A Will Book from the 1850s provides information that could be useful for someone researching their slave ancestry. It at least provides names, which may be the missing link for someone.
THEIR NAMES NEED TO BE SAID
By Jennifer Maier
Executive Director, Shelby County Museum & Archives
Some years back, maybe four or five, I had the chance to talk to Albert Baker Datcher, Jr. (who goes by Peter) about why he started researching his family's history. Peter is a member of the Shelby County Historical Society’s Board of Directors. From what I knew of him at the time, he was considered one of the preeminent authorities on black history in Shelby County.
During our conversation, he said something to me that I will never forget. He said, “We honor our ancestors when we speak their names.”
Speak their names. It seems so simple, yet I could tell from the look in his eyes that it wasn’t as simple as one might think. It took me some time to get to know Peter and understand what motivated him to reach back in time and piece together his family’s slave history.
"Their names need to be said, especially those that made it out of slavery. Black history is generally not known."
I asked Peter if he would come to the museum to do a video interview with me. He obliged, and we spent the afternoon talking in the upstairs courtroom. Even though two video cameras were filming our talk, the conversation flowed freely. I didn't need to ask many questions. Anyone who knows Peter can tell you that once he starts talking, he can go for hours. And I mean that in a good way, not a critical way. For someone who enjoys history, listening to Peter speak about a subject is a golden opportunity. I didn't dare interrupt him.
"Their names need to be said, especially those that made it out of slavery. Black history is generally not known,” Peter said.
I can attest to the fact that black history is hard to trace back very far. I’ve had the chance to help black people research their family history, and the roadblocks are many.
While researching his own family, Peter learned that census records were a goldmine of information, especially the 1880 census, which revealed more than prior censuses.
“I didn’t realize that the 1880 Census was so important. The 1870 census says, “I was born in Alabama,” or ‘I was born in Maryland,’ or ‘I was born in Georgia.’ When you come to the 1880 Census, they say that not only about themselves, they say ‘my father or my mother was born in South Carolina.’ That means multiple generations, Peter said. “Depending on their age, that person died enslaved. That person worked until they died enslaved.”
It wasn’t until Peter reached the age of 50 that he first reflected on the long history of his slave ancestors. His great-grandparents, Albert and Lucy Baker, were slaves in Harpersville. When slavery ended, Albert Baker purchased 100 acres of land from Dr. W.R Singleton.
Peter recalled a story his mother told him about two elderly white women who showed up on her doorstep around 1956 or 1957 when Peter was a young boy. One of the ladies said they were looking for the descendants of Albert Baker.
“We want to know if y’all still have the land that Dr. W.R. Singleton sold Albert Baker?” one of the ladies asked. Peter’s mother confirmed that they still had the land and the original deed to the 100 acres and that Albert’s daughter still lived on the land.
The women went to screaming and hollering. “Oh, Lord Jesus. . .Oh, Lord Jesus.” Their reaction scared Peter’s mother at first, but the ladies quickly reassured her that they were not upset, so she invited them in to sit down.
The ladies explained that they were the granddaughters of Dr. W.R. Singleton, who originally sold the land to Albert Baker after Albert
An image of a Will Book located at the Shelby County Museum & Archives illustrates how slavery limits a black person's ability to discover who they are. Here, '1 Negro Man' and '1 Negro Woman and Child' are listed among the deceased's assets. Their names are not even mentioned, they are lost to time, and their true identities may never be known.
was freed. One of the ladies said, “Our grandfather made us promise him on his death bed, multiple times, that before we died, we’d come back down here and visit and find out if Albert Baker had kept the land."
Peter’s mother said, “Yeah, we’ve still got the land. Why would he do that?” The ladies revealed that their grandfather, Dr. W.R. Singleton was best friends with Albert Baker and described Albert as "the best man he had ever known."
It wasn’t until years later when Peter began researching his ancestry, that he started looking for any record of Albert Baker.
“I was hunting for anybody that could have been our slave owners, but I could not find his slave owners,” Peter explained.
Albert and Lucy Baker, Peter's Great-grandparents, were slaves on separate plantations in Harpersville, Alabama. After Emancipation, Albert and Lucy were married. Albert bought 100 acres from Dr. W.R. Singleton, the son of his former owner. Peter, a retired farmer, still resides on the property purchased by Albert.
Then, one day this past February, Peter visited the Shelby County Museum & Archives to continue his research. At the time of his visit, we were in the final stages of a multi-year slave indexing project. Research Assistant Bruce Cooper, along with Falcon Scholars from the University of Montevallo, looked page by page through all the will books, probate estate files, and loose court records for any mention of slaves. As slaves were found, their information was recorded in the index. Owner’s names, slave’s names, ages, descriptions, and monetary value were recorded. In all, the collection references the names of over 3,000 slaves.
Once we explained to Peter that we were creating a slave index to help black people find their ancestors, he asked us to search for the Singleton name. The opportunity to test our index had finally arrived.
Bruce performed a search function for the name Singleton and up popped 175 matches. One match in particular referenced the 1849-1854 Will Book, along with many slave names that Peter recognized. Bruce pulled the will book from the archive and handed it to Peter to examine. On page 234 were the names that Peter had been looking for.
“I nearly went to crying because there it was,” Peter said. “There was Robert, his wife Rachel [Peter’s great-great-grandparents], their sons Alonzo, Albert and Henry, and John, and Mary. The Lord had set up an answer to my prayers.”
Pictured Left: A search for the Singleton surname not only produced over 175 results in the slave index, but it answered the question of who Albert Datcher's owner was. Pictured Right: An image of page 234 of the 1854-1859 Will Book shows Albert listed among the property of John Albert Singleton.
Bruce Cooper, a research assistant at the Shelby County Museum & Archives, has been instrumental in the creation and organization of the slave index.
Peter Datcher pictured on a tractor on his family's farm in Harpersville, Alabama. Peter has helped document and preserve his family's history going back six generations. Because of his dedication to preserving black history in Shelby County, the Albert Baker Datcher, Jr. Collection is named in his honor.