Video: Recovering the Histories of Seven Enslaved Americans


For seven seasons, award-winning Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. has uncovered the ancestral stories of celebrity guests on his hit-television series, Finding Your Roots. In this program, Gates Jr. is joined by Dr. Gregg Hecimovich to discuss the process of unearthing the histories of formerly enslaved people. The focus is on  Alfred, Delia, Drana, Fassena, Jack, Jim, and Renty, seven Black men and women who were photographed against their will in Columbia, South Carolina in 1850. These controversial photographs are the subject of a new book, To Make Their Own Way in the World  (Peabody Museum Press/Aperture 2020).

Presented April 7, 2021 by the Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology in collaboration with the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research 

About the Speakers

Gregg Hecimovich is the author of four books including the forthcoming Life and Times of Hannah Crafts (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2022). Hecimovich was a Sheila Biddle Ford Foundation Fellow at the Hutchins Center at Harvard University (2014–15). He also served as the Josephus Daniels Fellow at The National Humanities Center in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina (2015–16). Additionally, Hecimovich held a Public Scholar Fellowship appointment from The National Endowment for the Humanities (2015–16).  

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University. An Emmy and Peabody Award-winning filmmaker, literary scholar, journalist, cultural critic, and institution builder, Professor Gates has also authored or coauthored more than twenty books and created more than twenty documentary films, including The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, Black in Latin America, Black America since MLK: And Still I Rise, Africa’s Great Civilizations, Reconstruction: America after the Civil War, The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song, and Finding Your Roots, his groundbreaking genealogy series now in its seventh season on PBS. The recipient of fifty-eight honorary degrees, Gates was a member of the first class awarded “genius grants” by the MacArthur Foundation in 1981, and in 1998, he became the first African American scholar to be awarded the National Humanities Medal. A native of Piedmont, West Virginia, Gates earned his BA in History, summa cum laude, from Yale University in 1973, and his MA and PhD in English Literature from Clare College at the University of Cambridge in 1979. He also is an Honorary Fellow, Clare College, at the University of Cambridge. A former chair of the Pulitzer Prize board, he is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and serves on a wide array of boards, including the New York Public Library, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Aspen Institute, Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Whitney Museum of American Art, Library of America, and the Brookings Institution. In 2011, his portrait, by Yuqi Wang, was hung in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. 

Related Book

To Make Their Own Way in the World  (Peabody Museum Press/Aperture 2020)


Good evening and welcome to tonight's program, Recovering the Histories of Seven Enslaved Americans with Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr, Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center at Harvard University, and Dr. Gregg Hecimovich Professor and Chair at the Department of English, Furman University. I am Ilisa Barbash, Curator of Visual Anthropology at Harvard's Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology. This talk is presented by the Peabody Museum, Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, and the Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research at Harvard. 

I would like to start by making this land acknowledgment. The Peabody Museum and Cambridge campus at Harvard is located on the traditional territory of the Massachusett people. And we strive to honor this relationship in ways that are authentic and collaborative. 

This is part of a series of talks around and about the newly released book, To Make Their Own Way in the World, the Enduring Legacy of the Zealy Daguerreotypes. As you may know now, four of the Zealy daguerreotypes are subject to ongoing litigation at this time. This evening's discussion is not about the lawsuit but rather a conversation about the book, which is an extensive exploration of the images and lives of seven people who were enslaved and photographed against their will. Their names were Alfred, Delia, Drana, Fassena, Jack, Jem, and Renty. 

This is an edited book with interdisciplinary contributions from 23 different authors and artists, including a forward by one of our speakers tonight, Professor Gates. Also in the book is a wonderful chapter about the life and times of the subjects of the daguerreotypes by our other speaker, Professor Hecimovich. For links to their contributions as well as other available chapters, please go to the website mentioned in the chat section. 

Tonight I will present a short introduction to the daguerreotypes which will be followed by a conversation between Greg Hecimovich and Henry Louis Gates. The centerpiece of the book is a set of 15 daguerreotypes of seven enslaved people, like Fassena seen here. daguerreotypes, I should tell you, are one of the earliest forms of photography and are a unique image with no negative. 

These photographs were made in 1850 in Columbia, South Carolina by a studio photographer Joseph Zealy for Harvard scientist Louis Agassiz. Agassiz had intended to use the images to support his theory of polygenesis. He believed that rather than all humans descending from one origin, peoples of different races were of different origins. And this was his theory of scientific racism that was discounted, even of its time, by some of Agassiz's own Harvard colleagues and of course later by Darwin. 

Agassiz publicly presented the daguerreotypes only once, at a meeting of the Cambridge Scientific Society in 1850. He then put them away and they were lost to history until their rediscovery in an attic cabinet at Harvard's Peabody Museum in 1976. Since their rediscovery, the photographs have prompted intense discussion, study, creativity, and controversy. The book explores the lives of these individuals such as Jack, seen here, as well as the impact their photographs have had and continue to have in the ongoing discussion of race and racial justice in the United States. 

I should also alert the audience at this point that the images are disturbing and will reveal full and partial nudity. Now I would like to turn the stage over to my wonderful colleagues, Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr and Professor Gregg Hecimovich. 

Thank you so much for that marvelous introduction. I'd like to welcome everyone this evening. Gregg, it's good to see you. I want to start by reading an excerpt from your beautiful essay in this marvelously edited book. Beyond the hidden craft of Agassiz and Zealy, another world emerges. Faces speak and names signify. Layered on the surface and beneath the framing devices of white control radiates a humanity that cannot be expunged by copper fumed with mercury. 

To draw out the preserved figures of Alfred, Delia, Drana, Fassena, Jack, Jem, and Renty, we must exceed the daguerreotypes as art. Like Zealy, we, too, need to prepare our materials meticulously and gather our sources. There are the photographs themselves, powerful documents whose multi-layer presence tells rich cultural history. To these we will return last. 

