Greensboro Celebrates Opening of New International Civil Rights Museum

The big news in Greensboro this week was of course the opening of the City’s new International Civil Rights Museum, located in the Woolworth’s Department Store where the historic sit-ins movement began in 1960.  Check out the extensive coverage from the News and Record

You may also want to have a look at the Museum’s website.

Greensboro Public Library has a page dedicated to the sit-ins here, and our index to newspaper articles on the sit-ins will soon include links to digital versions of articles which appeared in the Greensboro Daily News and the Greensboro Record between February and July, 1960.

Michelle Obama’s Slave Roots Traced

First Lady Michelle Obama

Research conducted by a genealogist named Megan Smolenyak and the New York Times has succeeded in tracing First Lady Michelle Obama’s lineage back to her slave ancestors, it was announced this week.

On her mother’s side of the family, researchers were able to identify a number of ex-slaves in the First Lady’s past, including one of her third great grandparents, Melvinia Shields, who was born a slave in South Carolina in the 1840s.

Shields had a son named Dolphus (one of Ms. Obama’s second great grandfathers), allegedly by an unknown white man, thus suggesting the First Lady has a mixed racial heritage.  Ms. Obama is also thought to have some Native American ancestry.

Edward Ball, whose memoir Slaves in the Family is highly regarded, suggests the First Lady’s multi-racial ancestry is probably more common than we realize.  “We are not separate tribes of Latinos and whites and blacks in America,” he states.  “We’ve all mingled, and we have done so for generations.”

If you’re an African American interested in tracing your ancestry, Greensboro Public Library has lots of resources which can help.

First of all, we have a full-time genealogy specialist, Mr. Arthur Erickson, who will be happy to meet with you, assist you in planning your research, and tell you all about the Library’s genealogy collection.

If your roots are in Greensboro, you may also want to take a look at some of our webpages on African American genealogy.  These include a list of African American households in Greensboro when the 1880 Census was compiled, a long article on the Warnersville community, and headstone transcriptions for Union Cemetery.

Other resources we have specific to African American research include the Freedman’s Bank records in Heritage Quest, and the 1850 and 1860 slave schedules from the U.S. Census. 

You will also no doubt find the population schedules from the U.S. Census, especially those from 1870-1930, particularly useful.  You can access these through Ancestry (in-library use only), as well as Heritage Quest, though you will find the Ancestry database to be more complete and easier to use.

Lots of other records in our collection, such as marriages, wills, and deeds, will no doubt prove useful in your search. 

Last but not least, if your focus is local you may want to try contacting the Piedmont-Triad Chapter of the Afro-American Historical Society.

Another Cemetery Story

Though I don’t mean to overdo it on cemetery stories (see my previous post from last week), I couldn’t resist this one from The Daily Tar Heel about the African American section of the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery, located on the edge of the University of North Carolina’s campus.

The graves of many of the African Americans buried there are unmarked, and investigators plan on using ground-penetrating radar and an electrical sensitivity test to see what’s underground and identify graves.  The Preservation Society of Chapel Hill, which is leading the project, believes the cemetery may hold the remains of “up to 100 black people who worked at the University in the 18th and 19th centuries.”

I know this graveyard well.  Though I didn’t go to school at Chapel Hill, I have enjoyed many visits to Wilson Library over the years, often parking in the old visitor lot on Raleigh Road.  The walk from the lot to the library always took me past the cemetery, where you can find the graves of prominent figures associated with the University, such as the late Charles Kuralt and Frank Porter Graham.

Buffalo Soldier Who Won Medal of Honor Reinterred at Arlington

Check out this neat story about Corporal Isaiah Mays, a heroic African American soldier of the Old West, whose remains were reinterred at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., on Friday.

Born into slavery in Virginia, Mays later joined up with the Buffalo Soldiers, which eventually included six cavalry and infantry regiments of African Americans serving on the Western frontier during the Indian Wars from the late 1860s to 1891.

In 1889, an Army pay wagon Mays was helping guard was attacked by bandits; shot in both legs, he was the only survivor and had to drag himself two miles to a nearby ranch for help.  For this, he was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1890.

Mays is one of 23 Buffalo Soldiers to have received this distinction, the military’s highest award for valor.

He later left the Army and eventually entered Arizona State Hospital — possibly because he was indigent or mentally ill.  There he was buried in a grave at the hospital’s All Souls Cemetery when he died in 1925.  In 2001, he was finally accorded the honor of a Medal of Honor headstone.  This past March, Mays’ remains were disinterred, cremated and placed in a special urn in preparation for his reburial at Arlington.

