In 1994, several members of the Penson family in Fayette and Coweta counties decided they wanted to start having family reunions, and as part of that effort, they assigned Merryll Penson to do the family history. At the time, Penson, now 73, was director of library services at Columbus State University. Living now in Athens, she would retire as executive director for library services for the state Board of Regents, overseeing in particular, GALILEO, Georgia’s Virtual Library.
“Academic librarians typically do not do genealogy,” she’s quick to point out. “That’s the purview of public librarians – I didn’t know anything about it.” Luckily, she had two colleagues who helped her get started.
“One of the things I learned is that it’s interesting,” she explains. “There’s the puzzle to figure out but in doing so you learn so much about things like land lotteries, Native American history, the life on plantations. You learn a lot about the way people lived and worked, not just their names. And of course, I met cousins and relatives, and that’s been fun too.”
Penson emphasizes that researching family history is not a “one and done – it’s an ongoing process.” Every year since 1994 she has uncovered new information and new questions.
While she can’t say without a doubt that Pensons were owned by William Boyd Pinson whose cotton plantation was in Coweta County, all the evidence points to it. On an 1860 Slave Schedule, Pinson lists 40 people. Slave schedules were population schedules used in two U.S. Federal Censuses: The 1850 Census and the 1860 Census. Slaves were usually not named but enumerated separately and usually only numbered under the slave holder’s name. This was when black Americans were counted as 3/5 a person for the purpose of representation in Congress.
The National Archives has archived all the original manuscripts for applicable states, which is where Penson found the listing of his slaves, their sex and age. Using the 1870 census she was able to identify her paternal great-great grandfather, Sam, b. 1815, and her great grandfather, Tucker, b. 1842, and compare their ages to the males listed on the 1860 Slave Schedule.
She was able to learn more about William Boyd Pinson through local history books such as “Coweta County Chronicles for One Hundred Years.” During the 2008 reunion, the current owners of the former Pinson plantation in Moreland welcomed the family.
“We walked the land – it meant a lot to step foot on the property,” Penson says.
In tracing African American family history, Penson says “You have to look for the white enslavers. You have to understand their families to a certain degree – where they came from; what was happening to them. There may be a piece of information in their records that would be beneficial to you.”
The Penson maternal line, which traces to Surry County, Va., also includes a white landowner who was an actual ancestor. Albert Jones was a wealthy planter who did well during the Civil War by providing fruit for brandy. He was father to Penson’s great grandmother.
Another maternal line, the Banks, can be traced to pre-revolutionary times through a white woman, Elizabeth Banks, who was indentured and her relationship with an unnamed slave.
Penson’s results from two of the main commercial DNA testing services, Ancestry and 23andMe, show ancestry percentages of 60/40 Sub-Saharan Africa and Europe.
Penson’s maternal ancestors in Virginia included at least three lines of free blacks, in fact, two ancestors served in the Revolutionary War. That information at first came to Penson as oral history passed down from her grandmother to her mother. Previous research by a cousin and a book about free blacks along with census records and Virginia records allowed Penson a more complete picture. Penson says these free blacks generally married other free blacks and were listed by name in official records, unlike enslaved blacks.
“When I looked at the Register of Free Negroes in Surry County, I felt anger at seeing these black men subjected to descriptions like they were horses or other animals,” she says. One of the descriptions of her ancestor, Henry Debrix, reads “about 21 years of age of a bright complexion, well made, the said Henry Debrix has lost a part of his forefinger of the right hand (no other marks or scars perceivable) and is 5’8” high” (July 1828)
Another ancestor was a seaman, which required him to have a Seaman Certificate of Protection for a Coloured Person, Philadelphia Port, Jul 7, 1837. That, too, notes physical characteristics, “age 30, 5 ft. 7.5 inches, bright complexion, bushy hair, gray eyes, with scar on right leg as a result of a burn, born in Surry Co.”
Surprisingly, Penson discovered through the television show Finding Your Roots on PBS that she and comedian Wanda Sykes are related through the indentured servant Elizabeth Banks, who Gates identifies as Sykes’ eighth great grandmother.
In the first census taken in 1790, there are approximately 60,000 free blacks living in the U. S. Colonial law at that time allowed the children of a free mother to remain free.
Beginning with her paternal great grandfather, Tucker, the family began to establish itself in Fayette County, first as sharecroppers, but at the same time valuing education and spirituality. “Tuck” was instrumental in helping found Bethlehem Baptist Church in 1876, which still stands in Peachtree City. Penson’s grandfather continued farming and sold vegetables in Atlanta; her grandmother taught in a one-room church school. With family support, her father attended Morehouse College and then went on to Howard University Divinity School in Washington, D. C. where he met Penson’s mother who was a schoolteacher. Later they would move to Tuskegee where he was a Presbyterian minister and she a librarian at the University.