We can only uncover their stories by dismantling the framing devices of white property that kept the lives of Alfred, Delia, Drana, Fassena, Jack, Jem, and Renty trapped and out of view. To gain access to these latent figures, we must first unlock the ghosts stalking the vapory trail of enslavers' probate and church records. Only then can we begin to register the lives beyond the pictures. 

And Gregg, that's what you've done so brilliantly after all these decades, over a century and a half, and you've brought them metaphorically back to life. You've restored key aspects of their identity using-- the only way African-Americans can trace their ancestry if their ancestors weren't free before the Civil War is ironically, paradoxically, and unfortunately by identifying the white people who owned their enslaved ancestors. 

And that's what you did. Because in estate records and probate records, tax records, while an enslaved person was not identified by name in the federal census, except for six counties in total in 1850 in 1860, they were identified by name in probate records, estate records, in wills, in taxes. And that's what you have done. How did you figure that out? And what brought you to this project? 

Thank you so much for those questions, Skip, and for sharing that one passage. I got involved with this project in 2014 when I was at the Hutchins Center. I was fortunate enough to work with Skip on another project, which is detailing the life and times of Hannah Crafts, who was Hannah Bond. And in that project, I had spent many years learning how to work with the property records of white enslavers. 

So when I met Lisa at Harvard that year, she told me about the project that she and others were working on. And I was just thrilled to get involved with that. And really, the work I did was just what Skip's noting and what would Skip started doing way back when he discovered the Bond women's narrative, that other texts that we worked together on, digging into these records that-- it's genealogy really. And if you do that, there is this, within the deeper property records of the white enslavers, the traces of these ghosts that can be exhumed. 

And I was just thrilled to get involved with this particular project on daguerreotypes because of how absolutely arresting these images are. I had the opportunity with other Radcliffe people working on this project to see those images. And they just floored me. I think that was the experience of everyone. 

So I'm sure we'll get into it a little bit, the specific work it takes, but it's census records, probate records, tax schedules, letters, newspaper articles, works of scholarship, property inventories, and then something called cohort biography that you put all of these pieces together with old maps and you can begin to tell the story behind figures like these seven figures photographed in 1850. 

Well, the reason I read from your essay is that I wanted our colleagues who are with us this evening to hear how beautifully you write. I mean, this was an act of loving restoration. I mean I've read your work. You're a really great scholar and a great writer. But you are sublimely lyrical and deeply profoundly moving in this essay, in a transcendent way. And I wanted to give it up to you. I like style in prose. And it's just a beautiful restoration of people whose lives have been lost and whose countenances were used in such a pernicious, nasty way. 

I want you to tell us how you did your research. And I don't want you to spare details because there are a lot of people who are listening who actually want to trace their family tree. This is not our primary audience. But there are people who want to know. And they go, oh, my god, can this method that he used be used for me? And the answer is yes, of course. 

So could you tell us how you went about your research and the kinds of documents that you consulted. Though you name them in general, but maybe you could give us a few examples of discoveries you made in a will or tax records, et cetera. 

Sure. Yeah, sure. Thanks, Skip. I'll be happy to do that. I want to say it's interesting. First, thank you for the very kind words about the language. One of the challenges in writing about property records is you have to find a way to make them interesting. And so you're kind of forced into reaching towards the narrative arts that biographers use to try to bring the fuller story from what property records you can discover. 

So I'm going to share my screen and jump into this just a little bit with the figure Jem. So maybe I can take you through this a little bit. Jem is one of the figures that is in the photographs. And there was really no-- very little work of who Jem was and where he came from. 

And what I did in this instance which I'll take you through is I went first to census records. And I was able, because on the daguerreotypes, there were names of the people who enslaved the figures who were photographed. I was able to dig deep into the archives to find Frederick W Green. Now it isn't 100% clear in the writing, so scholars weren't 100% sure what the first letter was W Green. But we find him here in Columbia in 1850. You see on the screen. 

So Jem, indeed, was enslaved by a person named Frederick W Green. And he resided in Columbia in 1850. The 22 unnamed but enumerated captives in the 1850 slave schedule, Jem was most likely the one listed as being 60 years old, an age fitting to the late middle aged man who appears in Zealy's photograph. As noted on the document, the slave schedule was produced in the town of Columbia on October 24, 1850, roughly four months after the sitting at Zealy studio. 

So it's reasonable to conclude that Jem was still enslaved by Green. The next closest age male in the listing was 36 years old. So it's safe to assume that the 60-year-old slave listed in the schedule is the man identified as Jem in the daguerreotype. 

So here's the document. We have that photograph. And then in the 1850 slave schedule and census records, I discovered Frederick W Green in Columbia where that photograph was taken. This is just three months later. So it's likely that that figure, that Jem who was photographed and assigned as property to Frederick W Green appears here. 

And if you go logically through what is identifiable of those people who were enumerated in that slave schedule, it's clear this must be Jem. So we can name really specifically his age and locate him with F W Green. 

So the way you build off of this is just like you were saying, Skip. You have to dig into, who's this F W Green. It's hard to find much beyond the enslavers who owned these people. But we can find out a little bit about what they might have done. 

So I dug into records on F W Green, probate records like you said. I could see him showing up at other estate sales and buying mechanical items. So it was clear that he seemed to be in construction. And it would be reasonable for his number of slaves who are living in a city that they would produce a work gang who were the laborers, who were producing this great city of Columbia, South Carolina, which had major building projects going on. 

So putting those things together, we can begin to understand who this figure who was photographed was. So I'll just continue a little bit and we'll finish with Jem and move on. But it's reasonable to believe that Jem who was living in the city slave quarters and was enslaved by a man engaged in the building trade served as part of Green's work gang. 

