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From the horrors of slavery come clues about ancestors

Touring a Bullock Texas State History Museum exhibit with experts helps explain the stories behind the stories.


If your African-Texan ancestors go back more than a few generations, some of them passed through New Orleans.

New Orleans was the richest and busiest slave port in America, and it operated the biggest slave market.

If your African-American ancestors go back more than a few generations in Texas, some of them almost assuredly passed through New Orleans.

“New Orleans was the richest and busiest slave port in America,” says LaToya Devezin, community archivist at the Austin History Center and a native New Orleanian. “And it operated the biggest slave market.”

In fact, that city on the Mississippi River supported multiple marketplaces hosting regular slave auctions. Especially in the period after 1808, when federal law banned the Atlantic slave trade in the United States.

From that point on, almost all American sales and purchases of humans as property were made on the domestic market, and New Orleans was the hub.

That is why so much of “Purchased Lives: The American Slave Trade from 1808 to 1865” — on view in the upstairs rotunda galleries at the Bullock Texas State History Museum through July 9 — examines the New Orleans scene. Look closer at the enlarged maps, pictures of buildings, ships and railroads, broadsides about sales and manifests, and the New Orleans connections are easy to see.

RELATED: UT’s Briscoe Center now a place of history for everyone

We toured the exhibition with Devezin, who did research at the Historical New Orleans Collection, the group that originally staged the show, and Cynthia Evans from the Carver Genealogy Center.

Their expertise was crucial because just around the corner is a May 13 genealogical workshop at the Bullock, “Finding Your Roots,” led by Ashley Stevens of the Texas State Library and Archives and Maria Hammack, who will talk about how to use the resources at the University of Texas for African-American genealogy (see box with this story).

For her part, Evans gives monthly workshops at the Carver Genealogy Center, housed in the city’s first masonry library building, which was moved to East Austin to serve the African-American community in the 1930s. It was replaced downtown by the more formal building now occupied by the Austin History Center.

The Bullock exhibition mentions the arrival in 1619 of the first slave ship in Virginia, a year before the Mayflower reached Plymouth Rock. Yet the story really begins in the 19th century with the forced migration of 1 million enslaved people, moved by steamboat, sail, stagecoach and rail car, but mostly on foot, to the booming cotton and sugar cane fields of the Deep South.

Devezin: “Most of them would have been listed on a manifest.”

Evans: “If they were not walking.”

Devezin: “It was not a comfortable journey, since they were chained. I can only imagine. What if you were a slave and saw that? How could you go back to cooking dinner?”

Evans: “Or working in the field?”

Some 70,000 of those slaves arrived in New Orleans from American ports such as Galveston, a voyage likened by the exhibition’s curators to a second Middle Passage. On the manifests, the slaves are listed in a neat hand by first and last name as well as complexion — yellow, black, brown.

Devezin: “The port records have been digitized and can be found at the library or through”

Evans: “Not all have been digitized, though.”

Devezin: “Right. It’s all below sea level there in New Orleans, so the more you digitize, the better.”

Not all sales took place on the auction block. For instance, there is little or no evidence of a central slave market in Austin. One of Houston’s slave markets, on the other hand, built in 1860 to replace a wooden structure, survives as La Carafe bar in Market Square downtown.

Notices of individual or group sales were tacked to trees, posted on buildings or printed in newspapers.

Devezin: “You begin to see that they were valued as much for what they could do as for who they were. Skilled dressmakers, for instance, sold for more.”

Evans: “But also strong field hands.”

Devezin expertly explains the unique mix of free black and Creole people in New Orleans, many with French or Spanish ancestors, whose records are found in those languages. It is crucial to know the history, not just the genealogy. For instance, the French insisted that families be sold together, a custom discarded when Louisiana became an American territory.

The displays include notices detailing searches for runaway slaves. Lest one focus too much on the legalities of fugitive slave laws, which after 1850 forced those even in free states to return slaves, a raw reminder of the reality on the ground can be seen in a large iron and brass slave collar outfitted with bells to alert overseers.

Evans: “Think how heavy that would be.”

Devezin: “They made smaller ones for children.”

Evans: “You’d need a blacksmith to take that off.”

Devezin: “And they made bigger ones where you couldn’t even turn around.”

The roles of free blacks are not forgotten in the exhibition, nor are the efforts of the American antislavery movement. Yet the core of the narrative falls on the city of New Orleans, its docks, markets, hotels and hospitals, all of which kept minute records of slaves — in part because they were property and therefore subject to banking, taxation and legal regulations.

These kinds of papers, while numerous, are not easy to find without some archival help. In her workshops, Evans urges beginners to start by filling out a family chart — forms are easily obtained online — and taking it to family elders for additional information.

Another resource is black newspapers. A few of them from the period after emancipation in Central Texas are housed at the Briscoe Center for American History, among other places. New Orleans supported several major black newspapers, including the Republican and the Tribune, some printed in English and French.

Perhaps the most memorable part of the exhibition is located near its end: enlarged newspaper notices for “Lost Friends,” published after emancipation by people seeking relations separated during slavery.

“Dear Editor,” reads one. “I wish to inquire for my sister Martha, who was sold from us at Jackson, Tenn., to Tom Boyle, near Boliva, Tenn. She was seven at the time. We all belonged to John Green. Mother’s name was Dollie; father’s Granville — he belonged to Tom Norman of Whiteville, Tenn. There were five children — William, Granville, Martha, Laura and Richmond (the baby). Mother and all the children but Martha are living in Texas. Address me at Austin, Travis County, Texas. — Rev. Granville Norman.”

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