Unchained memories

A family’s history can be difficult to research, but
when that history includes slavery, the discovery becomes much more complex and emotional.
Sunday, March 27, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 12:29 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Traci Wilson-Kleekamp often lies awake until 2 a.m. reading cemetery records. Her husband calls it sick and teases her about her fascination with dead people.

She calls it one of her life’s passions, and it goes far beyond reading about burials.

For seven years, Wilson-Kleekamp, 40, has been on a quest to gather information and create a family tree of her ancestors, some of whom were once slaves on Ravenswood Plantation in Bunceton and on other central Missouri farms and plantations.

She has traced her lineage back to 1825 and found that her ancestors were slaves owned by many families that settled Columbia and the surrounding area. They include the Rollins, Tutt, Hutchinson, Hickman, Keene, McClanahan and Leonard families.

Because they were traded, given as gifts or sold off separately, her ancestors were scattered throughout Boone, Jackson, Cooper, Howard, Callaway and Randolph counties, among others in central Missouri.

“We’re bouncing all over the place trying to trace these people and at the same time trying to put all our family groups together,” she said.

Her path of self-discovery has brought her into contact with other researchers on similar pursuits, some of whom have turned out to be distant relatives. She has found genealogists from across the nation willing to help in any way they can, whether it’s with their time, information or guidance.

“People do extraordinary things because they want to know,” she said.

Genealogy is one of the most popular hobbies in the United States, and millions all over the nation are exploring their roots.

According to a Maritz Research poll commissioned by, about 60 percent of the American population is tracing its ancestry.

Elizabeth Shown Mills, former president of the American Society of Genealogists, said the hobby has exploded in popularity in recent years, thanks to new genetic testing and the Internet.

“We are a rootless society,” Mills said. “We need a place we can identify with, we need a people that we feel comfortable with, we need an identity, and genealogy provides all three of these.”

Some credit the publication of Alex Haley’s epic “Roots” in 1976 and the 1977 TV miniseries for stirring up interest in African-American genealogy. The miniseries was the third top-rated TV show of all-time.

The popular 1998 book “Slaves in the Family” by Edward Ball told another side of the story — that of a white man exploring his slave-owning ancestry and setting out to meet thousands of the descendants of their slaves.

For Wilson-Kleekamp, the “color” of the research is irrelevant. For every slave, there is a slave owner. Black and white, they produce a record of a past, and the fog is slowly lifting.

No one knew

Wilson-Kleekamp’s journey began in Long Beach, Calif., when her son, Ian, a second-grader at the time, was asked to make a family tree for class.

“It started very innocently,” she said. After a few phone calls she realized her family knew little about its roots.

Ian is now 14, and his mother’s research has become such a huge part of her life that now he just rolls his eyes and refers to her work as her “genealogical stuff.”

When Ian’s project was done, his mother’s had only just begun. She quickly realized that anything further back than the history of her great-grandfathers was a complete blank.

“After my disappointment, I was mad because I got on the Web and there was nothing there in the way of tools for African Americans,” she said, especially for those searching for their slave ancestors in mid-Missouri.

She decided in 1999 to create so she and other researchers would have a way to share their findings and work together.

Endless pursuit

Genealogical research is no simple endeavor, as Wilson-Kleekamp has discovered. The deeper she gets, the more she wants to know. At times, it is totally frustrating.

“The average person is like, ‘I’m going to follow my dad’s line, and I’m going to follow my mom’s line.’ But I’m following a lot of lines,” she said. The slaves of the white families that settled the area around Columbia make up Wilson-Kleekamp’s paternal grandfather’s side of the family alone.

The lack of documentation on slaves can make it especially hard to trace African-American roots before the Civil War.

But long before researchers can delve into slavery, they must get through 140 years of family history, said Tony Burroughs, author of “Black Roots: A Beginner’s Guide to Tracing the African American Family Tree.” Burroughs, who teaches genealogy at Chicago State University and has researched his own family’s history, said he does not dwell on slavery.

“You start from yourself and work backwards one generation at a time,” he said. “Unfortunately, people get hung up on slavery without realizing they’ve got 130 to 140 years of research before they get to slavery.”

Burroughs said making a definite link between a slave owner and one’s ancestors is a “major stumbling block” for African-American researchers.

For Wilson-Kleekamp, once she had traced her family back to 1870, she knew that her ancestors were slaves. A map of Boone County showed one recently freed family group living next door to the Tutt family, who were their former slave owners. At that time her ancestors were still going by the Tutt name, and in their previous owners’ hand-written Bible records, Wilson-Kleekamp found the exact first names of some of the ancestors she had been seeking. From there, she crossed the line into the more troubling side of her family history.