He was 60 years old, well experienced, and likely an important if unacknowledged part of the city's growth from its very inception, from the bridges spanning the Congaree and Saluda rivers to the other work projects that he did. And what you see here is an 1850 map of Columbia. And R W Gibbs, which you see at the top of the screen and at the bottom of the screen, was the medical doctor who chose and selected the figures who were photographed for Louis Agassiz. So he was the organizer behind the photos, who was chosen to have their photographs taken. 

Well, he passes every day going from his home to his work place F W Green. So there's so much logic to the geographic location. And this is another thing researchers can build off of, is old maps that allow you to geographically place the enslaved people you're exploring. 

So he likely helped on the very many racetracks that were being built. Because there's a lot of interest in horse racing by the enslavers and a lot of expanding public work programs going on, education, canal projects. Somebody like Jem who we have a photograph of and we have a picture of helped build Columbia, South Carolina. 

And I just find that powerfully moving. He's not a victim stripped for a photograph that is going to prove the incapacity of black people. He is the labor and the strength that produced Columbia. 

Why was it-- so much of the research that we do can now be done online. I mean, well before COVID, right? Primarily because of the Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints and their theological belief in genealogy and its relationship to salvation and conversion. And so they've been collecting records, I think, beginning in 1839, if memory serves me correctly. That means they had a head start on a whole lot of people, and microfilm, microfiche, 100 years ago, and now of course digitization. And they created And FamilySearch has a licensing relationship with , full disclosure, the lead sponsor for finding your roots. 

So I know from my own experience that there's a two-prong process. We have a small team of geniuses sitting in Provo, Utah who are just online. And they could do wizardry with things that have been digitized. But not everything has been digitized. 

It's like the Borg. Borg's chewing up the universe but it hasn't gotten around to everything to eat yet. So in my own case, to give one example, you can find three sets of my third great grandparents online. But it's probably all online now. But when this was done in 2006 for the first time, the fourth great-grandparents all had to be found in Hardy County, West Virginia, in the courthouse. Because nobody had digitized them yet. 

And there was-- I remembered an obituary of my great great grandmother that my father showed my brother and me on the day that we buried my father's father, my grandfather. And nobody could find that obituary. And I know that obituary existed. Because that's the day I learned what the word "estimable" meant. And these genealogists, Gregg, would pull me aside and say, you know, you tell a good story on the lecture. But we're going to have to bust you because this obituary doesn't exist. 

And I said, damn it I know it exists because I remember it. Then I would start to think, maybe I made it up. And 10 years later, I was about to address RootsTech and I emailed our director of research and asked him just to do a search for obituaries of Jane Gates. And I was on a plane flying back up the coast from a fishing trip in the Bahamas. And there were three attachments. 

And there were only supposed to be two. Because they had found two obituaries of Jane Gates. And I couldn't believe it. And I opened the third one. It was the obituary that I had remembered from the time I was nine which hadn't been digitized in 2006, but was digitized by 2020. You know, it's just amazing. 

So I want to know why you went to Columbia and what you gained from going to Columbia. Because my point is, you always have to go to the metaphorical Columbia. You can't do everything online. There are things you just can't find online. So talk to us about that, would you? 

Great point, Skip. So there's always slippages, just like you're saying, like misindexing. I discover things all the time that are not where they're supposed to be, even in the digital universe, because just like there's slippages in paper trails. So like you're saying, it's really important for a researcher to make human contact. And this is where location is key. 

So if you are doing research about Columbia, South Carolina, do everything you can online. We have great tools. It's wonderful what we can get to. And you can really make your time even more productive when you get into the archive. But there are details you will not know unless you speak to an archivist, if you speak to a historian of the area, historical societies that are connected to the area, to the people in the communities, connected to the person you're researching. The best most vivid details that come to a researcher, the parts that really tell the story, are fine grained things that you're going to find generally by accident. 

And I'll share my screen and just give you example. And this is one trick that I found really, really useful for me and some of the various projects I've been working on. Let me-- tell me if this is working. Can you see that? 

Yes. We can. 

All right. I want to share this map right here. So in this research when I was researching the Zealy daguerreotypes, the photos of the seven people photographed in Colombia, obviously I went to the South Caroliniana Library. I went to the South Carolina State Archives where I'm friends-- and these people are the nicest people who work in archives. I love them. And they can help you out. They can advance you immeasurably. 

What I've also found is if you can find a really engaged scholar from the last generation, in this case Virginia Maynard wrote a 1981 book, which is pretty obscure, but it was such a deep dive into the Hamptons and Taylors and the other planter families in Columbia. And I realized that Maynard's papers were at South Carolina. 

And so this is a trick I've used also in the Hanna Crafts research. I dig into the-- a lot of these historians who gathered their material for years, they didn't write about it or have reason to or nobody wanted to read about slavery in 1980. So their papers are extraordinary. 

And in Maynard's paper, I found this. For me, it's not going to be exciting for the viewers at the moment, this plat, which is a land survey from 1845. Now I have corroborated this later with the actual property records in the South Carolina State Archives. But what's so key here, if you see that, Benjamin Franklin Taylor owned or possessed many of the enslaved people that were photographed. His plantation, scholars had misidentified as a different part of Columbia. 

So everybody was looking at this plantation called Edgefield, which is another part of Columbia, South Carolina. And scholars had misread the probate records, and so nobody could really trace where these people went because they were looking in the wrong place. 

Well, I discovered Grub Field Plantation partly through the work of Maynard. And ends up, this map's really key because Taylor's sister- in-law is this Mrs. Taylor. What I ended up discovering, because it made sense, Taylor, when he died, his slaves didn't go to his wife. And there was some concern that there was financial trouble in his record, so he was willing to sell some of his captives. 

