Celebrating Black History

Indy woman tells of tracing genealogy for Black Americans

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Celebrating Black History is one thing, but celebrating one’s own history can take a lot of work and research.

For many Black and African Americans, tracing their roots is hard, but genealogists say it’s possible.

After slavery, U.S. census records included Black Americans, but issues can arise when it comes to tracing a family tree before slavery ended. In some cases, people might ending up looking at property records, since slaves were considered property.

Genealogists said the journey may be painful for some.

Eunice Trotter has always been a writer, and her new book is “Black In Indiana.”

Trotter’s book retells her family’s history in Indiana, a story she tracked down partly through census records, city records and newspapers.

“The narrative for Black people is just not a slave narrative. It’s a human existence narrative, and we have a record of that existence,” Trotter said.

In her search, she found Mary Bateman Clark. The indentured servant successfully filed a lawsuit with the Indiana Supreme Court, which helped legally end indentured servitude — “slavery” by another name — in Indiana.

“Much as we register to vote, Black people had to register their existence,” Trotter said.

Tracing a Black family tree, Trotter said, “For some people, it could be somewhat difficult, particularly people who are starting with zero information, but always tell them it’s not zero information because you start with yourself.”

She’s helping guide others by holding genealogy courses and reenactments. Other people are doing the same, including Charles Barker, president of the Indiana African American Genealogy group.

Jamaican political activist “Marcus Garvey said mankind must know their history in order to chart their destiny,” Barker said.

Kisha Tandy, curator of Social History at the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites, also helps people trace their family trees.

“Free access to research the Indianapolis city directories, Sanborn maps, base maps, those are all the things that can help to tell the story,” she said.

Tracing history is often a matter of using other people’s stories, often told in newspapers, to find one’s own. But, there are also more painful searches.

“When we want to research beyond 1870 we have to research property records because we were classified as property,” Barker said.

Even though Trotter’s book tells part of her story, it’s not the end of her search for history: “Knowing who you are gives you a confidence, a self-assuredness.”