“Anything from 1870 back means slavery, and the search then becomes more intense,” said Linda Palmer, a researcher from Los Angeles who turned out to be Wilson-Kleekamp’s relative.

Before the 1870 census, which first recorded free blacks, slaves were identified only by tally marks divided by age, sex and race.

Once researchers get that far back, specific records can become scarce, and emotions often run high.

“Finding your enslaved ancestors can be a traumatic experience,” Palmer said. “It took me several months before I could look at a slave schedule without getting angry.” A slave schedule was a census document that recorded the number and value of slaves owned by a particular white person.

When members of the slave-owning family died, slaves were included as part of the inventory of the deceased person’s estate. Thumbing through estate records from the early 1800s, one can often find a slave’s age and sex, followed by his or her value set by an appraiser. Looking at such records can be hard for African-American researchers, and it was for Wilson-Kleekamp.

She is now tracing a handful of family surnames. Wilson, Crump, Gray, Smith, Johnson and Price are the names she falls asleep thinking of many nights.

She asked a fellow genealogist where she thought the name Wilson came from, and she was disappointed by the response.

“She said, ‘Girl, that name don’t mean nothing, they just picked that last name,’ and I was like, ‘Oh, my God,’” Wilson-Kleekamp said. “The surname is really a wild card” because it can come from the slave’s mother, father, or current or former owner.

Further complicating matters, some slaves renamed themselves after they were freed. And since most slaves were illiterate when their names were first recorded, spellings can vary drastically. The surname Monday, for example, becomes Mundy in some of the records Wilson-Kleekamp has seen.

Working together

Some people call what she does black research, but Wilson-Kleekamp doesn’t differentiate what she does by color.

“Everybody has to work together, because not one side of the (slave) transaction has everything,” she said.

That’s why she has worked to build relationships with some ancestors of slave owners. She says it’s the key for anyone studying African-American genealogy.

“She’s waged a campaign to try and encourage other white researchers to join us, because our families are found within their records,” said Lucy Porter of Waterloo, Iowa, another African-American researcher. “If we don’t have their help, we can’t find our ancestors at all.”

She said many white researchers don’t think to extract slave information from records, but that knowledge can make a big difference.

“Our family’s basically the flip side of their family,” Wilson-Kleekamp said. She uses documents like marriage licenses, wills, land deeds and census materials to make connections between owners and slaves. Such records can be especially useful when trying to trace slaves from one location to the next.

Palmer, Wilson Kleekamp’s relative who lives in Los Angeles, found evidence that her great-grandfather, Henry Clay Rogers, was born in 1844 on the Keene farm in Columbia. A closer look at the white family’s records revealed that Rogers may have at some point been given as a wedding gift, she said.

She’s also found that his wife, Mary Ann Rogers, was sold at the age of 3 on the steps of the Boone County Courthouse for $850 and a deed of trust.

Palmer said she’s trying to verify these facts a second time. Access to slave holders’ documents can help researchers verify stories and claims like these.

“Genealogy is based on evidence,” Burroughs said. “You can’t just say who your ancestors are; you have to prove who they are.”

Genealogy also requires a strong base in history.

“(It) is history, but its history up close and personal,” Mills with the genealogical society said. “And when we personalize history, we see a whole different world from the generic things that academic historians write about.”

For many, research can be clouded by misconceptions about the past. Burroughs said many Americans don’t have a strong base in the history of their country, and researchers must go beyond the myths.

“If you’re incorrect about history, you’re not going to find your ancestors because you’re going to be looking in the wrong places,” he said.

Thirkelle Howard, an instructor of genealogy at Kansas State University, was a high school student in the 1960s when she realized her family’s history was a complete unknown.

She had been asked to make a family tree and found her parents only knew the names of their parents and one or two of their grandparents. Her parents recalled that when older relatives ever talked about the past, they sent the children outside.

“She (my mother) remembered her mother talking about the fireworks when slavery ended,” she said. “Other than that, they didn’t talk about it.”

When Howard, the only black student in her high school class, turned her small tree in, she saw other students had to attach extra sheets of paper to their trees because they could go back 10 to 12 generations.

She began to question who her ancestors were. The search for answers has taken her through 40 years of classes, degrees and now she’s working toward a Ph.D. Her current research is on how closely African Americans are related.

She found that between 400,000 and 600,000 slaves were imported to America from Africa, and only about half of those had children once they were here. So, most African Americans are descendants of between 200,000 and 300,000 people.

“It makes us very close, at least seventh or eighth cousins,” Howard said.

