Q&A with a Genealogist

CHW Undergraduate Research Fellow Sierra Dunne interviews Bernetiae Reed – oral historian, CHW’s slave genealogy consultant, and a descendant of Battle family slaves. In this interview, Bernetiae discusses her family and professional background, her research, how she began genealogical work, what drives her, and what obstacles she faces in this work. Furthermore, she offers advice to those wanting to embark on genealogical research, especially African American genealogy, and outlines typical documents to look for when doing research.

How did you first become interested in doing genealogy work as someone who had never done it before? How did you first find yourself getting started?

Well I was interested in African American history and heritage starting in the 1970s as I began helping my mother with her work in Greensboro. She started the African Heritage Center at A&T State University, and I helped her with doing some of the exhibits and doing some of the research for her exhibits. Then in the 1990s, my father lost four of his brothers in about a year, and when I went with him to one of the funerals, I ended up asking about my family heritage and learning a lot from family members. And I got the bug then to start researching my heritage and doing some oral histories to learn more.

Did you just start by asking your family to do oral histories? Did you start doing any research in libraries or anything (like that)?

It started with asking my family, and when I got back I had made all these notes about my heritage. Then I started going to research in different repositories: to archives, to the local library in Louisiana– a small town in Louisiana. I traveled to that court house and began digging into the files.

What did you do before you started this line of work?

I was a nurse for over thirty years. I worked as a labor and delivery nurse in Los Angeles and in Greensboro, North Carolina.

What made you decide to pursue this [historical work] as an actual career after being a nurse for so long?

I had from my interest in African American history in heritage I had written a book about the slave families of Thomas Jefferson and done a couple of documentaries on that. And that was in the early– well, I’ll say the mid to late 1910s. No, I’m getting that confused now. I wrote the book in 2007 and I did the documentary in 2009. Both of my parents had passed away, and I became more interested in pursuing other fields. I guess it was just — I wanted to see if I could work in the archives, specifically in the Southern Historical Collection, and someone told me that you probably have to go back to school to have that route. So, in 2013 at 62 years old I went back to get my Masters in Library and Information Studies and ended up doing a practicum here at the Southern Historical Collection and never left, continued to volunteer. I graduated with my masters in 2015 and was so pinching myself that in 2017 I became a part of the Community Driven Archives grant that is with the Mellon grant, so I am blessed to be here and continue my passion for this type of work.

I’m just curious, do you find any similarities between the two careers that you’ve had in your life, or are they two completely different things?

Well it’s two completely different things, but I think that nursing gave me a patience for continuing to just dig to find stuff. As a labor and delivery nurse, there’s a lot of monotony, but it’s very vital to keep going and to be patient so maybe that side of things helps. I’m not sure.

So can you tell me a little bit more about your family background? I guess you already kind of spoke on this, but what really made you want to learn more and really dig into your own family history?

Well, I grew up overseas. I was born in Greensboro. My parents were both connected with A&T State University. I guess my mother was a nurse, so I should say that she was a nurse and taught nursing at Dudley, practical nursing there. Helped to integrate Moses Cohn hospital, so I have that side of things from her. My father was Dean at the School of Agriculture at A&T, but he also was involved with the state department through his work with USAID, the US Agency for International Development. We moved to Ghana in 1957 to ‘59. We were there when Kwame Nkrumah was president. He actually ate at our house and we have some nice photos of that. In the 1960s we went to Nigeria, and I was there for seven years. The Biafran war broke out during that time and in ‘67 [coughing interruption] my father decided that it wasn’t safe for me to remain in Nigeria during the Biafran war, so he sent me away to Switzerland for my final year of high school, so I graduated from the American school in Switzerland for my senior year of high school. Then I went to the University of Wisconsin and got my BS in nursing.

Can you tell me more about your genealogy research involving enslaved people and African Americans, and what is your process for this type of research?