If the story of Corporal Mays has peaked your interest in the Buffalo Soldiers, the Library may have some books for you.  Try some of these:  Black Valor:  Buffalo Soldiers and the Medal of Honor, 1870-1898 by Frank N. Schubert; Buffal0 Soldiers by Catherine Reef (juvenile); Buffalo Soldiers in the West:  A Black Soldiers Anthology, edited by Bruce A. Glasrud and Michael N. Searles; Buffalo Soldiers (VHS); Buffalo Soldiers (DVD); Child of the Fighting Tenth:  On the Frontier with the Buffalo Soldiers by Forrestine C. Hooker (juvenile); The Forgotten Heroes:  The Story of the Buffalo Soldiers by Clinton Cox (juvenile); Moses Trinidad:  Buffalo Soldier by Michael Walter Tudda; Cathy Williams: From Slave to Female Buffalo Soldier by Phillip Thomas Tucker; On the Trail of the Buffalo Soldier:  Biographies of African Americans in the U.S. Army, 1866-1917, compiled and edited by Frank N. Schubert (NC Collection); and The Black Infantry in the West, 1869-1891 by Arlen L. Fowler.

African-Americans & the White House

The highly anticipated inauguration of America’s first black president, Mr. Barack Obama, will no doubt be accompanied by a tremendous amount of media coverage from a whole host of perspectives.      

This very good article, from MSNBC, traces the long historical association of African-Americans and the White House, recalling that “slaves not only helped build the White House, but also for decades men and women in bondage served America’s presidents and first families as butlers, cooks and maids.”

I especially liked the fact that the MSNBC article linked to an electronic edition of  A Colored Man’s Reminisences, written by Paul Jennings, a slave of our fourth president, James Madison, and available through Documenting the American South, a project sponsored by the Library of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  UNC-CH is one of America’s most important repositories of rare and valuable imprints — books, pamphlets, broadsides, etc.  — associated with the American South.  Through this project, literally 100s of titles from the University’s North Carolina Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Rare Book Collection and Davis Library, all associated with various themes of Southern history, are now available for free on the web.  If you’re not familiar with Documenting the American South, check it out sometime.

The MSNBC article also mentions that an African-American baby was born in the White House in 1806, daughter of two slaves of then president Thomas Jefferson. 

This reminded me of the Sally Hemings controversy — the theory, now born out by DNA evidence, that Thomas Jefferson or a close relative fathered children by Jefferson’s slave Sally Hemings.  The library has several books on this subject, as well Thomas Jefferson’s slaves in general, which would no doubt shed light upon the domestic relations of slaves and our presidents.  These include:  The Hemingses of Monticello:  An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed; The Jefferson-Hemings Myth:  An American Travesty, presented by the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society and edited by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr.; Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings:  An American Controversy by Annette Gordon-Reed; The Slave Families of Thomas Jefferson:  A Pictorial Study Book with an Interpretation of His Farm Book in Genealogy Charts, in 2 vols., written and compiled by B. Bernetiae Reed. 

The author of the last mentioned work is a native of Greensboro.  It is a sumptuously illustrated and painstaking study of over 600 of Jefferson’s slaves.

New Database on the Slave Trade

Check out this new database on the African slave trade.  It includes records of approximately 35,000 voyages of trans-atlantic slave ships, compiled from libraries and archives all over the world and dating between 1514 and 1866.  Originally published as a CD-ROM by Cambridge University Press in 1999, it’s now available for free on the web.  A pdf guide to using the database can be linked here.  

Greensboro Public Library has a fine genealogy collection, including resources similar to the new slave trade database, which may be of special interest to African-American genealogists and historians.

One particular resource which comes to mind is the Freedman’s Bank records available in Heritage Quest.  This was a bank which served African-Americans — newly freed from slavery — during the period from 1865 to 1874.  The records contain personal information about the depositors which may not be available elsewhere.  Heritage Quest is part of the NCLive network of databases and can be linked to via our homepage at, if you have a library card. 

Another useful electronic resource for genealogists is the Library Edition of Ancestry, which is especially good for checking U.S. Census records — often the starting point for African-American researchers.  To locate our link to Ancestry, just go to the library’s homepage, click on the A-Z Guide, then scroll down.  (Please be aware that you must be at Central Library or one of our branch locations to use Ancestry.)

The library is also in the process of compiling pages pertinent to African-American genealogy and history here in Greensboro and adding them to the library’s webpage.  On the left side of this page, you can find links to some of the things we’ve completed and continue to work on.   

If you have questions about these or other online resources, please contact our Genealogy Librarian, Mr. Arthur Erickson.