Well, he sold a number of them to his sister-in-law, which kept enslaved people right in the same neighborhood. And when I dug into Sarah Taylor's probate records I found Renty, Delia, Jack, but not Drana. And over here, where you see this circle up at the top, that's where the Hampton Plantation is. 

What's really wonderful with a map like that, drawn from another scholar, is you can start placing over that the historical records, tax records from the census records. So I'll share the screen again. I'm getting wrapped up and excited about this. So here you see the mill. This is a waterway where they actually had their cotton mills. 

And I dug into Taylor's records, and he had a cotton mill here. So did Hampton. And you can see the value. So eventually, when you start to try to tell the story of what these people did, you can see the immense, important value they brought to the marketplace. So in those partly drawn off scholars before me like Maynard-- it was a nerd spending all this time in Columbia researching this-- I was able to get fine-grained details to tell their stories. 

And Maynard did it just for the sake of it, for the purity of research. You know, I got excited. I had to go on mute. No, and you know-- you and I have PhDs in English literature-- it's one of the things that we've lost in an age of theory, which is the mastery of the archives, being trained-- I mean, in our field. There are a lot of exceptions, and I've done a lot of archival work, and so have you, and so have a lot of our other colleagues. 

But for a while, people said, oh, that's old-fashioned . You know, we need to go to Paris, not to Columbia. We need to go to deconstruction school with Jacques Derrida. And no, what you need to do is go to the library and go to the archives, and go to Paris with deconstruction because in our tradition, ladies and gentlemen, the mixed blessing is that we have to resurrect the text before we explicate it. You have to resurrect the story. So many stories have been hidden, elided, discarded, living, if living, in the shadows, or still being unearthed. And there are so many more stories to find in the archives. 

OK, Gregg, what was the hardest trail to trace? And then B, what was your most exciting discovery? 

Yeah. Drana was the hardest trail to trace. I really could not find much about her life. There's a photograph that's taken of her. I was able to trace her father through his future on another plantation. Drana disappears from all those records. So Drana was the most difficult and the most tragic because either she escaped, there was a sale that I couldn't uncover, or she died. 

And just to honor her in my own research-- I don't think I wrote about it in the piece-- but I know where the Taylors buried their enslaved people. And when I bring students into this research and we go to Columbia, we go to where she's buried. It's under a parking lot. But I just think that every figure that was photographed I want to be able to honor and let them speak, as they do so vividly when you look at those daguerreotypes. 

So that was probably the hardest one to trace. They were all pretty challenging. It took years of really exciting, fun work to begin unspooling and being able to tell their life stories. 

From whence springs this passion for the archives, Professor? 

I am a complete nerd, Skip. There's nothing I'd rather do-- besides hang out with my family, who are wonderful, but they don't really want to follow me into the archives. So when I'm not with them, I love going into an archive with a purpose and to dig through the folders. And it's the same thing for being drawn to complex literature. You sit with the papers, and you begin to experience this other world that's shaped. I mean, it's lovely in the archive because these property records, you can reconstruct what the house looked like. You know when they're moving from one room to another. You can put yourself there. 

So I just have always been an archival nerd. When I was an undergraduate, the very first discovery I ever made was because I snuck away while all my friends were going to the Carolina football game. Nobody noticed because I didn't have a date, and I'd sneak into the archives at UNC Chapel Hill. And I discovered a slip of paper that Charles Dickens had used in his novel, Our Mutual Friend, that was not in the literature. It was like a part of a puzzle that Dickens had created to draw readers in. 

So it's really just a passion for the archival work that you're noting. I love bringing students into this kind of thing to share that passion. 

Yeah. My wife, Marial Iglesias, the marvelous Cuban historian-- I mean, she's a historian of Cuba and she happens to be a Cuban. But she has the same love of the archive that you have. And I like the smell of the archive, you know, the feel. But the smell, you know, when you get there in the stacks, it transports you. You know, it takes you back. 

Hollis Robbins, by the way, just texted that she's loving our conversation and is cracking up. So it's another professor and dean at Sonoma, ladies and gentlemen, who is another scholar who loves the archives. 

All right, Gregory, what is your most exciting discovery, other than that scrap of paper Charles Dickens touched? 

Well, that led to a book-- your earlier point about scholarship. So my first book was on parlor games. I did all this archival work, but it was the '90s, so I had to have a theoretical epilogue. And I got Derrida, I got Heidegger. I'm bringing all these people in. I can't even understand what I wrote back then. 

OK, so another great discovery-- and this is really key, and I want to bring this to people interested in this kind of research's attention-- and I'll go back to this map. What's really key that Maynard's discovery assisted me with is it allowed me to do cohort biography. So in this picture right here, what is so awesome for a biographer, if I'm going to write, I can't fictionalize. And I'm a 21st century nerd archivist. I can't authentically tell people or narrate what slavery was like. It's just not going to work. I need to know and learn myself. And I can read everything I want to. 

But in this case, this up here, the Hamptons Plantation, there was a writer, Charles Ball. And I'm sure Skip and Hollis and other scholars of slavery know quite well what this was, this amazing narrative that Charles Ball wrote. Well, Charles Ball served right here on this plantation. And he describes the village that the Hamptons had where their enslaved people lived. It was the center of enslaved life for this region. 

So those figures that are photographed in 1850 would have well known the other enslaved people had been part of the culture that was going on at the Hampton Plantation. What's brilliant in trying to narrate or tell this story is then Charles Ball's cohort biography begins to give voice to those figures that were photographed. 

And it's not me just making it up. One of the really interesting things when I teach this, Molly Rogers did all this great work, and she has this amazing book, and she edited the piece I wrote. She's absolutely brilliant. The part my students like best in her book, Delia's Tears, is when she fictionalizes and goes inside the mind of the seven people who were enslaved. And the students love it because that's what we want to know what the interior life was like. And I really respected what she did, and she does a great job discussing it. 