Virtual family

Wilson-Kleekamp has met many distant relatives through her research, including a number of cousins with whom she now stays in contact. She has connected with family members from Los Angeles to Iowa and many still living in Missouri. this network of researchers — most of whom she met online — her virtual family.

Genealogy is one of the common uses of the Internet, and though Wilson-Kleekamp utilized the Web as a means of contact, she also likes to get hard copies of documents.

She has between eight and ten boxes in her basement full of letters, copies of manuscripts and lists, and her office is cluttered with filing cabinets and piles of papers.

But through her Web site, county listservs and e-mail, the Internet has allowed Wilson-Kleekamp to stay in contact with her relatives and receive daily queries from site visitors who have questions. She maintains three e-mail addresses, in case one doesn’t work, and estimates that she receives between 1,000 and 1,500 e-mails per week.

Members of her virtual family share their new findings daily.

“Slowly but surely, we’re collaborating,” she said. “Everybody has something to fit into the puzzle.”

Porter, 67, brought her piece of the puzzle after hitting a dead end when she began tracing her family history five years ago. She had no luck finding her mother’s side of the family in central Missouri.

“I was coming up empty,” she said.

Then she stumbled across an article on Wilson-Kleekamp’s Web site.

She began communicating with Wilson-Kleekamp via e-mail, and after a bit of digging the two women found they were actually related.

John Fields, 50, of Columbia had been tracing his genealogy since 1992 when he found a list of names on her Web site. He began to see familiar names.

“Lo and behold, there was my grandfather’s name,” he said.

After connecting with Wilson-Kleekamp, he was able to go back three generations.

“I’m beginning to put all these pieces together that I never had before,” he said.

Wilson-Kleekamp e-mailed Jacqueline Bugg of Topeka, Kan., with a question about Bugg’s family history, and when she replied they discovered they were cousins.

“I had never heard of her before in my life,” she said. Her connection with Wilson-Kleekamp also brought her into contact with Fields, whom she later found out was related to her on both sides of her family.

Pat Holmes, a reference specialist at the State Historical Society of Missouri, said she has watched Wilson-Kleekamp develop new ways of getting her family’s story and connecting with members of her family.

“I think she’s really breaking new ground,” Holmes said. “Traci’s actually doing research on groups of people. By extensive use of county records she is connecting a lot of families. She’s using all the tools that are available today.”

Both sides of the transaction

Wilson-Kleekamp has had multiple encounters with ancestors of slaveholders who owned her family, and each has been slightly different.

On her first trip to Ravenswood Plantation in 1999, Wilson-Kleekamp met Charlie Leonard, an 87-year-old descendant of the slaveholders that owned Wilson-Kleekamp’s ancestors.

“(Leonard) told me slavery was the best thing for black people to get fed,” she said. “That’s just where he came from.”

Wilson-Kleekamp said when she encounters such attitudes, she has to shut herself off emotionally.

“I had to separate myself,” she said. “All you’re left with is acting like a dignified person.”

Later that year, Wilson-Kleekamp took a trip to Davis, Calif., for a visit with 99-year-old Anna Louise Stephens, a relative of the Cooper County pioneer Harvey Bunce, a sheriff for whom the city of Bunceton was named.

“She was really just a good-hearted person,” Wilson-Kleekamp said. “She was really remorseful about the fact that her family owned slaves and was still trying to come to terms with it as an old woman.”

Stephens confessed she’d found it difficult to explain her family’s actions to her children, Wilson-Kleekamp said.

Carolyn Gibbons of Fayetteville, N.C., learned through her own family research that her ancestors were slave owners.

She posted a query on about one of her ancestors, and Wilson-Kleekamp, researching the same line, quickly responded.

“I had been aware (that my ancestors owned slaves), but it didn’t make such an impact on me until I started delving deeper in with Traci,” Gibbons said.

It became apparent after further research that Gibbons’ ancestors had owned Wilson-Kleekamp’s. Since then, the two women have worked together to uncover the past.

“She’s made me a lot more aware of black research,” Gibbons said. “Now I don’t read anything without noticing when they had slaves in the inventory.”

The shared perspective produces a more complete picture.

“We knew different things because we were looking at it from different angles,” Gibbons said.

Gibbons’ research on her ancestors revealed two strikingly different stories on the issue of slavery. One side was made up of ardent abolitionists who ran a stop on the Underground Railroad in Illinois. On the other side of her family, her great-grandfather’s brother was very active in the Missouri Ku Klux Klan.

“My aunt remembers him telling her stories that made her physically ill of the torture that they did to blacks,” she said. “There can be some really brutal things that happened.”

