• How We Get Free: On Genealogical Quests and Unknown Family History

    Michelle D. Commander Unearths the Buried Lives of Her Formerly Enslaved Ancestors

    Recently, I discovered that a duplicate version of the india-ink portrait that Larry Francis Lebby created, which he had exhibited during his travels as far away as the Vatican, had been given the title “Steel Man” and sold to the Gibbes Museum in Charleston, South Carolina. For 20 years, my grandfather has stared directly back into the eyes of the museum’s viewers, refashioned into a superman of sorts.

    Here’s something I know about the experience of my ancestors: exerting two centuries worth of generational labor on Lower Richland soil under the most brutal and corrupt circumstances must have involved herculean physical and mental strength.

    The majority of my maternal line was enslaved near what became the town of Kingville, which was a site of an important train depot in the 19th century, particularly after its connection on the Southern Railroad Line was expanded in 1848. While Kingville boasted a reportedly decent hotel, a post office, stores, businesses, and homes, most of the town’s white visitors did not appreciate its proximity to this portion of the Congaree River. In letters and journal entries, visitors referred to the town and its floodplain/swampland as “dismal” and as a “death hole.” The potential for revelry at the end of daylong meetings or after a day’s work on the railroad line was apparently minuscule in Kingville.

    As I read these complaints, I wondered about whether and how my ancestors negotiated their bondage. Did any of them attempt to feel their way through the darkness and wade through what they viewed as life-giving rather than dismal swamps—or the train toward freedom and away from the state of living death that was enslavement? How did they survive? What other pathways and strategies did they use to get free?


    The labor of enslaved and poor white people built and expanded South Carolina’s railroad lines. Railroad companies and their attendant industries owned slaves as well as entered “hiring out” contracts with local plantation owners. A major sign of American progress and technological advancement, the presence of the railroad and increased interactions between southern and northern citizens must have given the sense that changes—wanted and unwanted—were afoot. The South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company (SCCRC) in what is now St. Matthews established its first completed track in 1833 to take advantage of the Industrial Revolution, which had a marked financial impact in the US North, with the railroad helping to propel the growth of the textile industry.

    SCCRC soon found itself in a bind after white workers refused to deal with the risky nature of the job when the swamps became especially dangerous in the summer. Because of the pressing need for a stable set of laborers to dig roadbeds, to complete timberwork, and to perform repairs and other laborious tasks under any set of conditions, the company purchased some 89 enslaved persons between 1845 and 1860.

    Speculators developed substantial cotton plantations in the Lower Richland area, on which stood imposing homes that overlooked acres of fields and tiny slave cabins. In the early to mid-19th century, Lower Richland County came into its own as a cotton kingdom whose planters’ wealth rivaled that of their counterparts in the Lowcountry. The area’s population remained fairly stagnant even into 1840, with the white population counted at 5,326, the enslaved community at 10,664, and free people of color at 407. (In 1860, the numbers inched up, but only slightly.) By 1842, southern railroads aided the area’s financial success by transporting cotton more quickly than wagons and flatboats could—doing so, they created the hamlets of Gadsden, Kingville, and Hopkins Turnout.

    I am utterly riveted by the trickster figure in early Black American stories about slavery and flight, as the cunning use of deception to actuate one’s freedom is at once inspiring and sobering.

    The growth of the railroad in the South also compelled new and more creative forms of resistance among the enslaved. The railroad phenomenon gave more formalized terminology for the technology used by conductors of the Underground Railroad, a strategic network of safe houses and way stations that assisted tens of thousands of fugitive slaves in their travels toward free states, Canada, and Mexico beginning in the late 18th century.

    I am utterly riveted by the trickster figure in early Black American stories about slavery and flight, as the cunning use of deception to actuate one’s freedom is at once inspiring and sobering. The enslaved person’s body had been marked as that which was possessed by and at the will of another. Imagine having the bravery to take control over such brutal, restrictive circumstances and even one’s enslaved body—to assert temporary liberation and, sometimes, permanent escape from a master.

    In 1848, William and Ellen Craft successfully ran away from slavery in Georgia by obtaining passes from their owners to travel freely for a few days around Christmas, utilizing the rare period of respite to carry out their fugitive flight via train. They dressed the fair-skinned Ellen in men’s clothing and medical dressings, cut her hair, and added a pair of glasses to make her appear to be a disabled elderly white man traveling by train with his slave.

