worked at the distillery since this was part of the tradition. This did not prove to be the case. Wills of the white Beam family were searched but none listed the names of slaves that were passed along to other family members. However, one tantalizing clue was found in the 1840 will of William Dodson who mentions a young yellow woman named Ellie. This indicated the Dodson family did own slaves and may be one of Nancy Dodson’s relatives or contemporaries. In addition, another 1840 will in the same county named a slave girl Charlotte at the home of a neighbor of the Dodson family. The mystery here, of course, is whether this is the same person, but perhaps changed her surname later, was living in another household, or was owned by another family at the time of the 1840 record.

The challenges of researching an African American family is daunting, but with patience and the use of a variety of sources, a great deal of satisfying information can be compiled and passed along proudly for future generations.

Roseann Reinemuth Hogan holds a Ph.D. in sociology. Her special interests include oral and social history. She is the author of Kentucky Ancestry (Ancestry, 1993).