Excerpt: Help Me to Find My People, by Heather Andrea Williams

Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery, by Heather Andrea WilliamsAfter the Civil War, African Americans placed poignant “information wanted” advertisements in newspapers, searching for missing family members. Inspired by the power of these ads, Heather Andrea Williams uses slave narratives, letters, interviews, public records, and diaries to guide readers back to devastating moments of family separation during slavery when people were sold away from parents, siblings, spouses, and children. In Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery, Williams explores the heartbreaking stories of separation and the long, usually unsuccessful journeys toward reunification.

Learn more by reading our interview with Williams, published on this blog last month. Upcoming events are listed on Williams’s author page on the UNC Press website.

Read a wonderful review of the book that appeared in yesterday’s New York Times Book Review.

Following is in an excerpt from the book Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery (pp. 143-145):


From his post as assistant commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau in charge of Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia, General John Eaton Jr. had a broad view of the effects of emancipation on African Americans and whites alike as he regularly received reports from subordinates in the bureau concerning life on the ground after the war. In December 1865, eight months after the close of the war, Eaton sent a report to his superior, General O. O. Howard, commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau. Many freedpeople, Eaton said, had gathered in Washington, D.C., “as at a city of refuge, for safety from their bitter foes.” It was the bureau’s job to move some of those people out of the crowded city into outlying areas. “Many women and children had no adult male support; the men had been run off by the enemy, or gone into our military service,” Eaton observed. In this environment of uncertainty and hostility, “families torn asunder by the various forms of violence that had become an essential part of slavery, came with their tears and sighs for reunion. Husbands and wives,” John Eaton observed, “fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, limited by no shade of color or grade of intelligence, sought each other with an ardor and faithfulness sufficient to vindicate the fidelity and affection of any race—the excited joys of the regathering being equaled only by the previous sorrows and pains of separation.”[1]

African Americans now had both more freedom to move about and more reason to believe they could begin to live the lives they had previously only imagined. For many, this meant reuniting with family, so they urgently attempted to get to the places where they thought their loved ones might be. Sometimes they found them there; other times the people were gone. If any of the ten people Thomas Chaplin sold in 1845 made it back to St. Helena after the war, for instance, they would have been sorely disappointed, as one year after their sale forty of the remaining enslaved people had been seized to pay more of Chaplin’s debts. There was never any guarantee that the family you left behind would have remained in place, but people kept looking. Nettie Henry recalled the long journey that her father took to find his family. When she was just an infant, Henry, her two sisters, and their mother had been given to the newly married daughter of their owner, who took them from Livingston, Alabama, to Meridian, Mississippi. “My pappy didn’t go with us to Meridian,” Henry told her interviewer. “He belonged to one set of white people, you see, and my mammy belong to another.” From time to time, her father traveled from his home in Alabama to theirs in Mississippi to see his wife and children. When the war began, however, his owners took him to Texas, and his family did not see him for several years. “But after the war,” Nettie Henry proudly told an interviewer, “he come back to us, walked most all the way from Texas.” He rented land, and “my pappy built us a shack on that land.”[2]

A man who had undertaken a journey even longer than that of Nettie Henry’s father in search of his family made an impression on John Dennett, a white northern writer who traveled through the South as a special correspondent to the Nation, the New York-based weekly journal. Dennett sent the following report from Concord, North Carolina, in mid-September 1865: “Just before reaching Concord, where I passed the night, I met a middle-aged negro plodding along, staff in hand, and apparently very footsore and tired. He had walked more than six hundred miles, he said, having set out from a plantation in Georgia, near the Alabama line, and had consumed almost two months in making the journey.” The man had been sold south four years earlier, and as soon as he learned he was free, he made up his mind to return to North Carolina to find his wife and children. In Georgia, he said, African Americans were doing very well, but in South Carolina many did not even dare to acknowledge that they were free. His “own color was friendly to him all the way,” the man told Dennett. “He had no fear but that he would find work to do in Salisbury.” He was now only about thirty miles away; he had almost made it back home.[3]

They had been on these roads before, these black people, carrying messages for owners, delivering loads of cotton, walking to the towns where they hired themselves out, and taking goods to be sold in markets. They had been on the roads as members of the coffles that dotted the landscape between the Upper and Lower South as slave traders first purchased and then took them as goods to markets in Richmond, Columbia, Charleston, New Orleans, and Natchez. They had been on the roads accompanying white families such as the Brownriggs as they moved farther south to establish new plantations. And they had been on the roads as runaways, moving toward the free states and Canada, or back to the families from which they had been sold. In freedom they took to the roads once more, usually in the reverse direction of their forced migrations to the Deep South, embarking on personal missions of reunification. They set out with their own priorities in mind, carrying their own memories and messages for loved ones.


From Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery, by Heather Andrea Williams.  Copyright © 2012 by the University of North Carolina Press.

Heather Andrea Williams is professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is author of Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery and Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom.

  1. [1]39th Congress, 1st Session, Senate Executive Documents, vol. 2, document 27, Reports of the Assistant Commissioners of the Freedmen’s Bureau made since December 1, 1865 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office 1866), 151.
  2. [2]Nettie Henry interview, in The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, ed. George P. Rawick, vol. 8, pt. 3, Mississippi Narratives, supplement ser. 1 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1972), 975-76.
  3. [3]John Richard Dennett, The South as It Is (New York: Viking, 1965), 130-31.