But it bothered me because it's still fiction. And one of the challenges I placed myself in this project was to make that nonfiction. And with Ball and then Jacob Stroyer, he also wrote this amazing narrative. Well, Jacob Stroyer talks about his sisters, who lived right here on this plantation of JC Singleton. And after he served, partially, his enslavers during the Civil War, he ended up back at this plantation. 

And so what was so thrilling and exciting for me and the project was to use the voices of Charles Ball and Jacob Stroyer to give a narrative arc. And in the chapter, what you're going to see is by the end of the Civil War, all those enslavers are dead. And Renty and Jack and Delia are walking out with Jacob Stroyer from that same neighborhood. And Jacob Stroyer has this lyrical reflection of what they saw when they were emancipated. 

And it was such a joy and a pleasure. The great discovery for me in this piece was to be able to share that joy vocalized through Stroyer as the voice of those people who were photographed in 1850. 

Yeah. And how many of those plantations were standing by the end of the Civil War? I love your story. And I want you to share it about Wade Hampton II, who bred beautiful racehorses, right? But his plantation was destroyed. Tell us why his plantation was destroyed. I have to say I took enormous amount of pleasure from this story. He was a bad dude, and not bad in the Black sense. But I mean, bad. 

That's right. So Hampton II inherited the Woodlands and Millwood plantations, which, as I noted earlier, were in those photographs. Somebody like Jacob Stroyer, what's so fascinating is Stroyer was forced to be a jockey. So these enslavers in Columbia, what they loved to do was to race horses, breed horses. And there's a section in my chapter-- I'm racing to get to that here-- where I talk about that portraiture. 

So in that-- and this is drawn from some other deep materials in the archives-- but I describe what Millwood was like. And they had-- Hampton, too, had this special horse portraitist, Edward Troy, come in and paint his horses. And these horses were displayed prominently as soon as you walked in to his plantation house. 

What I conjecture here is this may have given Agassiz the idea to pursue the photographs. And I know that seems just abhorrent, the idea that you would think of these humans as being beasts like horses. But this is the thinking of somebody like Hampton, and what Agassiz was trying to prove. 

And so the beauty of this is all those enslavers die. Some of those paintings did survive, but many of them didn't, along with the plantations that were burned and ruined. And the people who walked away from that carnage still alive and in triumph were the enslaved people photographed in 1850. 

Well, tell everyone why Wade Hampton's plantation was burned. 

Oh, I'm not going to know if I remember this. 

No, wasn't it that he had defeated a Union officer who then asked William Tecumseh Sherman, said, when you get there, burn it down. 

That's right. Yeah. Yeah, so it was revenge, and it was a way to get back to Hampton. Thanks for reminding me of that. I forgot that. 

Yeah. No. I love it. But I give that as an example to our audience of your level of detail. You don't use fiction. And by the way, I love the way you worked with Molly Rogers. Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, you went to her for help, and you said, look, everything that you found I've been able to verify. And you point out she had assumptions in her work which were wrong and didn't work out. 

But on the other hand, she vetted your draft chapters. So you were working together in a harmonious way rather than as rivals. How did you forge that relationship, because not everybody's interested in being corrected? 

Well, yeah. First it takes just being with a cool scholar like Molly, who is passionate. She's an archive nerd. And I couldn't have discovered any of the things if I didn't. And it all drew off of Rodgers. So it was, like you said, very collaborative. So I shared my work with Molly. And she cut stuff. I had all this long opening where we're entering the Hampton Gardens. I spent days, weeks, months. I thought it was beautiful. All that stuff, cutting room floor. And in fact, Molly saved it. I was going to ruin the whole chapter with my flowery prose at the opening of the chapter. 

So it's really the great part in this project. This is what we all did as collaborators on this project is we worked with each other and edited. So when we met at Harvard, you didn't just show up and pretend like you're going to produce something. You had to deliver before we met and then workshop your writing. So really a great model of collaborative work. 

And Lisa was the driving force, along with Deb Willis, too, who was amazing and such a joy to work with 

Oh, and my dear friend, and such a pioneering scholar in the history of Black photography. Let's talk about how your work of recovery of the subjects of the daguerreotypes affected not only your teaching, including what have you learned from teaching with them. I want you to share the pedagogical implications of this kind of research. But how this has affected you. 

I read your essay very closely last night, and I was deeply moved. I was riveted just by this generous active recovery, diligent. How long did this take, first of all. 

Well, this is about six years. And it's interesting because while I've been doing this work, I've been continuing-- I've just about finished, as you know, the Hannah Crafts biography, which is coming out next February. 


Amen. Right on. Which this kind of work takes a long time. And I know that's kind of excuse. But for me, writing this chapter was figuring out in miniature some of the things I was doing with the larger biography. 

But back to the teaching part, what I love about this, because I'm chair of the department, I leave the upper level seminar classes to my colleagues. So mostly I just teach freshman writing classes. But I draw them into this. And these photographs are so immediately powerful that students can't help but be hooked into the story. 

And to engage them in the history of racism, if I come in there with a long lecture with many polysyllabic words about our diversity and inclusion initiatives on campus, it's not going to be the best way to draw students into understanding the power of race and their place in it, at least not in a school like Furman, where I teach. So drawing the students in through the power of these photographs, and through the reconciliation work that happens in pursuing it and writing about these kind of stories-- I think it does tremendous social work for expanding the mind of students, just like for me doing this work. 

There's a bunch of personal things in my life that I never get into in the work. But it partially motivates what I'm doing, coming from where I come from, and things that are just private to my own life that are not in my research, but they're in my experience, and they help drive some of my interest in telling these stories. 

Six years? 

Six years. 

To write 46 pages, including footnotes. 

