Descendants of slaves pull names--and pain--out of the past





It is a strange and bittersweet victory, to finally know the names of one's slave ancestors and precisely who enslaved them. It is what Carolyn C. Rowe calls the "victorious feeling" that comes from documenting a family history once lost in silence and shame.

A former president of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, Rowe remembers well the excitement of her first discovery, back in 1990. In Burke County, N.C., she found a will that listed a young slave boy named Jack. The age -- 8 years old in 1827 -- fit what she already knew about her ancestry. The location fit, too. And when she cross-referenced the 1870 census -- the first in which former slaves were listed as people with names, not just chattel -- she found her confirmation: Andrew Jackson Corpening, her great-great-grandfather, a slave freed from anonymity.

It was the first of many such breakthroughs, each leading to a fuller picture of the ancestral shoulders on which Rowe stood. She has been in contact with three white families with slaveholding ancestors and visited plantation sites. It is difficult work, unleashing emotions from anger to resignation. But she is re-creating the family tree once shrouded by time. And the slaves, she believes, would be happy.

"I feel that my ancestors want me to know the story," says Rowe, 62, of Fort Washington. "You kind of feel their spirit there and they are rejoicing that we have finally found them."

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