Among the many contributions of African-Americans to our national life, one seems almost incidental: the intense interest in genealogy. The appearance in 1976 of the book “Roots” by Ithaca native Alex Haley, its sequels, and the consequent television series gave everyone a keener appreciation of the disruption of African society, enslavement, emancipation, segregation and the struggle for the full rights of citizenship. It also motivated people of various ethnicities to search for their own background. The election of Barack Obama as the USA’s first African-American president is surely a milestone in American history. Also significant is the revelation that President Obama and former Vice-president Dick Cheney are eighth cousins.
February is Black History Month, an observance created in 1926 as Negro History Week by historian Carter G. Woodson and sometimes criticized for appearing to set the history of African Americans as distinct from the rest of American history. The depth and complexity of the role of African-Americans in our history is reflected in a new book, “African American Freedom Journey in New York and Related Sites, 1823-1870: Freedom Knows No Color”. The author is Harry Bradshaw Matthews, associate dean and director of U.S. Pluralism Programs at the U.S. Pluralism Center at Hartwick College in Oneonta.
The freedom journey lasted longer than the crucial years of the title – years marked by the rise of the abolitionist movement, the Fugitive Slave Act, the Underground Railroad and the Civil War. “This book,” Mr. Matthews states, “has been written in a style that allows the reader to follow a journey from slavery to freedom.” The first chapters deal with the drive to abolish slavery, the political temper of the times and the condition of Freedmen. The story is made more vivid through dozens of excerpts and extended passages from the writings of the day, including articles and letters that appeared in important abolitionist and black publications.
The editor, aware of the diversity of opinion in reference to the title of this “Paper”, thinks it not amiss here to state some reasons for selecting this name as more appropriate than any other. Many would gladly rob us of the endeared name, “AMERICAN”, a distinction more emphatically belonging to us, than five-sixths of this nation, and one that we will never yield.
— The Colored American, March 4, 1837
The journey reaches an important destination when Mr. Matthews turns to the personal condition and experiences of members of United States Colored Troops in the Civil War. There was objection to allowing Black persons to take up arms – even President Lincoln was initially reluctant and New York Governor Horatio Seymour remained opposed. Treatment of colored prisoners of war could be cruel and inhuman. But the troops fought with discipline and valor and were hailed as heroes in the North, even though the U.S. Armed Forces would not be racially integrated for nearly another century.
One of the most poignant sections of “African American Freedom Journey” deals with Gettysburg – not the tremendous and decisive battle that was fought there, but the experiences of Black soldiers who lived in that Pennsylvania town, many of whom were escapees from the South. Dean Matthews’ interest in the United States Colored Troops is not simply academic. He is founding president and executive director of the United States Colored Troops Institute for Local History and Family Research, which is headquartered at Hartwick College. His accounts of members of the USCT often include detailed genealogical information.
Matthews searches out the family history of Black soldiers from the Otsego-Delaware County area and in several appendices (which take up most of the 467-page book) he lists the roll call of the USTC and records burials.
But the true labor of love in this book is his own geneaology. During the era of slavery Matthews’ ancestors were the property of a South Carolina family named Killingsworth and that surname was adopted by his forebears. So “African American Freedom Journey” traces the Killingsworth clan back to Scotland in the year 1242 before detailing the family history of the black Killingsworths. This is an exacting task but the author shares not only his findings but also his methods, with references and recommendations about (in the words of a chapter title) “bringing the ancestors home.”
Harry Bradshaw Matthews joins Bill Jaker on OFF THE PAGE to tell about his study of African American family history and genealogical research.