I have a lot more that is on the cutting room floor. And my next book project is this one, Life and Times of Hannah Crafts. Next is The Columbia Seven: The Life and Times of the Zealy daguerreotypes. 

That's great. It's going to be one of your most important works, without a doubt. But how did this move-- I mean, was there a moment when you cried when you found something? 

I felt more joy in the discovery. I think the moments of deep, deep sadness really came through those moments where you see the family of the people. In the records, I was able to find an 1836 record that showed who Delia's brothers and sisters were. I found who Renty's wife was, and their family unit in 1836. 

So the sad part, the part that is terribly moving and disturbing, is to watch that family disintegrate across the records that you can trace them. And this is where I did include Jacob Stroyer, who, again, his sisters are on a plantation abutting the very ones where these enslaved people were that were Renty and Delia's family. 

And Jacob Stroyer tells a story about these freshets, these floods that happened in spring. They still happen in Columbia and cause devastation. This happened, and what happened when enslavers lost property is they would pocket their enslaved people. And Stroyer tells this horrific story of all of the enslaved people going to watch as his sisters and others on those plantations were transported, never to be heard from again. That's the deeply disturbing part. 

I always wanted to balance that with the story of how people like Jim still have these powerful and important lives, despite everything that is being taken or forced or violence placed upon them. 

If you don't mind, dismantle your essay for us in terms of its creation and production. How do you start? You've been very clear about how you started the research because you needed to know who owned the subjects. Without that, none of this was going to happen, because unless you happen to have been enslaved in one of six counties-- and I want the students to hear this-- only in six counties in all of America in 1850 and 1860 were enslaved people registered by name in the slave schedule. 

And I've kept this list, Gregg, for years, hoping that we had a guest for whom we could use it in Finding Your Roots. And it turned out that we finally found a guest, and that guest was Anita Hill. Anita Hill's family is from Bowie County, Texas. And in 1850, some county clerk wrote down the first and last names of the enslaved people there. And we traced her family back there, and could go much further back in time because of that. But that's the exception. 

So you started with the fact that you knew the putative owners of the enslaved people. And then how did you decide to tell the story straightforward? 

Yeah. Thanks for the fascinating question. So it's really pulling a thread. Sorry, I've got my cat here, who-- you know, cats have to show up on every Zoom. So you pull at the threads, and you have to move forward and backwards. And you have to layer the research and live with it for a while. That's one reason why I think it takes so long. And when you do that, you begin to get the texture of the story. And that takes digging into, all right, where was it? What are the property records? What are the tax records? What are they producing on that plantation? 

And as you put all that together over a long period of time, and you live with these figures for years, you begin to have insights that help you to begin to tell the story. I don't know if I'm really answering your question, Skip. It's really slow scholarship, is what I guess I'm saying. 

But I mean, how did it occur to you to find Charles Ball? How did you find Jacob Stroyer? I mean, what you call cohort biography. It was perfect. But they're 101 slave narratives, which is what we call the genre, published between 1760 and 1865, and another 101 published after the Civil War up to the Great Depression. So how did you pluck out Jacob Stroyer and Charles Ball? 

A lot of that's good luck. And also, my friend Susanna Ashton, who's coming to the Hutchins Center next year, did this excellent book with Rhonda Thomas. These are two colleagues I work very closely with Clemson. And so they are experts on slave narratives in South Carolina. And so I knew their work. And it was just good fortune when these different things started mapping up. 

And that's why I was so excited about the 1845 map that placed Stroyer and Ball's voices into the story. And that was what these photographed people, no matter what you did, you couldn't get those voices. And that was the great discovery, as I mentioned earlier. And really, it goes back to it's collaborating and being generous and engaging scholars who are doing work, and engaging community members who are doing work. 

One thing I always tell people doing research, especially in small towns, if there's a high school teacher in that small town, go talk to them because this happened with Hannah Crafts. E. Frank Stephenson, a local historian in Murphysboro who was a high school teacher first, then at community college, gathers all this material and has this long line connection to other local historians. Most people in the history world may not know these particular figures. But if you make access, you're finally getting to the deep sources that have not been in our history books. And they're available. 

And again, if you look at some other historians from the last generation, they may not have wanted to tell any of these stories about enslaved people. It amazes me to dig through some old archives that reputable historians have worked with. And they ignored what, to us, is easily the most interesting chat movements in the text. It's not obvious, but there's the lives of the enslaved people there speaking in the margins, but they've been missed because people didn't want to tell those stories. 

Another reason that there's no escaping going to the archives. Lisa is back right on cue to curate questions. Thank you, Gregg. 

Thank you, Skip. I could have gone on for another hour. And I'll be right here to answer any questions, too. But congratulations. You've done a brilliant work of reconstruction. And I encourage everyone to read this book, and particularly read your essay, though the whole book is great. 

Yeah. And a good portion is online on the Peabody Museum website that is in your chat. Thank you. I could have listened to the two of you for another hour. But we do have some questions from the audience. And Gregg, someone has asked if they could see some of the daguerreotypes. I know you have some in your PowerPoint. And as you go through them, maybe you can talk a little bit about their lives and occupations. And I think it's terrible to have to sum it up briefly, but I know there are audience members who'd like to see these pictures. 

Sure. I'll share my screen to assist with that. And I will say again that these are disturbing photographs. So these are difficult to look at. 

Thank you. 

So this is Renty. Renty was the father of Delia, was one of the main figures that I traced on the plantation, Benjamin F. Taylor, then, to Sarah Taylor, and then survived past the Civil War. And I'm still working on research about Renty's life afterwards. There's Renty again. 

This is Jack, who is a driver. That is Drana's father, also on BF Taylor's plantation. And I think I've traced him through past the Civil War and in pursuing him in later research as well. 

