Easily among the most powerful are the “Information Wanted” ads in the Recorder. Studied in Heather Andrea Williams’s amazing Help Me to Find My People (UNC 2012), these short notices began running before the Civil War was even over and continued for decades. They were most often placed by Black folks looking for family members, and the vast majority sought to reconnect families that had been sundered by slavery.
Imagine the context here. Finally free, millions had (at least theoretical possibilities for) some mobility, broader communication, and legal recognition of family ties. It is no wonder that massive numbers of Black folks sought to have their marriages officially recorded. (Sample information on this can be found here and here.) Even more folks tried to find their parents, their children, their siblings, and other relatives and friends stolen from them by chattel slavery—which, of course, was not just a massive and oppressive legal and economic system but a set of individual daily decisions by individual white slaveowners, many of whom knew well the enslaved people they were selling away from their families and friends.
The “Information Wanted” ads are thus part and parcel of Black resistance and struggle even as they (and, in fact, because they) attempt to recover individual connections. They also tell us about diverse Black lives in the years after emancipation--stories of love and loss, mobility and rootedness, hope and frustration. Many Black genealogists speak of the Civil War and emancipation as a “wall” that it is difficult to ever get through; these texts both write of and write against that wall.
As such, they desperately need more attention. In the ideal world, I’d think they could be the basis of a spectacular “big data” project: one that not only noted the information in the ads but placed that information in dialogue with census and other government records (especially those just being released by the Freedmen’s Bureau; see, for example, the NMAAHC work). Such work could help us pay real and long-overdue attention to the ways in which the individual stories of Black lives matter.
Take this ad, which ran for the first time on page three of the 16 March 1867 issue, for example:
Information wanted, by Amanda Bekley, of my two sons--the oldest named William Bekley, and the youngest Archibald Bekley. When I last saw them, William belonged to Jeff Thomas, of Minerva, KY, and Archibald to Langan Tabb, of Dover, KY.
Any information in regard to them will be thankfully received.
Sylvania, Lucas Co., Ohio.
Mar. 16-1 m.
The Recorder’s standard notation marks this as a notice that would run for one month. As I discuss in Black Print Unbound, the cost of such ads seems to have shifted in early 1867 to twelve and a half cents per line of nine words. (In the mid 1880s, such notices were free for subscribers, though non-subscribers were charged.) Given Amanda Wood’s submission at a moment of flux, we can’t know for certain if she had to pay for the notice. Indeed, the paper itself tells us little about her. We don’t even know at this point whether she was tied to AME activities in Sylvania, whether she went into nearby Toledo (with a larger Black community anchored in part by stalwart Warren AME), or whether she was directly associated with the AME church at all.
But Amanda Wood isn’t that hard to find. A quick check of census records tells us a bit more. By 1870, Amanda Bekley had married Stephen Wood, a New York-born farmer and widower a few years her senior. Stephen Wood had at least one grown son, Albert, who farmed nearby. The 1870 census of Sylvania (Lucas County, page 128B) lists Amanda Wood as 55, “F” (female), “B” (Black), and of Kentucky birth. Stephen Wood was listed as 58, “M,” and “B.” Both were marked as illiterate, although Black Print Unbound articulates the lack of trust we should place in such census-takers’ determinations. One boarder, Canadian-born Henry Jackson, shared their home and worked as a farm laborer. The 1880 census (Sylvania, Lucas County, page 21C) lists her as 69, “F,” “B,” Kentucky-born of Virginia-born parents, and working at “Keeping House”; Stephen is listed as 76, “M,” “B,” and New York-born of unlisted parentage. A thirteen year old African American girl whose name is given as Nettie Vanbrunt and whose occupation is listed as a servant lived with them--though the Woods’ economic circumstances were never strong, and Vanbrunt’s occupation suggests that she hired out. Digging into additional records--other censuses, vital records, land records, court records, etc.--could certainly fill out this picture further.
Census records also tell us something about the white people who owned Amanda Wood’s two sons--and give some of the traces of that ownership.