For my family history, which is where it started in the 1990s, I ended up looking at court records. I like going to original documents. Also, where possible church records. Finding that some records were available about the enslaved in church records, that was eye opening for me. Also, local historical societies or local libraries often have family papers that talk about slaves, so that was a beginning process for me with my own family. Then when I did the research on the slaves of Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson had a farm book, and I ended up purchasing that. I also ended up purchasing some microfilm that was Thomas Jefferson’s papers, so that helped. I did a fellowship at Monticello where I was able to do some research in their records that they had about that.

Also, following that research and actually getting out into the countryside, looking at the sites where the enslaved had been kept, I ended up finding locations that maybe they hadn’t really looked into for Thomas Jefferson’s old slave sites. So I found that the landscape actually had answers to where, say, Angola plantation was or Guinea plantation. They were creeks that were  named Angola, there were creeks that were still named Guinea. Finding that that was also the precise location that Jefferson’s father-in-law had owned land. There are answers sometimes in the landscape that we need to look at, and so that was fascinating. And then going to the state libraries and finding old maps that have answers also. There seems to always be somewhere else that we can look. Getting some oral histories, some oral records that other people have done research on. There are many ways.

What are some of the challenges you face when you do this type of research and how do you overcome them, or have overcome them in the past?

Well, there are always challenges and sometimes there are different challenges. Many times it’s because all the records are dispersed, so we could find bits and pieces here and there, and trying to piece that together is hard. There’s the ever-present challenge that slaves are usually just listed by their first name. Sometimes figuring out if that is the same person [as in another record] is difficult. There’s the challenge of recording what you found in a way that you can help to piece that together, so that’s also a challenge. Then there’s the pure logistics of finding the different repositories and getting to them, so that’s also a challenge. But then there’s always the feeling that everything has not been preserved, that some things might be still with family, and hoping that at some point those records will come forward. So I’m ever hopeful that there are families out there that have more records, and that they’ll let them come to light and help those who are desperate to learn about their ancestors.

For other people facing these challenges of maybe not knowing if a record is right or where to look for something, what advice would you give to someone facing those issues?

Be positive. Keep looking. Never give up. There is always another avenue to look. I find that endlessly the case, that there’s always another avenue in the research. Keep digging.

More generally, what advice would you give someone who wants to start collecting their own oral histories or family or community history, and what tools would you suggest they use?

Start with what you know. Start with an oral record with some of the oldest family members. Remember to keep a recorder present when you’re talking to them. Never feel that you have already gotten a recording and it’s not necessary to get another one, ‘cause the next time they talk they’ll say it a different way, give you different information, so keep recording them. Also, begin to do research. Ancestry.com is a great tool. If you can start with what you know and then start digging in that, it will give you clues of where to go. Try to find the owner of an enslaved person, because those are the records that will help you answer a lot of questions. Then begin looking at those papers for answers to what your enslaved ancestors may have done on the plantation, or what happened to other family members that were enslaved by that person. Or, simply to know the location of where they were enslaved is often wonderful to find out.

Also, learn what church the owner attended and try to find those records, try to find the association that that church might have been a part of, because sometimes it’s the association that will have minutes for that church. Then try to find the repository for that association because sometimes there’s a general Baptist or Methodist or Episcopal repository where those papers may be.

Also, look at Freedmen’s Bureau records, ‘cause those will sometimes have labor contracts that tell us who that formerly enslaved person worked for. Often, the Freedmen would work for their former owner, but even if that’s not the case it’s good to know what happened to the person after slavery. And these records also included marriage records, and sometimes there were different communications included in the Freedmen’s Bureau records: sometimes complaints about the owners, information about the early schools, their fight for education, their fights for land, the fights against some of the violence that happened after they were freed, so there might be some information about the early Klan activity or of the black troops that were in that area that helped to protect them. So there is different information in the Freedmen’s Bureau records. Also, checking state repositories to see if there were lists of cohabitation records, either among the free population during slavery or post-slavery. Often there are marriage records of the slaves being formally married after they were freed, so often you would get a long list of people that were formally married in [18]65-68, say. That’s interesting, because sometimes those records also indicated how long they had been married. And from that, you would sometimes see where their witnesses were interesting. Sometimes it would be some of their white owners who witnessed their marriage, or family friends, and also you can see who married them. Also, this provided often their last name and their wife’s last name, her maiden name, so these records can also be full of information. There are many avenues to explore, but that’s a start.