There's Fassena. Fassena was a carpenter at Colonel Wade Hampton's plantation. He survived the Civil War. I know Molly already discovered some great stuff about Fassena in her book. And he likely, just like Jim, was very important to producing architecture and major engineering works. 

This is Delia, who is the primary subject of Molly Rogers' book Delia's Tears. Delia, as Molly writes, is listed in Benjamin F. Taylor's probate records as possibly being associated with the smithie. So she may well have been a craftsperson as well. 

There's Drana. There's Louis Agassiz. I think I have some of the other photographs potentially down here. Let me see. 

There's Drana again. All right, I think we've seen those. So that's what I have for you right now. 

Great. Wonderful. 

Lisa, I'm sorry. One thing. It's important to note that those African ethnic identifiers just leapt from the brain of Louis Agassiz, who decided that he knew, just by looking at a person of African descent, from whence they had originated in Africa. I mean, it's totally ridiculous. It's completely arbitrary. I mean, what the hell did he know about Africa? 

There's great evidence, too, that he was wrong. So he writes in his letter that they tried to fool him. But there's evidence that Jack was really not the ethnic origin that Agassiz claimed he was, and that Jack was the person who challenged Agassiz when Agassiz determined where he thought he was from. It's just crazy. 

Yeah, it's crazy. People should know that the slave trade ended January 1, 1808. So after January 1, 1808, it was illegal to import enslaved people from Africa. So all of the people, the subjects of the daguerreotypes, were here in the United States by 1808. 

But it's also important to know that 59% of all the enslaved Africans, according to the United States, came after 1750, and about 23% after 1790. So you can begin to think about how close to Africa people in 1850 could have been. The probability was quite good. 

There are a couple of questions about other sources that one might use to find out about ancestry. And someone suggested the church, church records. Someone else suggested the Freedmen's Bureau records. 


Do either of you want to talk about those at all? 

Church records are crucial. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, kept fabulous-- I mean, just priests in little parish churches just wrote down the names of people who were baptized or got married or who died. And this is very, very important in certain regions of the United States. Remember, it was Spanish America for a very long time. That's why the confusion over 1619 being the unfortunate birth of African slavery in the United States. It wasn't. It was 1526 in Florida. But that was in Spanish America rather than British North America, which is why 1619 comes to bear, and how it comes to bear. 

So church records are key in terms of doing genealogy. If you're talking about African-American genealogy, you start with where you are today, and you go back to the 1870 census. That's the first census where ostensibly all African-Americans are registered by first and last name. If your ancestor was free before 1870, all free people were included in the census whether they were Black or not. 

But then you have to find, as Gregg did, the white people who owned your ancestor. And the simplest way to do that-- and it quite often works-- is to look at the surname of your ancestor in 1870, then go back to the same county in 1860, look at the slave schedule, and look for someone with that surname who owned enslaved people, and find someone 10 years younger than your ancestor. 

It won't work all the time because sometimes people hated their masters and discarded the name. Sometimes they took names like Freeman. But often, surprisingly frequently, they kept the name. And that was true of Oprah Winfrey. Oprah Winfrey descended from Absilon Winfrey-- I mean, Constantine Winfrey. And we found him because he was living next to Absilon Winfrey, a white man. And there he was in all of Absilon's records. So that's how you go about tracing your family tree deep into slavery. Anything to add, Gregg, to that? 

Yeah. Beautiful. And then there's the Freedmen's Bureau records, too. Those are very accessible, digitized. Again, you get transcriptions. But that's another really, really important source. 

There are some questions about when you are-- well, really, it's how a novice might begin to do this kind of research. Is there a textbook? Or Gregg, what do you tell your students to do, or do you? I think what's interesting is Skip, you move historically back, and Gregg moves historically forward. And somewhere in the middle, there's a fuzziness, right, I think, Skip, you were bringing up because we don't always know what people's last names are. 

So Gregg, how far forward have you been able to bring the people in your research? And how do you tell your students how to do research? And then Skip, how would you tell somebody watching tonight how to do the research back in time beyond the last name? 


I'm sure there's lots of good guidebooks. Skip might have a suggestion. I don't have one. I really should, but I don't. I haven't identified one. I really should for use in my classes. What I do is I teach them how to use, first, the databases that are available to us, and really the common sense stuff that we've already talked about. Get the name, get the location, and begin. And then become aware of what a probate record is, where you find those, what are the census records, where do you find those, what's a slave schedule. 

So really starting with basics like that. And the great thing about the technology is students can jump in right away. You don't have to load up a van and take them to the archives to get them started. I have this amazing student who I always talk about, Emily Little. We were doing research on the enslaved history at Furman University. It's first Friday night of the class, first Friday night I ever taught at Furman. She discovered Abraham Sims, the namesake of our research at the institution. She discovered Abraham Sim's death certificate on Ancestry. 

And it was partly because it just became available. But little freshman Emily Little totally changed the story. And we were able to pull on that thread, and we're still point on that thread and finding all these other things out. And the students can make major contributions. This is an important history that we all should work together to explore and tell. And you do not have to be an expert with degrees to engage. 

You have to start by being humble and inquisitive and being secure enough to ask. You need to know what the databases are, and then how to do a word search, and then for what words to search. But the key thing is identifying the databases. And there are all kinds, newspapers, obituary, all kinds. You can't just open your computer and type in Delia, and all this stuff pops up. Takes six years to do that. But it's worth it. 

In terms of your question about genealogy, you always start with someone living. I mean, there was someone you want to trace your ancestry. So there is Elisa. And we send people just a one-page form. What's the name of your parents? What are the dates of their birth? Where were they born? If you have grandparents, even better. If you have great grandparents, ooh, we're that much closer to getting back to the end of the paper trail. 