Through the post-reconstruction era, there were lynchings in the county. A great uncle was killed when white bootleggers came to his home and shot him. The land they farmed was not productive and income was minimal so some descendants later moved north to more urban areas as part of the Great Migration.
At each reunion, Penson provides a family tree chart, which has grown to over 20 ft. in the nearly 30 years she’s been researching. She brings books, documents, and photographs that people can browse. One year, she wrote the family story from Sam’s perspective and had a cousin perform it.
Penson descendants come to Georgia from California, Ohio, Michigan, and Tennessee. The reunion grows larger each time.
“What I want people to understand is that doing a family history is a great way to understand you’re part of something bigger,” Penson emphasizes. “Your family matters – not just your close family. All these people matter. What’s important is to understand who they were – it’s not one dimensional… I have such admiration and awe that my ancestors survived so many challenges. They built this country, and their descendants continue to add value. In researching my family history, I have learned that my family history IS American history.”
Mormon Church Volunteers add 800+ Local Cemetery Names to Largest Genealogical Database
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints place a very important emphasis on family and the importance of family in society, says Debbie Stephens, a member of one of the several congregations in the Athens area and a volunteer Family History Consultant. “We’re grateful to our ancestors for what they did to get us here, so we research them,” she explains. “And we’ve become experts as we’ve researched our own families.”
That commitment has resulted in FamilySearch.org, the largest genealogical website in the world, which is free to use and doesn’t contain any ads.
It was that resource that connected Stephens to Linda Davis, head of restoration efforts at Brooklyn Cemetery, one of the first African American cemeteries in Athens. Davis helped establish a Friends group in 2006, which has been working to restore, rebuild and commemorate the 11-acre grounds, and the people buried there.
Members of various local Mormon congregations have been helping with the restoration for years. In 2021, on one of the clean-up days, Stephens brought her laptop and spontaneously offered to begin to build a family tree for Davis.
“With the internet, it doesn’t take that long,” Stephens told Davis, “but it is harder in the African American community because we can’t go back beyond 1870 and the first census freed slaves would be listed in.”
There was nothing about Davis’s family in FamilySearch. In further research, Stephens found that only about four percent of African Americans who were listed in the 1900 census are in the database whereas 70 percent of white Americans from that census are in it. She finally found some information in another genealogical website.
In doing the family tree work, Stephens continued to work with the local Church team doing clean-up and came across a metal marker with the words “Little Fred Hopkins, 30 minutes, 1961.”
“I wanted to find out more,” she recalls. After digging through local resources such as city directories and death certificates, she found his father, his grandparents, and his great grandparents, and entered them in FamilySearch.
“It occurred to me that we can clean up and beautify these people’s final resting place but if we get them into FamilySearch with as much of their family as we can find then they will be remembered if somebody goes looking,” she explains.
She presented the idea to the cemetery project manager, and he agreed that she could recruit volunteers to take the 800+ documented names of those buried in Brooklyn and get as much as possible about them into FamilySearch.
When it was over, 20 volunteers had put in lots of hours and entered over 3,000 names in the database.
After that, the project evolved at Davis’s request, and Stephens presented to a meeting of representatives from other local black Baptist churches who went back to their congregations with the offer to meet at the library with Stephens and some of their volunteers if they wanted their family trees built. About 20 people attended.
In one memorable incident after the project was finished, Stephens met Raymond Hammonds at the library and handed him his family tree.
“Next thing, tears were running down his face,” she says. “He was just rubbing the book. He said, ‘This means so much – I remember these people.’
Advice from Two Genealogists
African American genealogical research can be difficult but it’s not impossible, says Laura Carter, who was the Heritage Room librarian at the Athens Library from 1997 to 2014, and past director of the Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research in Athens.
“For any genealogy research, you must understand the place and the time,” she emphasizes. “If you use only the search terms black, Negro, colored or Afro-American, you will limit what you find.”
Instead, be prepared to consider a wide range of records that covered everybody, she advises. For instance, the Freedmen’s Bureau had authority over all abandoned and confiscated lands previously owned by whites before the Civil War, which were sold during Reconstruction to encourage land ownership among freedmen.
Not all blacks were enslaved, Carter explains; there were free persons of color listed in the first federal census in 1790. Voter registration records, deeds, probate records, birth and death certificates, many kinds of useful records may be buried in county courthouses or state archives. City directories and phone books can also provide valuable clues to the past.
“You have to follow the story your ancestors passed down – African Americans come from an oral tradition and the stories passed down may have more truth in them,” says Carter. “It’s so much more than putting names and dates in a family tree.”
Elyse Hill, who lives in McDonough but is doing research on the people enslaved by the Cobb-Lamar families of Athens, became a self-taught genealogist 20 years ago when she decided to research her mother’s mother.
