Social Search: How Far Back Does My Free-Black Heritage Go?

0 Posted by - December 21, 2021 - SLAVERY, Stolen Stories

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In this Flipboard Find by Genetta Adams, we learn more about How Far Back Does My Free-Black Heritage Go?

Dear Professor Gates:

The farthest I’ve been able to trace my family history in Ohio is back to my fifth great-grandparents William H. Kinney and Henrietta Mason. I know that they were in Ohio before 1840, and since they showed up so early in census records, I wondered if they were born free. All of the records that I’ve found on them show that they were originally from Virginia, with William born about 1807 and Henrietta born about 1808.

One day I ran a search for “free blacks William Kinney 1807,” and a link to the book Free African Americans of North Carolina, Virginia and South Carolina, Volume 2 popped up. The page listed a woman named Milly Kinney who was born free about 1777. She registered her seven children, and one of them was a boy named William, who was born about 1810, which is not far off from 1807. I found William and his family living next door to Milly on the 1830 census in Augusta County, Va. They were also living close to a white family named Kinney, so I don’t know if there’s any connection. 

Do you think that the William Kinney who was from Augusta County, Va., is the same one as my William Kinney who shows up in Ohio? —Ryan Johnson

Our research indicates that you have good reason to believe that you have had free black ancestors since the late 18th century.

Documentation of Free Black Peoples During Slavery

As Professor Gates previously wrote in The Root, by the 1860 census, nearly 1 in 10 African Americans were free, more than half of them living in Southern states like Virginia, where you suspect that William H. Kinney was born around 1807.

Meanwhile, in Ohio (where you know he later lived), slavery had been banned since before statehood was attained in 1803. As the “Ohio” entry by Diane L. Barnes in the Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619-1895: From the Colonial Period to the Age of Frederick Douglass explains, “The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 prohibited slavery in the territories that eventually formed the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin; thus, many African Americans hoped to find racial toleration as well as inexpensive government land in that region.” However, a small number of African Americans in the state were still enslaved after 1803. An article in Cincinnati magazine explains why: “Ohio prohibited slavery, but only in the sense that no one could buy or sell slaves within the state. Not until 1841 did Ohio enact a law so that any slave brought into the state automatically became free.”

So whether they lived in the North or South, the status of free black people was far from secure. This is clear to anyone who knows the story of Solomon Northup, the free black New Yorker whose kidnapping into slavery was chronicled in his own narrative and later depicted in the 2013 film 12 Years a Slave.

FamilySearch explains one way the problem was addressed in its wiki on “African American Land and Property”: “Most free African Americans carried their own papers, but these could be stolen. In order to distinguish between slaves, runaways, and free African Americans, many counties or states in the upper South, and border states kept one or more sets of registers or papers. Some had registers of slaves. Some kept registers of blacks, freedmen, ‘free men of color,’ or ‘free negroes.’ Some kept copies of manumission papers of people freed from enslavement.” Such a register supplied some of the source information you found in Free African Americans of North Carolina, Virginia and South Carolina, by Paul Heinegg.

What Census Records Show

Based on that and the records you located so far, it seems very likely that your William H. Kinney was the son of Milly Kinney of Augusta County, Va. Starting with the record of William and Henrietta in Buckskin, Ross County, Ohio, in 1850, you can establish that both were born in Virginia about 1807 and 1808, respectively. This record also provides you with information on several of their children, starting with their eldest, Nancey (age 23), and seven others, which you can use to compare with other records. For instance, William had sons named Isaac and John, and those were the names of two individuals who may be related to Milly Kinney, according to Free African Americans of North Carolina, Virginia and South Carolina.

As you mentioned in your question, you know that William Kinney and Henrietta were recorded in the 1840 census in Twin, Ross County, Ohio. These 1850 and 1840 census records together can help you fill in the number of children the couple had in total. You know that the male between the ages of 24 and 35 is William and that the woman in the same age bracket is Henrietta. This record also includes a daughter between the ages of 10 and 24 (likely Nancey); three daughters under age 10 (likely Martha, Julian and Harriet, if her age was recorded incorrectly in 1850, or perhaps an unknown daughter who passed away before 1850); and three sons under age 10 (likely Isaac, John and William). Using this information, you know you are looking for a record of the family in 1830 with at least one daughter (Nancey) who survived to 1850.

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