The Genealogy of a Slave

People have been chronicling their family histories for centuries, and there are some really “good books” out there! Some families are better at it than others, and some prefer the leaf, click and save method on Ancestry. I prefer – and teach – the cite at least three original sources, also known as document, document document. That’s fine if you are white, well educated, and prominent. For those of us more common folk it does help if you didn’t have a foreign-born ancestor that no one could understand when he arrived, and that there weren’t at least fifty others known by the same name. But then that’s why the pastime of family history is so interesting! However if you were born before 1865 and not white, you really have a problem. And while the science of DNA has created thousands of new relations out there, most of them will not be found written down and documented three times over.

As America feared the uprising of the “uppity” slave, they created laws forbidding their education. A slave’s value could even be diminished if he were considered too smart. They weren’t something to be educated anyways, because they weren’t “people”, they were simply property. You gave them a name, simply as something to differentiate them on a Bill of Sale or in your will, so each of your children could know who gets who. A woman could have brought slaves to the marriage in her dowry, and they sometimes would receive that surname to differentiate when there were others that shared the same name. And if children were born after the marriage those children were most likely given the “Master’s” name. Most likely you were just a slash mark in a column marked “under the age of” or something similar. After all the only person who really cared was the tax assessor. And he didn’t care what your name was. The only people who cared were your family. Most likely they had a whole other name for you, which you loved and used. Why would you use your “Master’s” name? He may have been the one that sold your father, raped your mother, or just assumed that it was what you wanted. Many did keep and use their surnames though, in hopes that when freedom came, they would be able to find each other. But after all, these were documents made BY the owners and FOR the owners. This was not to record your family’s history.

Sometimes there are some very unexpected, and unexplainable reasons that make everything even more difficult! In October of 2018, Keith Winstead of Louisville, Kentucky used DNA to expand his family tree research. Winstead had been researching his family tree for nearly thirty years and had compiled an extensive family tree, that already included his famous “cousin” Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Clay Jr., named for his white ancestor (but that’s a whole other story) and had everything well documented. However, that DNA test opened Keith up to the slave Archer Alexander, who portrays the slave on the Emancipation Memorial in Washington DC.. And there were even books written about him that shared whose son he was, his life and where he was buried. Easy – right? Not exactly. Because when he contacted historian Dorris Keeven-Franke in St. Louis, Missouri he discovered, you can’t even trust everything you read.

When William Greenleaf Eliot, a highly esteemed Unitarian minister, and founder of Washington University wrote the book The Story of Archer Alexander: From Slavery to Freedom he did it just like the rest of us do, jotting down our family history, just for the grandchildren. His friends suggested that he publish it. He writes “THE following narrative was prepared without intention of publication; but I have been led to think that it may be of use, not only as a reminiscence of the “war of secession,” but as a fair presentation of slavery in the Border States for the twenty or thirty years preceding the outbreak of hostilities. I am confirmed in this view by the fact, that, on submitting the manuscript to a leading publishing-house in a Northern city, it was objected to, among other reasons, as too tame to satisfy the public taste and judgment. But, from equally intelligent parties in a city farther south, the exactly opposite criticism was made, as if a too harsh judgment of slavery and slave-holders was conveyed, so that its publication would be prejudicial to those undertaking it.” [Emphasis by the author] In other words, unlike today, where the public often devours the raciest and sometimes “fake” news it can find, this might reveal some people’s true identities! This was a time in our history known as Reconstruction, and no publisher was going to take a chance like that. How do you fix this? With a little “historical fiction” by your close friend, Jessie Benton Fremont. Eliot assures his readers “The story of Archer, given in the following pages, is substantially a correct narrative of facts as learned from him, and in all the important particulars as coming under my own immediate knowledge. He was the last fugitive slave captured under civil law in Missouri.

When Winstead first posed the question to Keeven-Franke of “Do you know where Archer Alexander is buried?” both believed the final resting place as Centenary Cemetery near the Clayton Courthouse, as depicted in Eliot’s book. After some help from their friend Jim Guenzel, they learned that the book wasn’t correct. Archer Alexander was actually buried in St. Peters U.C.C. Cemetery on December 8, 1880. And this has been confirmed with a Certified Death Certificate from the St. Louis Recorder of Deeds office as well. Both documents state that Archey Alexander was 74 years old as well, indicating that he was born in 1806. Both are as close to original documents regarding this former enslaved hero of the Civil War that can be located in St. Louis and St. Charles communities currently.

What do you do in order to find another source or more of the story? You do what any family history researcher does! You make a road trip! Knowing too, that since Archer was born in 1806 in Virginia, there’s not going to be too many records. Archer is simply a piece of property. The search for that special slave known as Archer Alexander has begun and needs to be found. Only then can that “true” story, as Keith Alexander calls it, be really known. Not easy when you are trying to find the genealogy of a slave. This is what is known as thorough and exhaustive research, for those of you who like the leaf, click and save method. And while it is not easy, the rewards are truly “Amazing”!

Family Gathering of descendants of Archer Alexander with author Dorris Keeven-Franke. Photo my Michele Edwards Thomas.

5 responses to “The Genealogy of a Slave”

  1. Leontyne Clay Peck Avatar
    Leontyne Clay Peck

    I always say that the seeds have taken root and now are blooming. Archer’s seeds are connecting in very mysterious yet in very divine and beautiful ways.


    1. Thank you Leontyne! We appreciate all of your help as well.


  2. 👌👌👌

    On Mon, Jun 24, 2019 at 3:28 PM wrote:

    > Dorris Keeven-Franke posted: ” People have been chronicling their family > histories for centuries, and there are some really “good books” out there! > Some families are better at it than others, and some prefer the leaf, click > and save method on Ancestry. I prefer – and teach – the cite ” >


  3. Wow an amazing journey!! Most of all fulfilling !! As someone searching constantly for a descendant who supposedly left one state trekking to another as s young boy. I can only the joy and gratitude one feels when the ancestors reveal themselves to the researcher of the family. Thank you is what comes to mind!! Thank you for surviving and being courageous enough to tell the story


    1. Good luck in your own journey


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