Historian and genealogist Stanley Blackburn on Monday shared stories of finding his family ancestry, and the obstacles he faced on the journey, via a Zoom lecture hosted by the Gadsden Public Library.
“Recollections and Research of the Black Church and Black Genealogy” was the library’s final event commemorating Black History Month.
Blackburn, of Morrow, Georgia, started with stories about his childhood in Gadsden and how he began his research into his family’s genealogy.
“What got me started in genealogy was my father. He always loved history and he would write down all of these wonderful stories that he would remember from his childhood,” he said. “I didn’t think much of it until my grandmother was trying to get her Social Security and couldn’t because she didn’t have her birth certificate.”
Blackburn said his grandmother was able to present the family Bible, which dated back more than 100 years, to the Social Security office as a valid identification for her age.
“Back then, a lot of Black people did not have birth certificates,” he said. “Our family Bible was actually started by our ancestors that were slaves, written with a quill and ink. I didn’t even realize that slaves could actually read and write, when my father explained that some could.”
He credits this moment in his life as something that “intrigued” him — wanting to know more about his family. He began his research by asking his older family members questions.
Blackburn said a grandfather and his brother provided bits and pieces of his family history. He wrote the information down, hoping that one day he would be able to “do something with it.”
He spent time at Alabama State University, where he got to know former President Levi Watkins, who held that position at the time of the Civil Rights Movement.
“He began telling me about these three Black ladies who he believed started the movement, because they were the ones organizing meetings, printing flyers and everything else at night,” Blackburn said.
Paterson gave Blackburn assignments to talk with some of the unsung heroes of the Civil Rights Movement who were still in the area.
“I started learning so many things that weren’t in the history books. It started making me think that, if this information isn’t in the books, what else is out there,” he said.
Blackburn then moved to Morrow, where shortly afterward a branch of the National Archives was located. He saw this as an opportunity to begin researching his family history to see “what was true or not,” as some of the stories he had heard were different from the books he had read.
“My first time going to the archives, I didn’t know anything about researching and archiving. This lady, Mrs. Blackmon, was volunteering to help people out,” he said. “(She) and her husband started helping me out a bit, starting with helping me fill out a family tree.”
The archive work quickly became “a daily thing” for Blackburn. He began uncovering information about his family, which people had asked him to provide as documentation to verify his search.
“It talked about how my family started schools, being freed by Gen. (William T.) Sherman and that we were never sharecroppers, which is something that I thought all Blacks were,” he said. “We didn’t live like that. We had our own land and everything we really needed to survive.”
Blackburn “learned quickly” that his stories would not be believable if he didn’t document them, which he also found to be “extremely hard” for Black people to do.
“They didn’t document slaves, or if they did, those records were extremely hard to find,” he said.
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After another year learning research techniques from land genealogist Ronnie Williams through following him to speaking engagements, Blackburn started digging deeper into his family history.
“I remember him telling me that the National Archives was about to begin working on a documentary with professional archives on real estate ownership patterns,” he said. “They didn’t have any Black professionals on the documentary, so I asked the producer, MacSweeney, to let me get involved.”
This documentary became “Stories of the Great Depression,” which Blackburn said has gathered more than 30 million views and is shown in classrooms today as a way to teach students about how people lived during that time.
“I didn’t realize how big that movie was actually going to be,” he said. “I found out that they were using the movie as a teaching tool as part of the National Archives History collection. There’s also a program that they use to teach kids about the Great Depression.”
Blackburn highlighted some of his most notable current projects. He and his family were recently showcased in a book project with Linda Riley on successful middle-class Black families.
“This is the one I’ve enjoyed the most, as I got several awards and the opportunity to do a lot of things,” he said. “I got to share an accolade with my family for this. We couldn’t believe that they would want us to be a part of something that iconic.”
Blackburn also contributed to a monument for former First Lady Michelle Obama’s great-great grandmother, Melvinia Shields, who he estimated lived about 10 minutes from his house in Rex Mill, Georgia.
“I met with her relatives at a book signing, where we talked about being from Cherokee County, where they discussed some of my family members and pointed out that we were kin to one another,” he said. “My uncle, Eli Henderson, lived in a house with them.”
Blackburn said today, because of a road built around the town, Rex Mill is essentially a “ghost town,” with the bridge to the monument currently closed to the public.
“My goal this year is to get them to open that bridge back up so that people can start going back through it,” he said, “Michelle Obama is also not even attached to the street sign for the monument, which is something I’m also working to get changed, as it would attract more people to the site.”
Blackburn also has written a book that has been placed in the National Archives, finding more of his family members that were sold to different slave-owning families along the way.
These living family members introduced him to a 160-year-old house built by slaves that was now owned by their family. Blackburn said he worked with the family and his connections at Georgia State University to help save the house from being demolished and make it a historical site.
“The family had tons and tons of documents from every single thing the family did, dating back to slavery times,” he said. “We found out things that the history books didn’t have and couldn’t even tell you.”
Blackburn closed with photos of his family turning in applications for the national registry and at the different projects he’s been a part of. He said because of all the work, they would be a family “that would definitely change history.”
“Sometimes, you just never know where your history is going to take you,” he said.
Program Director Tim Madden said, “This is a man I know very well, since he is my brother-in-law, We’re certainly excited to have had him here as a genealogist having researched his family on both sides. He also has a very tremendous interest in the area of Black genealogy in general.”