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For blacks, tracing the past can be a painful trip

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Nina Bennett used documents like the death certificate of her great-grandfather, Andrew Jackson Smith, to help her trace her roots. (Courtesy of Nina Bennett)

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A relative of Nina Bennett's had this composite photograph made of Bennett's great-grandparents, Anna Bell Saunders and Andrew Jackson Smith. (Courtesy of Nina Bennett)

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When Nina Bennett was eight, she penciled in this image of her great-grandfather, Andrew Jackson Smith. (Courtesy of Nina Bennett)

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Nina Bennett used documents like the World War II ration book of her great-grandfather, Andrew Jackson Smith, to help her discover more about the experiences of her ancestors. (Courtesy of Nina Bennett)

When amateur genealogist Tonya Lockett-Smith read in a court document that Daniel Frazier, a free man of color in Virginia in 1825, had no toes on his left foot, the thought of his predicament made her break down and cry. To share her feelings with others, she posted the document on the online AfriGeneas Slave Research Forum under the title “My Heart Is Breaking!!!!!” and wrote, “It makes me so angry . . . Our people suffered so much!”

Though Smith was not related to the man, she came across his story while tracing her roots. It's an endeavor that over the last five years has led her to encounter many disturbing details of slavery.

“I'm reading so much about slaves being tied to trees and being whipped and then having salt poured into their wounds,” Smith said. “Reading these types of things has desensitized me to the brutality, but when I read about Daniel Frasier, that really stopped me in my tracks . . . just imagining the pain he went through.”

The advent of the Internet and Web sites like Ancestory.com have led to a new interest in genealogy across America; but for blacks the search for their forebears is especially challenging. Most blacks were not included in the census until 1870, and before then they generally were listed only as property. Thus, in order to find their ancestors, blacks must first identify the slave owners who controlled their lives and then hope to locate the names of slaves as mentioned in the owner's will, letters or other documents. Considering the hardships the slaves endured, this discovery process is often a very emotional experience.

“The emotional issues that get heightened have to do with white supremacy and racism,” said Noliwe Rooks, associate director of the program in African-American studies at Princeton. “It can make much more real some abstract ideas and thinking."

Robert Hinton, for instance, a professor of Africana studies at New York University, discovered his great-grandmother Emily only because she was listed in the will of her slave master, Jonas Johnston Carr, who ran Bracebridge Hall, a plantation in North Carolina that is still inhabited by one of Carr's descendants. In the will she was being passed on to the man's daughter along with his late wife's gold watch and clothes. Hinton said it felt good to reconnect with his great-grandmother but that it was painful to see her life had taken on a value roughly equivalent to that of a timepiece.

“I'm reading this will and I read the name Emily and this weird feeling comes over me physically,” Hinton said. “For a couple of minutes I lost it emotionally, but I didn't want the people in the archives to see me crying. She's not some abstract slave in memory, this was my flesh and blood.”

And just last month, the Rev. Al Sharpton, the black civil rights leader from New York, discovered that his great-grandfather, Coleman Sharpton, was a slave belonging to a distant relative of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond from South Carolina, a one-time staunch segregationist.

As with many blacks interested in genealogy, a chance discovery increased Hinton's fervor to explore his roots and raise awareness among others about the history of blacks in America. He said that while white America is aware of the cultural contributions blacks have made to the country, it knows less about the role they played in the foundation of the economy.

“I want to know everything I can know,” Hinton said. “I want to be able to stand in front of a house and say my great-grandmother used to cook there. My great-grandmother was born on this land to help this family become rich. I want to understand the role that my family played in enriching white families.”

Especially wrenching for blacks is discovering that some of their ancestors were white. When Lisa B. Lee, a professional genealogist in Oakland, Calif., began tracing her roots in 1970, it was difficult for her to accept that one of her great-great-grandfathers, William Barnard Lee, had married an Irish woman and that one of her great-great-grandmothers had been fathered by a slave owner.

“It took me many years to finally accept and embrace my white ancestry,” Lee said. “Even now, some of my black genealogy friends accuse me of selling out because I refuse to denounce any ancestry other than my African" one.

But after Lee adjusted to the idea of having white ancestors, it was another challenge to reconnect with distant white cousins. Lee worried that she would come as an unpleasant surprise to white relatives.

“A lot of white folks don't like to admit that their ancestors were slave owners, and they especially don't like to admit that they have black cousins,” Lee said. For this reason, when she makes contact with a distant relative by phone or e-mail message, she usually leaves out the fact that she is black. “After we've developed a real rapport, then I'll drop it on them,” she said.

A few years ago, for example, she visited Rogers City, Mich., to meet the great-grandchildren of her great-great-grandfather, William Barnard Lee, a barber and one of the first black settlers in Collingwood, Ontario. She brought them flowers, but worried as she approached the house that they might see her through the window and decide not to let her in.

“I figured if they see a black chick coming they won't open the door,” Lee said. As it turned out, she needn't have worried. Helen and Margaret, the two elderly sisters, did in fact open the door; Lee hugged them, and not long afterward they were all sitting comfortably in the living room while the sisters pulled out photographs and their own family papers to compare with the ones Lee had brought. Last month her cousins sent her a recipe for red velvet cake.

Sad to say, not all of Lee's attempts to connect with extended family have been that positive. When she contacted a distant white cousin of her daughter's in Louisiana, an Acadian man whose second cousin was Lee's ex-husband's father, he denied in nasty terms that he was related to any black people.

His reaction so angered Lee that she sent him a large envelope filled with photographs, copies of pedigree charts, census records, wills and other documents confirming his black relations. “I didn't try to contact him after that,” Lee said, “but that was my way of getting back at him for saying he wasn't related to any black folks. He probably burned it as soon as he got it.”

In tracing their roots, some blacks have turned up some pretty harrowing events. While growing up, Nina Bennett, a 48-year-old woman in Las Vegas who has been tracing her background since she was a teenager, heard stories about her great-grandparents in northeastern Kentucky. In one, relayed to her by her grandmother, her great-grandfather, Andrew Jackson Smith, was coming home one night in the 1930s after having spent the evening listening to a baseball game on his daughter-in-law's father's porch. It was pitch black, and as he was riding his horse across a bridge he ran into the body of a black man hanging from a tree. To know that a family member had such an immediate experience with lynching shocked her as a child.

“I never wanted to go there,” Bennett said. “I never wanted to go south at all. That was a feeling that stayed with me for many, many years.”

Eventually, however, she did visit Kentucky, and although the bridge had burned down years before, she found the crossing where it used to be. It was meaningful for Bennett to stand in a place that she had heard so much about as a child. She said the experience gave her a deeper understanding of what her ancestors had endured.

“It's because of them that I'm here,” she said. “And I owe them a debt of gratitude.”

E-mail: eac2145@columbia.edu