Tracing African-American history, success following slavery

Historically Black
Historically Black
APM Reports & The Washington Post

Ahead of the grand opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture last year, the Washington Post asked African-Americans across the country to submit photos of family object that connect them to black history.

In some cases, that history goes way back.

Several of the submitted objects helped to share the story of some ancestors of slaves — prospering in the years that followed emancipation.

Those stories were told in a podcast by the Post and APM Reports titled, "Historically Black"

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Tracking down a slave's bill of sale

James McKissic of Chattanooga, Tenn., submitted a photo of a slave's bill of sale, the one used to purchase his great-great-grandfather, Wilson Wood.

McKissic knew he was descended from a slave by that name. But until his mother presented him with the deed, he had never seen any proof of the man.

After posting a picture of it on social media, McKissic said he received many messages from people saying they were sad to hear about Wood and his life, but McKissic didn't share their feelings.

"To me it did not make me sad, it made me appreciative of this person generations ago, who without him I would not be here today," he said.

To many African-Americans attempting to chart their family tree, things get very difficult to track around the time of slavery. While most Americans of European descent can rely on birth certificates to trace their lineage, black Americans often need to piece together their ancestry using these bills of sale or slave inventory forms — which are often unhelpful as they don't typically provide names.

The fiddler who charmed Missouri

In lieu of a photo, Raffeal Sears submitted an mp3 file of his great-great-grandfather Bill Driver playing the fiddle in Missouri sometime in the 1940s.

Much like McKissic, Sears knew very little about his long past relative. But when his mother died in 2008, he went in search of his family's history and where he came from.

Sears, professional actor and singer, was shocked and excited to find a relative from so far back that loved music as much as he does.

Sears remembers the first time he heard Driver's music: "I pressed play and I felt like was hearing and seeing a ghost," he said.

While Driver was a farmer by trade, Sears said he was able to find online forums discussing Driver's music and fiddling technique even today.

The former slave who started a university

The next submission is a photo of Debra Clark-Russell and her daughter standing by a statue of William Hooper Councill, the founder of Alabama A&M University, and Clark-Russel's great-great-grandfather.

"Alabama A&M University refers to him as Alabama's best kept secret, and I think after founding a university in 1875 he should no longer be a secret," Clark-Russel said.

After the Civil War, Councill began school at the age of 17. He worked as a day laborer to pay for books and night tutoring — no easy task in the years following slavery, often referred to as "reconstruction."

During this time African-Americans fought for land, political power and education — all things white supremacists fought vehemently against. In this hostile climate, any group first had to gain the favor of even the most racist of whites to receive funding for black schools.

In his fight for more education, Councill became involved in politics, attempting to appeal to white audiences when competing for funding — a move criticized as too tolerant of racism, but one Councill saw as practical.

Councill founded Alabama A&M University as a school to teach agriculture and mechanical skills. Now more than 5,500 students attend the college with a wide variety of majors.

To listen to the documentary, click the audio player above.

Further reading

• Part 1: Old pictures, cherished items reveal stories of African-American life

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