“Jeff Thomas of Minerva, KY” was most likely Jefferson Thomas, who is listed in the 1850 Mason County census (page 1A) as a tavern keeper with property totaling $1500. Additionally, he owned five Black people. The 1850 “slave schedule,” used in part to ensure national adherence to the infamous 3/5 clause, lists those people by age, sex, and color, but not by name. Thus, they are listed as “40 M B,” “69 F B,” “34 F B,” “16 F M,” and “9 F B.” Thomas likely did not yet own Amanda Wood’s son at this point, and I am still attempting to definitively determine Jefferson Thomas’s whereabouts in 1860. In 1850, he was listed with his 34-year-old wife Elizabeth and children Edward (10), Mary Alice (7), and Jefferson (2), all born in Kentucky, as well as five boarders and an elderly woman who seems to have been Jefferson Thomas’s mother.
“Langan Tabb, of Dover, KY” left an easier trail, though he is indexed under various first names including Langhorne, Laughorne, Langorn, and Langleorn. Listed as a 50-year-old tobacco factor in the 1850 census of Mason County (page 20A), he owned six Black people, listed in the slave schedule as “M B 19,” “M B 25,” “M B 33,” “F B 35,” “F B 32,” and “F B 80.” He lived with his 34-year-old wife Eliza, a young man (probably a stepson or other relative) named William Hall (age 12), three children (ages 9, 6, and 3), and seventeen-year-old Caroline Hubbard, whose relationship to the Tabbs I haven’t yet determined. They lived near William Tabb, Langhorne’s brother, who was also a slaveowner. In 1860, Langhorne Tabb was listed (in the Mason County census, page 239) as a merchant with $20,500 in real estate and $3800 in personal property, as well as six enslaved people, who were listed in the 1860 slave schedule as “35 M B,” “35 M B,” 30 F B,” 32 F B,” “16 M B,” and “12 F B.”
Perhaps the sixteen-year-old unnamed boy was Archibald Bekley, Amanda’s youngest son. Perhaps not. The “16 M B” is a trace that is tragic in its ambiguity and in all that ambiguity tells us about American history. Archibald Bekley’s owner, Langhorne Tabb, would live to age 93 and be celebrated in the 16 August 1902 Dover Public (in claims repeated by at least one local history) as “the most prominent, wealthy, and progressive citizen” of his town.
I haven’t--at least yet--been able to definitively find Amanda Bekley Wood’s two sons after the war. They may have kept a variation of Bekley, taken slaveowners’ surnames, or fashioned new names. They may have stayed in Kentucky or moved out of the state. They may not have survived. They may be findable, or they may have been lost in the sea of post-war change. Generations of historians and genealogists will tell you that slaveowners are easier to find than enslaved and formerly enslaved people, and perhaps the old approach of “following the white people” might help here. Perhaps not.
Still, there is one taunting possibility for William. A William Beckley is listed in the 1870 Minerva census (Mason County, page 464A)--certainly the name and the place. He is 40, perhaps too old for Amanda’s son--though not definitively, especially given both slavery’s evil and the notoriously uneven census listing of ages. He was born in Kentucky, as was his wife Harriet, age 40. A laborer, he, like the rest of his family, is marked as illiterate. That “rest of the family” was composed of four children: Sarah, 10, listed as a “domestic servant”; Daniel, 7; William, 2; and George, 1. In the family’s likely 1880 listing in nearby Bracken County (page 494C), Sarah and Daniel are no longer listed, but William and George were joined by Samuel, 9; John, 7; and two children, 2 and 1, whose names I can’t yet definitively read. I can’t help but wonder if these are Amanda Wood’s grandchildren and about how the language “Any information in regard to them will be thankfully received” doesn’t begin to tell the story.
Amanda Wood, over 260 miles away, might well not have been capable to travelling to do what might have been a fruitless, wandering search for her sons. The “Information Wanted” ads offered a bit of hope and action, a kind of message in a bottle--even for illiterate folks, as area ministers, for example, might read them and share them with their congregants. But for every happy reunion--and there were some--we need remember the thousands, the hundreds of thousands whose circles had been broken.
It seems to me that a great project for us all is to gather the bits we have, share them, and think and talk about these kinds of stories. Say their names, recover their stories.
In my next post, more on the “Information Wanted” ads, the losses they tried to mend, and the life stories they suggest.