The paper trail, for everyone, is the paper trail will be exhausted. And what do you want to do is find as much as you can as you're climbing up the branches of a paper trail. The branches of the family tree are clothed with paper. But the paper trail-- I don't know how to say this metaphorically in an adequate or poetic way. But it's the truth. And it is these odd little who paid taxes on what, who left what to whom. 

Mortgaging. You could mortgage an enslaved person. So I mortgage my enslaved Drana, or whatever. But you're moving backwards all the time. But you're going to hit-- they're called brick walls, and you're going to hit the brick wall. And that's when you need to reach out to a professional, though I think that you should do that at the beginning. 

On Newbury Street here in Boston, there's one of the most famous genealogical societies. It's the New England Historic and Genealogical Society. Before and after COVID, you could just walk in and say, I'm looking for my great great grandfather, my great great grandmother, and they'll sit you down and teach you how to do that. 

I don't know of a good guide, but I'm sure that there are a zillion online. But there are professional genealogists who services you can hire if you can afford it. But if you live in a major city, there's a genealogical society, usually part of a library. And once you can go into that library again, you can seek help in the way that Gregg mentioned earlier. 

Gregg didn't start in a vacuum. He's standing on Mollie's shoulders, and that's important. That's very important. And just writing people and asking them. If someone's written a history of slavery in South Carolina, you write them cold and say, I know you're busy. This is what I'm doing. Can you give me some advice? A lot of people are flattered by that, and they'll respond. Gregg, what do you think? 

Yeah, 100% agree. One other record just came to mind. So shipping manifests. So a lot of the Second Middle Passage, the notorial records-- I'm saying that wrong-- in New Orleans, a lot of the Second Passage, people moving to the Southwest, they had to, because of the laws, list enslaved people, including their size, color, weight--I think weight. I can't remember weight. At least their size. 

There's a great deal of record of people who were lost or broken from the earlier half of their experience when they were-- like the figures, Jacob Stroyer's sisters were almost certainly shipped out of Charleston and down through New Orleans. You can dig into those records following the enslavers, and perhaps reconstitute that family. 

And the Second Middle Passage, for those of you who don't know, is the removal of enslaved people from the Upper South to the Lower South. And this is tied into the Trail of Tears, the Indian Removal Act, which was signed by Andrew Jackson in 1830, which completely stole the land of the Creek, the Choctaw, the Chickasaw, the Cherokee, and the Seminole people, who were moved to what was called the Indian territory, which became the state of Oklahoma. 

And why? Because they owned some of the richest cotton-growing soil in the whole universe. And someone had to plant, nurture, and pick, harvest that cotton. And remember, you couldn't import Africans after 1808, so they, as it were, imported enslaved people from the Upper South to the Lower South, a million people, a million people over a 40-, 50-year period. 

And it's always-- I was just going to add, always these incredibly wealthy enslavers like the Hampton family were hugely important in the removal of those Native Americans. And their extensive wealth came through extending their property into what was Louisiana, Mississippi, and so forth. 

Yeah. They leave that out. Hollywood leaves that out. That's like, remember the Alamo. You know, I didn't realize that Davy Crockett and these guys are fighting to defend slavery. You know, they're somehow trying to beat the evil Santa Ana. And I wake up in a history class at Yale when I was an undergraduate, and I went, oh my god, I've been rooting for the wrong side because the Mexicans abolished slavery in 1821, I believe, but long before the United States. That's why Texas wanted to secede from Mexico, and obviously did. 

This is so wonderful. I'm so sorry we're going to have to wrap up. I do want to ask one more question, which is a combination of various questions. And it is, why study these daguerreotypes today? Why do we talk about them? What are the implications of these photographs for today's dialogues about race? Do we share them with our children? How do we share them with our children? I pose this to both of you. 

Gregg, do you want to start? 

Well, it's a complex question. I'll follow your lead. 

Well, I don't think that-- if you're a Jewish person, when do you tell your child about the holocaust or I'm a grandfather. My daughter Maggie's daughter, Ellie, is six. She's too young to know about the Holocaust. She's too young to know about the horrors of the Middle Passage, the first one or the second one, in my opinion. 

But there will come a time-- and there are educators who are a lot more sophisticated than I-- I know that I didn't know anything about the details, the painful aspects of African-American history, or even American history concerning Native Americans, or the treatment of women, until I was in college. I don't know if I was prepared psychologically and emotionally to deal with it at an earlier age, but I didn't have an option because nobody taught it. 

All Black history was taught in one day-- I mean, one hour-- and it was that our African ancestors were barbaric and savage, and the best thing that ever happened to them was being rescued by slavery. So the university of slavery. It was disgusting and embarrassing history. 

So I think you need to seek out professional advice from teachers who teach middle school and high school, and your child psychologists to understand when you introduce these elements. At our level, the university level, all we can do is give a trigger warning, as Gregg did. And then we have to tell the story the way it is. I mean, we can't censor the details of the story. That would be unethical, in my opinion. 

Yeah. That was a great answer. So my wife is a middle school teacher, and there are so many good sources to discuss history. There's great novels written. The Parker Inheritance is jumping to mind. There is a wonderful set of literature that can lead younger students into the historical understanding that many people were robbed and are still being robbed of. 

Our educators and our people who oversee the curriculum need to address, and I think in the right places, they are addressing these things. 

As I said, I could keep going on. But I know our viewers are ready to stop. We've gone 15 minutes over because of all these wonderful questions and wonderful discussion. 

I thank you, Gregg Hecimovich, who's tuning in from South Carolina, Skip Gates, who's tuning in from-- 

His kitchen. 

His kitchen. And I'm in my office Thank you all, viewers, for engaging with us and spending this time with us and asking such wonderful questions. And I wish you all a good evening. 

Thank you, Lisa. You are a marvelous host. Great job. Congratulations, Gregg. 

Thank you, Lisa. 


Thank you. And thank you, Skip. 

OK. Adios.