On Site: A Genealogical Treasure Chest

By Martel, Brett | Humanities, January/February 2001 | Go to article overview

On Site: A Genealogical Treasure Chest


Martel, Brett, Humanities


In her younger days she was a political radical who couldn't hold a job-a civil rights lawyer's daughter who was both disgusted by the oppression of American blacks and endlessly intrigued by their individual stories.

Now a retired history professor, seventy-- one-year-old Gwen Midlo Hall is the author of a groundbreaking effort shedding light on detailed slave documents that languished more than a century in the obscurity of Louisiana courthouse basements and as far away as France and Spain.

Genealogists who specialize in black families are astounded by the information Hall and her small team of assistants uncovered by perusing thousands of musty documents dating back to Louisiana's colonial days-many written by hand in French or Spanish.

"I'd use the word tremendous-one of the more useful academic services someone could have performed," says Donald DeVore, director of the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University, an archive center on black history.

"We know, for example, that most blacks in America descended from West Africa, but because of Gwen's work, some people, if they're lucky enough to find their ancestors, will be able to get very specific-- say a particular place in West Africa," DeVore says.

Hall's database includes records of more than one hundred thousand individual slaves; it is believed to be the largest such collection ever. It grew out of research beginning in 1984 when Hall, then a professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, began researching her book, Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the 18th Century.

At the Pointe Coupee Parish courthouse in the town of New Roads, Louisiana, Hall came upon documents written by French-speaking notaries detailing the specific African origins and ethnicities of slaves.

Unlike the English colonies, where slave transactions were kept private between buyers and sellers, Louisiana transactions were recorded in detail and filed by notaries, Hall says.

The database is useful to white, black, or mixed families whose descendants lived in the Louisiana area, for historical as well as genealogical research. Hall found court transcripts that include testimony from slaves. Many documents detail the languages slaves spoke: Creole, French, Spanish, English, and African and American Indian languages. They also recount how slaves either bought or were granted their freedom.

Many slave names were Afro-European hybrids, such as "Jean dit Mamadou." The slave owner called him Jean, but he was known among fellow slaves as Mamadou, an Islamic African name for Mohammad.

While Hall conducted her research more for historical than genealogical purposes, she knew her unconventional attention to individuals' names would make her work valuable in genealogy.

"Historians normally do not record many names because it slows them down, and they especially did not record different African ethnicities of slaves because they didn't think it was important enough," Hall says. …

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