Working with Wilson-Kleekamp made Gibbons realize how she could help African American researchers. Though she said she reacts strongly to some of her own findings, she knows it has a much stronger effect on people like Wilson-Kleekamp who are descendants of slaves.

“It’s so hard when these people were raised as cattle and appraised as pieces of property the way you would a dog or mule,” Gibbons said. “It is hard to look upon that. Even to me as a white person and as a descendant of people that owned slaves, it is hard to imagine the brutality.”

‘Fade to white’

Not all descendants of slaveholders are willing to talk about the disturbing side of their family’s past.

“It’s very traumatic for a lot of people to say that their ancestors owned slaves,” said Howard, the genealogist at Kansas State.

She remembers calling descendants of former slave owners in Tennessee with a question about their family history.

“They gave me information about the slave owners, but we never discussed the slave part, and I’m almost certain they would not have discussed it if they had known I am black,” she said.

There are some aspects of slavery that are still kept quiet today, like the possible 40-year relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, a slave at Monticello.

The story first broke during his first term as president, and the claim is still debated and denied today. DNA tests have even been done to determine Jefferson lineage.

A group of Jefferson’s descendants fought to keep Hemings’ descendants out of the group.

“People get weirded out about Jefferson and all that, but it was so much a part of it,” Wilson-Kleekamp said. “I call it the ‘fade to white.’”

She’s found traces of white ancestry mixed in her lines, and has evidence that one of her ancestors, Bob Price, was named after a white man who raped his mother.

“Just remember, women were considered property too,” she said. “The only thing they could do is name the child after the perpetrator.”

Mills grew up in Mississippi in the 1950s, and she said her lineage of mixed races wasn’t discussed outside her family, which had Indian ancestry.

“Even into the early 70s, you just did not do that in the South,” she said. “Things like this were discussed, but they were whispered about. Not, once the ice is broken and people see that nothing terrible happened as a result, then others open up.”

In the end it comes down to acceptance of the facts.

“We need to accept our ancestors,” Mills said. “We violate their standards in so many ways today. We all need to accept each other, that’s what it comes down to.”

Looking ahead

An African proverb says, “To know the future you must first know the past.”

Burroughs said he thinks there is an innate human urge in everyone to know their family history.

“I think it’s just a part of humanity that people want to know who they are and where they came from,” he said.

And though genealogical research has recently gained popularity, the desire to honor one’s ancestors dates far back in history and can be seen in everything from Native American totem poles to family trees linking the Old and New Testaments.

“This has been important for civilized society, as a major part of civilized society,” Howard said.

Most people doing genealogy come to a realization that their research is a life-long task.

“For me, the more I know the more I want to know, so this will certainly take awhile,” Palmer said.

Bugg said she doesn’t think her research will ever be over.

“Every time I find something, it leads me to another branch of my family,” she said.

Aside from wanting to know where she came from, genealogy is helpful when identifying traits, like illnesses that may run in the family, Bugg said.

“We know it’s in the genes somewhere, so it helps to know the people from our past,” she said.

Wilson-Kleekamp hopes to one day host a family reunion where everyone can meet and contribute to a family book that can be passed down to the next generation.

Others are simply looking to learn about their heritage and what their family was like, even if it means facing an unpleasant past.

Fields will never find his grandfather’s grave in Memorial Cemetery because the headstone was removed to make room for a white burial. But he said he holds no grudges. He’s just happy knowing where it is.

“It’s hard trying to piece these little pieces together to be able to figure out who you are,” Fields said.

But for him, it’s a simple and cherished pleasure — finding information on his ancestors.

“You know the feeling when you get up Christmas morning and everything you ever asked for from Santa Claus is there? That’s the feeling that I get,” he said. “I sit there staring at a computer screen just in awe of what I can see.”

For Wilson-Kleekamp, the feeling is often quite the opposite. She can never fully wrap her mind around the concept of slavery. “Sometimes I get so depressed,” she said. “Part of it is just being overwhelmed.”

But then she turns to the future.

“The remedy is to embrace that black culture is just as important,” she said. “I can do things my father and his father couldn’t do. I can go anywhere I want and not have anyone say what I can and can’t do.”

Friends and family are watching and wondering if Wilson-Kleekamp will be able to trace her family’s story all the way back to Africa. She said she doesn’t know how far back she’ll go, but that’s not the point anyway.

“Some families are really good about passing things down, but everything I’m doing is straight from scratch,” she said. “It would be very cool when all is said and done to have something for my kids. They may not ever appreciate it, but in the meantime I’ve had a lot of fun, met a lot of neat people and tried to change the way we think about doing ‘black genealogy’.”

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