Linking today’s events with those of our ancestors

Tips on how you can break down brick walls

By now, many of us who are searching for answers to the mysteries of our African Diasporan ancestors have found that the routes to getting research are often nontraditional. Consider another avenue to hopefully find your ancestors.

Tap into your imagination, natural instincts and recall the stories you’ve heard to search for clues about your ancestors’ journeys. Hopefully, you will find a new detail to help break through those brick walls.

Look for ancestors in someone else’s life

If your ancestors worked at the Ford Motor Co. in the 1960s in Queens, New York, they may have known or been on the team with McKinley Thompson, Jr. an African American who designed cars during his 28-year career with the automaker. He was part of the concept team for the first-generation Mustang and GT40.

Thompson came up with the open-air, 4 x 4 turbine boxy car that changed the automotive industry. It was a sports utility vehicle known as the Ford Bronco. Look at Thompson’s life and the places he lived, worked, was educated and served. You may find your ancestors in his art classes, in the military unit he served in, other jobs that he held or even in his retirement community.

Fortunate Forten

It is well-known in ancestry and genealogy research African American slavery matter prohibits current-day research efforts about family histories. The blockages that create the brick walls often referred to in African American ancestry research is due largely to enslavers not listing the full names, ages and other identifies for African Americans on the official documents, and the U.S. Census Bureau not including the names, addresses and full demographic information about African Americans until the 1870 records. There were sporadic accounts of slaves’ names and other information by the owners, and the government documents published some information that was linked to African Americans in bondage.

Occasionally, there are uncovered lives of African Americans such as James Forten, considered one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. He was born a free American in Philadelphia, PA in 1766. At age 14, he joined the Continental Army and was a “power boy.” A powder boy carried gun powder from the ship’s magazine to the ship’s cannon. Following in the footsteps of his father, he became a sailmaker. He became his family chief sailmaker in 1798 after the death of his father.

To return to the original concept of this blog, look for any opportunities of your ancestors to be located in the areas that Forten lived and visited. It is likely that your ancestors may have been in the similar line of work or even worked with Forten, or volunteered with his wife and daughters in their abolitionist activism.

As an abolitionist who walked his talk, Forten chose to not work with any slave trade-connected companies and individuals. Forten was brave to adopt this business practice. However, as a man who was aboard a ship that was once captured by the British and he risked being sold into slavery, Forten withstood adversities and became a wealthy man who was also an active abolitionist. He designed and sold innovative sails that allowed ships to gain higher speeds, among other attributes. He was considered the prime sailmaker in Philadelphia and he employed African Americans and whites. He funded popular abolitionist publications and also endorsed his daughters developing the first interracial women’s abolitionist organization, Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society.

So popular was Forten in the abolition movement and as a top employer that upon his death at age 75, his funeral was attended by thousands. Were your ancestors among the mourners?

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“What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”

Abolitionist Frederick Douglass’s priceless speech on July 5, 1852 as depicted by James Earl Jones

He was photographed more than Mark Twain and President Abraham Lincoln. He was born a slave and gained freedom, the skills of reading and writing, became a journalist, photographer, orator, author, abolitionist, father, husband and so much more.

With his earned standing in the United States and worldwide abolitionist movement, Frederick Douglass’s words are heeded then and today.

Happy Fourth of July to all. Celebrate it by hearing the sobering and engaging words of Frederick Douglass through the voice of famed, award-winning Actor James Earl Jones. You can download the video or audio versions. Here’s the transcript of this broadcast:


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today, in this special broadcast, we begin with the words of Frederick Douglass. Born into slavery around 1818, Douglass became a key leader of the abolitionist movement. On July 5th, 1852, in Rochester, New York, Frederick Douglass gave one of his most famous speeches, “What to the Slave Is Your Fourth of July?” He was addressing the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society.

This is James Earl Jones reading the historic address during a performance of Voices of a People’s History of the United States. It was co-edited by Howard Zinn. The late great historian introduced the address.

HOWARD ZINN: Frederick Douglass, once a slave, became a brilliant and powerful leader of the anti-slavery movement. In 1852, he was asked to speak in celebration of the Fourth of July.

FREDERICK DOUGLASS: [read by James Earl Jones] Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? And am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?

I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you this day rejoice are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today?

What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is a constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes that would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation of the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States at this very hour.

At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could reach the nation’s ear, I would, to-day, pour forth a stream, a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and the crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.

AMY GOODMAN: James Earl Jones, reading the words of Frederick Douglass.

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