    The Crafts’ escape was an exercise of racial and gendered passing that secured their passage through the South to the northern United States and eventually to Liverpool, England, where they championed the abolitionist cause. Their subversive journeys by rail and ship presented moments at which the Crafts thought they would be found out as well as opportunities for Ellen to overhear white men’s depraved musings about slavery and race.

    At one point during their fugitive passage, a slave trader on board with the Crafts mused to the captain about tamping down slave resistance: “If I was the President of this mighty United States of America, the greatest and freest country under the whole universe, I would never let no man, I don’t care who he is, take a nigger into the North and bring him back here, filled to the brim, as he is sure to be, with d——d abolition vices, to taint all quiet niggers with the hellish spirit of running away.”

    Beyond the captain’s curious insistence that enslaved people would only get the notion that freedom was a possibility if they saw it in the North for themselves, the captain’s staunch belief in American exceptionalism stands out here as an underrecognized feature of the antebellum era. To maintain order and control over human property in what proslavery citizens deemed to be an American utopia, several fugitive slave ordinances were written, including the most expansive, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

    Passed by the US Congress, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 amended the 1793 Act Respecting Fugitives from Justice, and Persons Escaping from the Service of Their Masters, at which several jurisdictions throughout various free states scoffed and passed their own laws to adjudicate the process and restrict the immediacy of the return of human property into slavery. The Fugitive Slave Act served as part of a compromise that would allow enslavers to capture slaves who escaped to free states and guide them on a passage back into slavery in the South without legal interference.

    With the codification of fugitive laws on the horizon, the American reformer and abolitionist Samuel May penned a letter to the Crafts’ host Dr. Estlin of Bristol, England, asking him to warn the Crafts that slave catchers were on their trail and that they would only be able to live truly liberated lives (undaunted by the threat of capture) if they fled to England:

    Shame, shame upon us, that Americans, whose fathers fought against Great Britain, in order to be free, should have to acknowledge this disgraceful fact! God gave us a fair and goodly heritage in this land, but man has cursed it with his devices and crimes against human souls and human rights. Is America the “land of the free, and the home of the brave?” God knows it is not; and we know it too. A brave young man and a virtuous young woman must fly the American shores, and seek, under the shadow of the British throne, the enjoyment of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

    May’s impassioned suggestion that the Crafts quit America was not at an overreaction. Bolstered by fugitive slave laws, deputized slave catchers were indeed on the hunt for the couple. Even the illegal importation of slaves, which had been abolished by US federal law in 1807 and by statute in South Carolina, was regularly practiced decades later. The nation’s moral fiber, along with that of traders across the Atlantic world, was weak indeed. Slavery had been maintained via force, nonchalance by a stunning number of Americans, and moral hypocrisy. The very human impulse to protect oneself and one’s kith and kin—in this case, the Crafts’ assertion of their mobility—was enough to warrant severe punishment or death depending on the depravity of the owner.


    During the Civil War, Kingville—one of the Lower Richland hamlets brought to life by the railroad—became a supply stop for the Confederate army until Union troops marched through the area, scorching Columbia and much of the surrounding area in 1865. General Edward E. Potter and his troops destroyed Kingville’s hotel, depots, agent’s house, the Congaree River Bridge, and 3,000 feet of railroad track. In the postbellum period, my poor but industrious formerly enslaved family members worked to rebuild the town or moved nearby. The Kingville archive (compromised, like most archives of historical Black life in the United States are) tells a story about place and escape, intersecting histories and desires. It was a bustling town, with the rail whistle singing vibrantly in the background, but yet still a town with something dismal restricting its heart.

    Slavery had been maintained via force, nonchalance by a stunning number of Americans, and moral hypocrisy.

    Scant traces of Kingville proper exist. I am aware of two markers: one that merely states the name of the place/train stop alongside a railroad track and another at a post office in Hopkins. My mother and her siblings often speak about Kingville fondly, though they were born long after the town became a ghost. They do not recall many exact stories imparted to them about the place, yet a feeling of pride about that historic town and its Black community remains. It was one of the pieces of history about which they remember their grandparents and people of that generation marveling.

    In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, however, most formerly enslaved people in the Lower Richland area signed labor contracts with their former owners. It was probably the easiest short-term solution for the newly freed population because they knew the land like their own heartbeats and they had few other prospects. Staying in place amid the new order of things came with the assurance of building community with known folks, so, for some time at least, they remained.

