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Char Bah's search for her ancestors began at the Cross Roads Baptist Church in rural southern Virginia. Char's family helped form the church in 1871, just six years after being freed from slavery. In tracing slave ancestors, African-Americans are challenged by a lack of records. Slaves often took the surnames of their owners, which could change when they were sold, and many documents were destroyed in the Civil War. Char knew the odds were against her finding anything at all. She began by recording oral histories with family members from different lines. Memories of older relatives, like her distant cousin Lazarus Bates, helped Char leap frog back into the 19th century and provided names and details that would come in handy later on.
Oral histories also help bring the past to life, as happened when Lazarus relayed to her this story about his grandfather: "And I went to my grandmother's house and she was dressing grandpa. I could see just scars all over his back. Whips, you know? And I asked my grandmother, I said 'Grandma, what is wrong with grandpa's back?' And she said, 'Slavery son, slavery son, slavery son.' That's all she said to me." Char had a wealth of stories, but she wanted facts to confirm them. The paper trail started back at the church cemetery, at a funeral in 1964 for Char's uncle, Felix Scott, and his daughter who both died in a tragic drowning accident. People who attended the funeral signed a register and that was handed down to Char when she started researching her family's history.
Char decided to pick her mother's line and try to get back as far as she could. She knew her grandparents, Jessie and Kate Scott, but the register provided a name she did not know: Jessie's father Clave - her great-grandfather. Char went to the Halifax County Courthouse looking for records on Clave Scott. Eventually, she realized that Clave was not his given name, but Claiborne. Then she was able to locate Claiborne's marriage license from 1878, which gave his age as 21. This put his birth date around 1857, eight years before the end of slavery. It also gave her the names of Claiborne's parents - Jessie and Oney. With this information, Char could enter the world of the slave period. The next step was to look for Claiborne on an Old Slave Birth Record using Scott as the last name for any owner.
At the Library of Virginia, Char continued her search. She was lucky because in Virginia, unlike in other slave states, many owners reported slave births, sometimes naming both mother and child. Under an owner named Martha Scott was listed a slave named Leony, or Oney, and in 1857 the birth of Oney's son, Claiborne. Back at the courthouse, Char looked for a will that showed Martha Scott inheriting anything. In 1851 her husband had died, and his will gave his wife Martha $1000 and his slaves. An inventory attached to the will itemized William Scott's property, including household objects, livestock, and slaves listed by name. There, Char found her great-great grandmother Oney, who was listed as being worth $600, and her great-great-grandfather Jessie, worth $200. "In finding this document I was very excited; this was my very first slave owner I found on my people. It was also sad that it was a price put on my people at that time. But I looked at it as a stepping stone because now I am beyond a wall I thought I might never be able to get beyond."
After this breakthrough, Char went on to research other branches of her family tree, turning up more slaves and owners going back to the early 1800s. One of her biggest challenges has been to track the surname changes that often occurred when a slave was sold to a new owner. As of last count she had documented a staggering 92 surnames used in the family over the last two centuries. In the course of her research, Char learned much about the plantations of Halifax County. She was even able to visit a surviving slave cabin her ancestors likely built and lived in. "I feel very fortunate to be able to enter part of their world. Genealogy allowed me to be able to step into the past and to feel what they had gone through, and to know that they tried tremendously to survive. To be able to know who my ancestry is, is not to bring shame to what they were; it is to elevate them to what they made possible for the generations after them."
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