Black family roots lost by slavery being uncovered in Raleigh, Wake County: 'Stay in it'

Joel Brown Image
Wednesday, June 19, 2024
Genealogist uncovering Raleigh's Black family roots lost by slavery
As many as 100,000 black people toiled in bondage on plantations in Wake County and Raleigh before the Civil War. But most of their names and stories are lost to history.

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- As the nation marks the Juneteenth holiday, we continue to spotlight our ABC News partnership with 10 Million Names.

It's a project using genealogy to uncover the names of Black Americans enslaved in the U.S. before 1865. The project could help unlock the family histories of millions of African Americans whose ancestry records can be harder to retrieve because of slavery.

Raleigh genealogist helping families connect to their roots

As many as 100,000 black people toiled in bondage on plantations in Wake County and Raleigh before the Civil War. But most of their names and stories are lost to history. Alexander Trapps-Chabala is part of a new charge to uncover those family lineages.

The 28-year-old northern California native, who at 14, became the nation's youngest certified genealogist now makes his home in southeast Raleigh.

He sat down with ABC 11 at Raleigh's Olivia Raney Local History Library where Trapps-Chabala now spends several days a week in the archive rooms -- combing through microfilm, property tax records and any historical clues he can find -- connecting Black Raleighites of the present to their ancestors.

When asked how often people come up and ask if he can personally help find their histories: "Every day. Every single day." Trapps-Chabala replied with a smile.

Diversifying the genealogy space

He's been welcomed by Raleigh's research community. But he says he's felt pushback in the past.

"Archivists, librarians, county clerks would often turn around and say, 'Well, there's nothing that you're going to find here or no one wants to see that sharecropper record.' And so it took a while before I actually had the institutional backing and knowledge and also just the wherewithal to say no, I know what record set I need and you're going to let me see that."

Trapps-Chabala is part of the coalition of Black genealogists and historians working to elevate the resources and historical materials that they said, for years, were deliberately ignored by big name ancestry websites.

"So outside of federal documents, our ancestors are typically written into the margins," Trapps-Chabala said.

Connecting the dots for Black Raleigh

Raney library manager Hannah Cox joined him in the archive room, holding the only record of 19th-century Raleigh tax collections.

Wake County tax book from 19th century
Wake County tax book from 19th century

"These are tax books from Wake County. We have 1890 through 1899," she said carrying the oversized leather-bound book crucial for Trapps-Chabala's research. He can sometimes match names and vital information of Black taxpayers in 1890 to this early map which lists Raleigh's original land grants. It includes many names of Raleigh's white founding fathers.

"You'll see names like Poole, Haywood," he said pointing their spots on the map.

Often, formerly enslaved people would choose the last name of an enslaver associated with their family -- making it easier to for separated families to find each other after slavery.

Alexander is now working to connect those names to their surviving black descendants.

"We'd be able to track down where these families lived, resided and essentially where our ancestors worked and labored," he said.

The process is slow and painstaking at times. And Trapps-Chabala says he knows well the genealogical walls many black families can hit. His message: keep pushing.

"Stay in it. Sit with it. And know that our ancestors are just waiting to be found," said Trapps-Chabala.

So far, he's identified 700 to 1000 enslaved people in Raleigh and Wake County. So there are thousands more names. But Trapps-Chabala says he's confident that with expanding technology and available materials, he and many others will be able to finish the job.

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