By JORDAN GRIBBLE
HOUMA, La. (AP) _ It is impossible for descendants of African-American slaves to research their family history without encountering the harsh reality their ancestors experienced, a local researcher said.
For instance, looking through the kinds of records others might consult when doing genealogy work _ such as birth and death certificates, newspaper obituaries and the like _ may offer little help.
That’s because during the time the institution was in place, slaves were considered property under the law, said Patricia Whitney, executive director of the Bayou History Center.
“Look at property records, not people records,” she said.
Whitney’s Thibodaux-based nonprofit has researched and compiled genealogy records of hundreds of local families, and offers advice on how descendants of slaves can learn about their specific family histories.
Louisiana slave owners were not likely to keep records of the births or deaths of slaves. Anyone trying to figure out whether his or her ancestors were slaves should be looking at plantation records and journals, mortgage conveyances and acts of sale, importation records and cargo records, she said.
Whitney has become something of a local expert on slaves owned in Terrebonne, Lafourche and Assumption parishes. She’s working on a book detailing records of 1,200 slaves from the area.
“I’ve barely even scratched the surface of the number of slaves that were owned in the bayou region,” she said.
Her interest in the subject came about when she was researching her own family’s history by looking through the Catholic Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux’s baptismal records. She found a wealth of information about local slaves, information that had gone unpublished.
“I was told that it hadn’t been published because no one was interested in it,” Whitney said. “This history was important and was being denied to a lot of people, so I started writing it down.”
Finding genealogical records of people from the area can be difficult, often because records were kept poorly or not at all, she said. It is important for genealogists to consider how they are preserving their history for future generations.
“We need to protect the history of this area more than any other area in the country,” Whitney said. “If we don’t protect it now, it’s going to be lost forever. The people of this area from all ethnic groups should start preserving and writing down their family trees for future generations. It is up to us to take the knowledge we have and preserve it for our descendants.”
Anyone looking for help in researching slave genealogy or other local history topics may contact Whitney at bayouhistorycenter(at)yahoo.com.