Billy Porter: Standing on Their Shoulders
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It is always good to start with the basics. When we begin a family tree, we collect all the information that is already known to build a good foundation. That could mean contacting a few relatives like a mother, sister, or great aunt Clara to help fill in some blanks. Then, we work our way backward through the generations to add the branches to a family tree. 


One of the best records to help work backward are U.S. Federal Census records which provide snapshots of a family throughout the years along with all kinds of additional detail to help create a better picture of the lives of one’s ancestors. 


When Billy Porter started his Who Do You Think You Are? journey, he knew very little about his father, William Ellis Porter Sr., except that he was from Wellsville, Ohio. But starting with very little information and giving his sister a call, Billy ultimately discovered that his paternal 2nd-great-grandmother, Anna Ellis, was descended from free persons of color in Lynchburg, Virginia, who migrated into Ohio before the Civil War. Census records were the connecting dots between the generations that help make this discovery. 


We found Anna Ellis in the 1880 census and then again, ten years earlier, in 1870. She was age 11 in the home of Patrick and Emeline Ellis in Warren County, Ohio, with her younger siblings Gladman and Patrick Jr. We noted that Anna’s father was the owner of $3,500 in real estate (worth about $77,000 in today’s currency), and a personal estate of $1,300. Using the information about places of birth, we reasoned that Patrick would have acquired his land after 1859 when his son Gladman was born in Virginia and before 1860 when the youngest son Patrick Jr. was born in Ohio. 


These clues surrounding Patrick’s land ownership prompted us to look for him again in 1860. We found the family yet in Warren County, but Patrick’s wife was named Adaline and not Emeline. Comparing the ages in the 1870 and 1860 census we could tell these were different women, and that Adaline was the mother of Patrick’s children. Patrick’s real estate holdings at that time were valued at $3,000 (worth $104,000 today), and he had a personal estate of $1,267. 


Patrick Ellis and family in the 1860 U.S. Federal Census


But there is another, even more significant reason why finding Patrick in the 1860 census was so exciting. Because Patrick and his family were even listed as they were on the 1860 census, it meant that they were not enslaved before 1865, the year that marked the end of the Civil War. They were free people of color well before Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. 


We knew we had one more opportunity to find Patrick Ellis’s family all listed in census records. The 1850 census is the first one where time that all members of a household by name. This time, Patrick and Adaline Ellis were found in the city of Lynchburg, Virginia, where he worked as a painter. Patrick (age 35) was listed as Black, and his wife Adaline (age 26) was Mulatta. They had no children with them at that time. We soon after discovered that Patrick’s wife, Adaline, was a daughter of Claiborne Gladman of Lynchburg.


Before 1850, the census schedules did not show all members of a household, only the name of the head and then age group tallies to account for all residents of the home. We did not identify him in 1840 but Claiborne Gladman was listed in the 1830 and 1820 censuses of Lynchburg, Virginia, as a free person of color. In 1820, three slaves were listed in his household: a male and a female aged 14 to 25, as well as a woman more than 45 years old. As revealed in the episode, Claiborne was in fact an enslaver, but he devoted his life to eventually purchase the freedom of his family members. As Billy Porter eloquently stated, he now knows more about his ancestors, and proudly stands upon their shoulders.


To watch Billy Porter’s entire journey and discover more celebrities uncovering their family history, watch full episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? Sundays at 7/6c on NBC or stream on Peacock.



Tips from AncestryProGenealogists


For anyone who is just starting to search for their family legacy, especially in the United States, the U.S. Federal Census is a great source to start with, especially if a parent or grandparent was born before 1950. The census enumerations since 1850 are the most useful because they recorded every member of a household by name. Previously enslaved Blacks were included on these lists after emancipation from their enslavers beginning in 1870, although it can be difficult to identify a particular family if you don’t know what surname they adopted. About 40,000 Blacks were not enslaved—as compared to the almost 4 million who were—and those free persons of color were included in the regular census schedules.


When reviewing census records for African Americans, consider this advice:

  • Could my ancestors have been free before the Civil War? Make sure to consider the possibility that ancestors might have been free people of color (FPOC), in which case they should appear in the general schedules and noted with “black” or “mulatto” in the race column. Census records from 1830 and 1840 also have designated other free people columns that can contain FPOC. Censuses from 1790-1840 are tallied but there isn’t other information included about them. 
  • Who provided the information to the census taker? As with any document, you must always consider the reliability of the information it contains. While you can learn lots of details about an individual in each census, it is very important to find them in every census that was taken in their lifetime for comparison purposes. When the census taker would call on each household, he collected information from either the head of the house, the spouse, a trusted child, or even a neighbor if he could not find anyone at home. Information such as a person’s age and place of birth are important to know when compiling information about a family. The reliability of the information becomes a primary concern when you note discrepancies in information between census years. Ages tend to be more accurately reported when a person is under age 20.
  • How do I find my enslaved ancestor in a census record before emancipation? Before 1865, enslavers reported age group tallies for their enslaved property in the Agricultural schedules of the census. If you have a good idea of an enslaved person’s age in 1860 and 1850, and the name of their enslaver, you might be able to identify the enslaved person in these lists.
  • What survived? Federal decennial census schedules are extant for the period 1790 through 1950 and include the Slave Schedules of 1850 and 1860.  Unfortunately, most of the 1890 schedules were lost due to water damage, except for a few fragments.