During the month of February, the Liberty County Historical Commission will celebrate the achievements of African Americans and their role in U.S. history. Since 1976, every U.S. president has officially designated the month of February as Black History Month.
“While reflecting on this annual celebration and the history of African Americans in this country, I would like to share insight into this difficult part of our history. Recently I read a book by a favorite author, Lisa Wingate, The Book of Lost Friends. I was instantly intrigued by the story held within its pages,” said LCHC Chair Linda Jamison. “For many decades slavery tore apart African-American families. Children were sold off from their mothers and fathers, husbands were taken from their wives. Many desperately tried to keep track of their family members, even running away to find loved ones. One can only imagine the raw grief which must have been inflicted upon these families.”
Slaves were valuable “property,” and many times were divided among heirs after the death of the owner with no thought given to family groups. In other cases, slaves were sold at public auction due to mismanagement and deep debt of their owners. Post emancipation, most African-Americans took the last name of their previous owner to cement their identification.
“As a history buff and genealogist, I am all too aware of the difficulty in tracing family histories and black lineage much beyond emancipation. In fact, it is quite difficult due to the lack of records. In this sad part of our history, early census records did record slave schedules, most of which only indicated the owner’s name and the first name, gender, race designation such as Black, Mulatto (biracial) and other vague information,” Jamison said.
Some records remain from plantations that survived the Civil War and are housed in state archives, but they are rare. Family historians turn to letters, other public records, slave narratives and other historical documents to re-create the heartbreaking scenes of separations that happened on plantations, farms, in marketplaces and on auction blocks.
After the Civil War and emancipation, unification efforts intensified. Freed slaves posted ads in newspapers and wrote letters seeking any information or clue to where family members might be located. In 1880 an annual subscription could be purchased to the Southwestern Christian Advocate, a newspaper published in New Orleans by the Methodist Book Concern and distributed to nearly 500 preachers, 800 post offices, and more than 4,000 subscribers in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Arkansas. “Lost Friends” notices, which ran well into the 20th century, included messages from individuals and family members searching for loved ones who were lost in slavery.
These notices have been collected and digitized by The Historic New Orleans Collection (hnoc.org) in New Orleans, Louisiana. The searchable database provides access to more than 2,500 advertisements that appeared in the Advocate between November 1879 and December 1900. The database continues to expand as records are discovered.
“Lost Friends” advertisements tell stories that intertwine names and places and connect families. Many are especially detailed and show clear narratives of families being ripped apart and scattered across several states. It is an invaluable tool for tracing African American ancestry and has reunited many families.
“Lisa Wingate’s book, The Book of Lost Friends, was based on one of these advertisements. It follows Hannie, a formerly enslaved woman who embarks on a journey with two unlikely travelling companions to trace the paths of her family members. It is a touching and eye-opening book which I recommend as we honor Black history in February,” Jamison said.