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Apr 25, 2004 5:56 pm

Subverting a System ...

We are born into social frameworks and systems for which we had no originating responsibility. We rarely learn to question their rationale, benefit, or harm. Occasionally an obscure person subverts the system in ways that can be appreciated only in retrospect.

Historians and genealogists who try to track African American family histories into the first half of the 19th century know that the slave census records are a fire wall near impossible to breech. By law, census takers, who listed first and last name, age, gender, occupation, and race for all white residents of the ante-bellum South, were required to list slaves only by age, gender, occupation, and race. Thus, the census record for a slave in 1850 or 1860 might read:"1 black male 20 field hand." They were enumerated that way only for the purpose of counting each as"three-fifths of a man" for congressional representation, but you can see what that does to the effort to trace particular African American family lineage.

Enter Jesse Bell, a census taker in Camden County, North Carolina, in 1860. We know little else about him, but researchers the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources have discovered that Bell violated his legal obligations by listing slaves in Camden County by name."Under the entry for farmer A.P. Cherry, for example, Bell listed the names of 16 slaves -- ranging from 55-year-old Moses to 3-month-old Enoch. The letter ‘S' is written beside each name on the 19-inch-by-15-inch yellowed ledger paper, which has the header ‘Free Inhabitants.'" In retrospect, it was a small enough gesture, one not likely to change our understanding of slavery materially. But it was a subversive act which recognized the humanity, the particularity, of enslaved people. Here's to the nonviolent civil disobedience of Camden County, North Carolina's Jesse Bell.

Update: Confirming the rarity of Bell's action, Chris Nordmann on H-Slavery notes that he found that census takers in the 1840 census for Mobile county, Alabama, and the 1860 census for Ward 2 in St. Louis, Missouri, listed slaves by name.

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Michael C Tinkler - 4/27/2004

...but probate records listed slaves by name all the time, but because precision is more efficient in property exchanges. If the census taker was someone involved in that line of clerkship on a regular basis perhaps it wasn't human feeling on his part but habit?

Ralph E. Luker - 4/24/2004

Next time you get a sabbatical, I'd appreciate it if you'd drop by Atlanta and help me with some important decisions about what needs to be thrown out. Most of it does, I'm fairly sure; but what's to be saved? -- that's the question.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/24/2004

Let's not forget the service he did to the historical profession, and award him the honor due to all who preserve information which would otherwise have been lost.

Remember that, next time you're cleaning out your files.

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