In your experience, how do oral history and genealogy work compliment each other, and why are these two methods of research specifically so important to you? What do they reveal about the past that other things can’t?

They work beautifully together. Often the initial oral history will give information to start a genealogy record so that you will learn the beginning ancestors, then some genealogical research will help to fill that in, to dig back in time. Also, the oral history gives the stories, gives us the context that brought these families together. The details make genealogy fascinating. They sort of bounce back and forth from each other. Sometimes the first time you hear an oral history interview, you only get the basics, but after you have done some genealogical research and go back and listen again, you’re hearing the nuances that fill in some of these details. And then the stories begin to make sense, and you’ll see other ways to do further research from the oral history. You’ll see other ways to look and dig in a different direction. As you do genealogical research, then you’ll wanna go back, and if you’re lucky, that person is still living, so that you can ask more questions. You can dig deeper in that way. So they bounce back and forth from each other, and luckily you’ll be able to do that bouncing and learn.

How can this kind of research be beneficial for families and communities?

As families begin to do this type of research, you learn more about the community. You learn more about how that community was formed and the different people in the community really, the stories combined play off each other and become intertwined. You understand the makeup of– sometimes these were small communities of African Americans, and when you begin to understand the different families, the different churches, the different schools, you understand what happened in that community that made them work together or pull them apart. You understand what happened to the family as a whole,the family groups as a whole, and also how they interacted with the white population. This makes an important story both for the historical record and for our understanding of our own unique past. It’s important.

How do you think this understanding of the past can benefit communities as a whole, especially with the Community Driven Archives you’re working with now?

We need to preserve our history and heritage. We need to understand what’s formed our past so that we can understand the future. We need the youth to understand what happened in the past, so that they can understand their future, understand the communities that formed them, and preserve that history and heritage. There’s a lot that can be done in communities to do this: local heritage sites, local museums, and really, if people are aware of this past, it makes the community more vital. It’s those stories that make a community still live. It can be an interesting facet to the understanding of that community.

Can you talk more about what you do for the Community Driven Archives in Wilson Library and what that is, exactly?

I’ve been brought on with the title of Project Documentarian and Oral Historian for the Community Driven Archives project which is funded by a Mellon grant. In that role I do research for the oral histories, I document what’s going on in the various projects, and I also conduct oral histories, and provide some oral history training. I’ve helped with  developing some powerpoint presentations to help with the training. Also, I’ve traveled to San Antonio, to Kentucky, and to Tennessee to help do oral histories. And my role is also to help make the individuals comfortable with doing oral histories themselves, to help demystify it, to make it feel like a conversation, to not be afraid to get out there and collect it, and to provide some tools to help individuals feel comfortable with it. So that’s my role, and I feel so lucky to be on board doing this work.

Have there been any moments in your research and work that have been really significant to you personally?

Yes, there are many moments like that. While in San Antonio watching the local volunteers get involved in the work was really exciting to see. We had a training session, and the volunteers then demonstrated how they would do the interviews, and I could see right away that they really just needed to be made comfortable so that they could do it. I think they showed that they were more comfortable than I in ways, that they knew the questions they wanted to ask. They were ready and just needed to be turned loose, and so that’s been exciting to watch. There have been times where I’ve been on tours in Edgecombe County with the Rocky Mount Mills project [with the Community Histories Workshop] that have been very meaningful to me in filling the connection to the area and my family past, so that’s been exciting too. But I don’t think there’s any interview that doesn’t have a really exciting part. It’s finding a way to encourage the individual to tell the stories of the family that is exciting.

