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Replanting Roots

Researchers track down slave descendants’ legacies

“If your legacy begins with a ­family member enslaved, you may never find the roots to your family tree,” says Ryan Cox. “But if they are here in the state archives, we intend to find them.”
Legacy (n)
1. Any special privilege accorded a firstborn.
2. Something immaterial that is passed from one generation to another.
 
       Imagine gazing down at the open page of your family tree. Do you see branches laden with the names of relatives dating back to the turn of the 16th, 17th or 18th centuries?
      If your roots are in Calvert ­County there is that distinct possibility. Maryland Research Archivist Ryan Cox of the Study of the Legacy of Slavery in Maryland says there is also another apparent and very heartbreaking possibility.
      “If your legacy begins with a family member enslaved, you may never find the roots to your family tree,” Cox says. “But if they are here in the state archives, we intend to find them.”
      Cox, 37, has been on staff with director Chris Haley’s group since 2006. Impressed by Cox’s research and analytical skills, his Salisbury State thesis-advisor suggested contacting Haley about a job. It has become his passion.
      “When you see the tears of joy pouring down the face of a great-great-granddaughter as you place before her a record with something as simple as a name and a date, it is very, very humbling and exciting,” Cox says.
      He also notes the joyless tears of those who find nothing.
      “Many records were lost or officially ordered to be destroyed,” he says. “No one realized how important those records were back then for the relatives of those people today. It’s the most difficult part of the researching to accept.”
      Having already covered Dorchester, Caroline, Talbot, Queen Anne’s and Kent counties, the team is carefully examining Calvert County’s probate, land, military, court, church, federal and state census records, as well as the documents pertaining to slavery like manumissions (a legal document freeing an enslaved person) and Certificates of Freedom (a document to be carried by the freed slave). 
       It’s staggering to learn that the approximate total of entries archivists and volunteers have added to the Archives’ database regarding the lives of free and enslaved African Americans amounts to more than 400,000.
       The legacy of the slaveholder often opens the hidden door to the legacy of enslaved people. 
      “We are finding a wealth of records amongst the slaveholders,” says Cox. “There are letters, ledgers, diaries. Even the newspaper ads offering rewards for runaway slaves describe physical attributes and names. It’s a reverse research technique, but it is opening up many new possibilities as we try, as Chris always reminds us, to account for a time and a place for everyone who lived in Calvert County.”