“That line was the mystery of the family,” she recalls. “We only had her name, probably her maiden name, and that she was born in Tennessee. Family speculation was that perhaps her mother had died during childbirth and an aunt and uncle adopted her.”
With just that little bit of information, Hill began googling genealogy tips and ultimately says she found out more about that line of the family than any other.
Over time she joined a couple of genealogical societies and attended two training institutes at the Institute of Genealogy and Historic Research here in Athens and hosted by the Georgia Genealogical Society. In time, she became certified.
Hill identifies some resources she has used for various projects, including:
- Slave narratives collected during the 1930s by the Federal Writers’ Project. More than 2,000 interviews were collected throughout the southern states with almost 200 narratives collected in Georgia. The Library of Congress has made the complete set of narratives available online as part of the American Memory Project, in the Born in Slavery collection. They are broken out by state and city.
- Georgia has voter registration files from right after the Civil War – it was a requirement to be brought back into the union.
- Southern Claim Commission Records – if federal troops took livestock or crops from a farmer, he could file a claim for damages if he swore loyalty to the union. Some of the formerly enslaved served as witnesses. Many were disapproved but the application still exists. Hill says she found her 4th great-grandfather that way because he was a witness for the man who was probably his owner.
- Military pension files, by state. Confederate soldiers and even Confederate servants were allowed to file for pensions from their state, mostly for health-related issues. They were required to give extensive histories that involved affidavits from former slave owners and former slaves. Hill’s great-great-grandfather filed for a Tennessee pension as he had cooked for his owner who was a Confederate major.
- Identification of the slave owner. Anything about the enslaved was generated in the records of the owners. Sometimes the formerly enslaved took the name of their father’s slave owner even if the family had been split up, and the son was owned by someone else at emancipation. “He would take the name of his father’s owner to honor his father.”
- Scour the 1870 census for clues. Who were they living next door to and is that a clue to who owned them? Will further research of that person yield more information? In this way, Hill was able to identify her third great-grandfather’s mother, who was born in 1820.
Here are some other resources and organizations that can help with African American genealogy:
OLLI classes – Laura Carter teaches classes on genealogy each semester for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. Olli.uga.edu
Heritage Room at Athens Library – The Heritage Room seeks to serve students of all ages and experience levels in their research into local, regional and state history and genealogy. As the local history and genealogy arm of the Athens Regional Library System, the Heritage Room offers free 45-minute personal consultations with a Heritage Room Specialist for novice patrons, genealogists and researchers in need of individualized assistance.
To register, visit the events calendar online and click on the tutorial of interest, and complete the registration form – athenslibrary.org. You may also register by phone by calling (706) 613-3650 x352, or in person by visiting the Heritage Room during our regular hours of operation.
Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research Foundation Course. This beginner course provides the tools you need to begin genealogical research, including how to read old handwriting, record, analyze and cite research information, interview relatives, and explore clues in maps, newspapers, land, miliary, probate and religious records. No prior genealogical experience is necessary. The week-long course begins July 24; registration begins March 4; for more information, go to https://ighr.gagensociety.org/ighr-courses/
The Georgia Archives identifies, collects, provides access and preserves Georgia’s historical documents. Find them at georgiaarchives.org
Digital Library of Georgia – An initiative of the University System of Georgia, this online resource includes some government records and historic Georgia newspaper collections. Dlg.usg.edu
Our Black Ancestry – a nonprofit organization that serves as a forum for people to share documents, discuss reparations and trace histories together. There are tutorials for novice family historians. Ourblackancestry.org
Freedmen’s Bureau – full name is Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands. Includes labor contracts, apprenticeship records, marriage records, and more. Here’s an article about the different records kept by the Freedmen’s Bureau: https://www.familysearch.org/en/wiki/Freedmen%27s_Bureau_Record_Types
National Archives – Millions of government documents are online through the National Archives, including all censuses. On April 1, 2022, the 1950 Census was released, and users can access it for free through a dedicated website at 1950census.archives.gov. The details of each ten-year census only become available 72 years later. Archives.gov.
FamilySearch.org has billions of digital images and indexes of records from all over the world and they provide free access. These records include government and church records for births, marriages, and deaths; censuses; probate records, land records, draft cards; and so forth. Millions of new records are published on a weekly basis.
Many of the records on the FamilySearch website are indexed, making them easier to search. The indexes are created by volunteers, partners, or vendors. Currently, there over 125,000 active indexers around the world who complete about one million names a day. Anyone can help with this effort, regardless of their age, religion, or technical background; all that is needed is a computer and an Internet connection.
Ancestry.com – This site has extensive genealogical information, but it requires a membership; it’s free to access at the library.