Can you describe what your role at the Community Histories Workshop is, and can you talk about some of the discoveries you’ve made about your own family and the Battle family slaves during your research with the CHW?

My role with the Community Histories Workshop is to help discover the history of the enslaved population that was involved at the Rocky Mount Mills. This has been a frustrating part of things because the records don’t seem to be available in the Rocky Mount Mills papers nor the Battle family [papers], who owned the Rocky Mount Mills. It has been a process of learning what we can learn from other records. We’ve found cohabitation records for that area that are full of information, found Battle church, which was the primitive Baptist church at the falls of the Tar River (a church that is across from Rocky Mount Mills), found different papers that mention slaves but just in a vague way, not with specific names, so our process has been to try and locate oral history records, to do oral history interviews, and to find information about the area in general. So that has been interesting, but we continue to dig. Never give up is always a process with me, that there’s always another avenue.

I think one of the most meaningful parts of being involved, because it was a surprise to have this opportunity to be involved with the Rocky Mount Mills, and to finally speak of my own connection to the Battle family. When I was brought on board, I thought it was important that I let everyone know of my connection, to not keep that to myself any longer. I really wasn’t gonna speak of it, because I knew that the Battle family was connected to this University, and I just felt like I needed to keep that part of things to myself for now. But when I was brought in, incredibly, to the Rocky Mount Mills research, then I thought I needed to let go of that personal feeling.

I can’t remember the date exactly, but I had been told in the 1990s that my great-great-grandmother and her children (so this was Sarah Cooper, who was married to Sylvester Brown, my great-great-grandparents), and during the Civil War she had been taken into Texas with her children, and Sylvester Brown had to go and find her after the Civil War to bring her back to the small town of Columbia, Louisiana. So I had searched for a long time to find where she was taken in Texas, and finally in looking at some of the papers about the owner of Sarah Cooper, it mentioned Alicia Battle. In doing that research, I found where she had been taken in Texas, and so this led me to research on the Battle family and learn that they were connected to Rocky Mount Mills. When Rocky Mount Mills was bought by Capitol Broadcasting, I found myself wanting to go and see the mill before any of the renovations were done. That was my first trip and view of it. I went to Battle Park, and parked my car in the park. I got out with my video camera and all to get a view of the mill and I was videotaping and taking pictures of the mill and the falls from the opposite bank. I was met by a policeman who came and said, “Do you own the white Buick Park Avenue?” Someone had broken into my car. I had foolishly left my camera equipment on the seat, my purse under the front driver’s seat, and everything had been snatched. The right passenger window had been broken. He had tried to break the front window but he couldn’t, so I had glass all over the car. Fortunately a policeman had seen him and chased him into the woods. Everything was strewn over the forest, but they captured him and all of my belongings were returned to me. That was my first experience with Rocky Mount Mills, and then a few years later to be brought on board with this project has been incredible. I got a little off track telling that story, but it’s part of my experience with Rocky Mount Mills. I’ve been fortunate to be a part of this project and to dig more into finding what I can of that history.

I did a tour of Edgecombe county with James Wren. We only had a couple of hours and we were driving through Edgecombe County seeing all the sites. He was giving a wonderful history which I videotaped, and because there was such a short amount of time we had stayed in the car while he was talking. There was a stone monument in a field in front of some sort of factory or mill, and he said “Well we have to get out here, there’s a plaque that I kept passing on the road and I finally stopped one day and looked at it, and I need to show this to you. We have to get out here.” And when I walked over to this stone and looked down, I saw that it was Jethro Battle, the site where he had lived, and realizing that this is the site where my family was enslaved was very emotional, and still is. It was an incredible moment for me. James Wren and Mavis Sten, his wife, were both along, and when I went back to my car I ended up driving back to that site and sitting on that stone for a moment and just reflecting. That was very memorable, to know where my family most likely had been enslaved. So there’s much more to learn one day, hopefully, about that. I will keep looking and hopefully learn more.