By Bernard Freeman
Tracing Black family roots can be complicated for many reasons.
One of the biggest reasons is slavery and its consequences. The first African Americans were indentured servants in Jamestown, Virginia, in the early 1600s, and slavery boomed in the American South in the years leading up to the Civil War, with forced family separations and other horrors tangling Black families’ roots for generations.
The Challenge of Research
Not only were family lines tangled, but family name changes were common in the years after the Civil War. Furthermore, most family histories were oral as it was forbidden for Black people to read and write in many parts of the country.
How to Get Started
Write down everything your family knows about your ancestors, paying special attention to names, dates and places. Find as many records as you can, and don’t limit your search to your immediate family. Scour records from aunts, uncles and cousins for clues. Keep an eye out for those changing surnames, particularly in decade right after the Civil War. If you can’t find the same surname, look for first names and ages in a particular place.
Types of Records
Keep in mind that some older records, especially, may use descriptive words that, to modern ears, sound offensive. You may also find that some records may not include your ancestors or may miscategorize them. You may also find that local laws put severe restrictions on Black people and they couldn’t vote or may have run afoul of other laws that don’t exist today. In addition to studying your own family records, examine the history of the area where your family lived.
Look for records from the Census, military records, the Social Security Death Index, cemetery records, church directories, court and land records, and even school records. You may also find government records on voting, birth, marriage and death. Black families may also have success with Underground Railroad and Freedman’s Bureau records.
Once your lineage goes back to slaves, research gets challenging. First, you need to properly identify a potential owner. One clue may be your ancestor’s last name, but keep in mind that only about 15% of freed slaves took their last owner’s name. Some chose other surnames, such as people they admired. During the 1930s, the WPA Writers Project compiled more than 3,500 interviews with former slaves.
You can read many of these narratives online or in part of other works for an idea of what life would’ve been like for your ancestors.
Margaret and Matilda Peters
Before Venus and Serena Williams came Margaret and Matilda Roumania Peters. The sisters grew up in Washington, D.C., and were nicknamed Pete and Repeat for their doubles tennis skills.
Margaret was born in 1915 and Matilda was born in 1917. They began playing tennis for fun as children in a park across from the family home. In high school, the sisters were offered a tennis scholarship from Tuskegee Institute’s Cleve Abbott. The sisters also played basketball in addition to doubles tennis and graduated in 1941 with degrees in physical education.
After graduation, the sisters continued to play amateur tennis in the American Tennis Association, created in 1916 to organize Black tennis clubs and provide competition for Black players. The Peters paid for their own equipment, fees and travel and were never compensated for their playing. They were known for their slice serves and strong backhands. The sisters won 14 ATA doubles tennis titles between 1938-1953, playing for celebrities and royalty. The Peters sisters never played against white doubles teams as tennis wasn’t desegregated until they were past their playing prime.
Margaret moved to New York City, earning a master’s degree in physical education from New York University. Afterward, she returned to Washington, D.C., and worked as a special education teacher, earning a second master’s degree in special education from Coppin State College in Baltimore. She died in 2004.
Unlike Margaret, Matilda also played singles tennis, winning national singles titles in 1944 and 1946. She also received a master’s degree in physical education from NYU and married James Walker in 1957. They had two children, Frances Della and James George. Matilda taught at Howard University and in the Washington, D.C., Public School System, and also taught tennis to underprivileged children through the District of Columbia Department of Recreation. She died in 2003.
In 1977, the Peters sisters were inducted into the Tuskegee Hall of Fame and, in 2003, they were given an achievement award by the United States Tennis Association and inducted into the USTA Mid-Atlantic Section Hall of Fame.