    I first confirmed the names of my grandmother’s great-grandparents, who were born in the 1840s, in an 1866 labor contract filed away and later digitized in the Freedmen’s Bureau’s archives for South Carolina. As I sat in a Harlem cafe on a Saturday afternoon, the pieces suddenly fell into place. I sat startled for a moment and then looked around at chatty friend groups and busy college students, as if anyone knew or cared about what I had found. I wanted to tell someone the good news, but I knew no one there. I was far from home.

    Refocusing, I again carefully assembled and correlated all of my pieces of solid evidence, including slave schedules from 1850 and 1860, a local genealogist’s separately prepared records about the community, death certificates from the early 20th century, and decades of census records that linked the people represented in all of these documents.

    I gulped and, surprising myself, began to silently cry. Here was confirmation of some things I knew or had surmised about my family’s enslavement and their working-class existence, their labor in the fields of Lower Richland. I was overwhelmed and sad and angry about centuries of a past that I clearly had not even experienced firsthand. It was my legacy. My ancestral generations had lived hard, hard lives. As I made connections about the truth of their lives (and combined with some speculations about how they might have been affected by myriad laws, events, and societal trends), I fell in love with these people immediately. Their names alone had removed some of the abstractness of knowing that my kin had been enslaved. Now, I could place their history more accurately.

    I touched one of the digitized “Xs” on my laptop screen. That single-letter marking had been made in the unsteady hand of my third great-grandfather Louis (listed as “Lewis” in the record). This was his agreement that he, his wife Letty, and their family member Binkey would provide the executor of their former owner Wright Denley’s estate “a portion of the crop,” which for their small household required “two bales of cotton and 15 bushels of corn” each year in exchange for their use of the living quarters, firewood, and the land and equipment to farm on the Greenfield Plantation. In pounds, they had agreed to produce an astounding 960 pounds of cotton and 840 pounds of corn for Denley’s estate.

    The conducting of genealogical quests is a kind of traveling resistance, a temporal exercise in which one can retrieve long-buried, if sorrowful, histories. Just as the presence of the railroad transported travelers to more desired locations and expanded the ways that free and enslaved early African Americans could imagine the possibilities for their future mobility, the tracks and rails of genealogy greatly impact the ways that the family details unearthed confirm (track), belie (throw long-held beliefs off the rails), and add to (move forward) one’s understanding of the past and present.

    Genealogy can also be addicting, maddening, confusing, and exhilarating. I still know very little about my third great-grandparents and virtually nothing about their parents or their parents’ parents. But I continue to work to arrange the pieces. The things we learn about our family members’ painful deaths, infidelities, arduous journeys, bad decisions, and heartbreaking life circumstances can take the breath away. Take my breath away. I find myself wondering about my ancestors’ dreams deferred, their joyous experiences anyhow, and details of the reminiscing and turns of phrase that made them crack up with good ol’ belly laughter.

    The conducting of genealogical quests is a kind of traveling resistance, a temporal exercise in which one can retrieve long-buried, if sorrowful, histories.

    Engaging in genealogical quests sometimes means that narratives that we think we know about familial connections and the historical order of things will be proven incorrect or incomplete. It is certainly not required, but I feel as though I must face this challenge. My desire to address this feeling of dispossession as well as my eagerness to know is part of my inheritance. I am most concerned with the ways that my ancestors’ lives and experiences might give me a clearer view into my own life and those of others who were reared in or are descendants of the people who have lived parallel and unequal existences in Lower Richland over nearly three centuries.

    In what will certainly be a shock to my family, I have often felt a desire for the formerly enslaved to make themselves evident. I am not asking for a seance or a dance with the devil or anything of the sort. An ancestor guiding my journey toward a rare find in an archive will do.


    Avidly Reads Passages, Michelle D Commander

    Excerpted from Avidly Reads Passages. Used with the permission of the publisher, NYU Press. Copyright © 2021 by Michelle D. Commander.

    Michelle D. Commander
    Michelle D. Commander
    Michelle D. Commander is Associate Director and Curator of the Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Before joining the Schomburg Center, she was an Associate Professor of English and Africana Studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. A Ford Foundation and Fulbright Fellowship recipient, Commander is the author of Afro-Atlantic Flight: Speculative Returns and the Black Fantastic.

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