New Orleans, LA – What would you do if you couldn't trace your ancestry? For the tens of millions of Americans descended from slaves, that question is a powerful one that gets at the personal legacy of slavery. The Archdiocese of New Orleans recently announced its contribution to uncovering these personal ties and the history surrounding them. The sacramental records for slaves and free people of color - big, leather-bound tomes with crackly paper flowing scripts - were only available to a few select researchers. Now these documents will be online so that anyone can look at them.
Professor Emily Clark teaches at Tulane University. She described the world these records come from.
EC: "The Catholic church in New Orleans in the colonial period was a Black church. People of African descent, enslaved and free, they were the people who embraced the church."
For genealogists, the Archdiocese's trove is about as exciting as things get. While the term "Creole" is often associated with people of mixed race, it originally meant someone born in the New World. Nowadays, there are Blacks and Whites who consider themselves Creoles. Cedric Ellsworth is the Vice President of the Creole Research Association of Louisiana.
CE: "For a genealogist it's like discovering a key that opens a slight door to the past. That key allows you to get a shovel to dig a little bit more."
The records include baptism, marriage and burial, the sacraments. These ceremonies mark life's passages, and by recording these events for slaves and free people of color, the records offer clues about individuals and society.
Bliss Broyard is the Author of One Drop: My Father's Hidden Life. A Story of Race and Family Secrets.
BB: "The sacramental records that actually allowed me to figure out who belonged to who and also to identify the circle of friends because the god parents were usually listed or who was in attendance at the various sacraments. So that was a way to really identify a family within the larger culture of Creoles in New Orleans."
Broyard isn't the only person using the records to trace her family. Jari Honore' is a remarkable young man. A 19-year old student at Tulane University and a native New Orleanian, Honore' has been studying genealogy since he was 11. He also gives lectures about how to use sacramental records to do research and has published a book about his family. Honore' agreed to let me observe while he searched the newly posted records for his own relations.
JH: "Within the parish of St. John the Baptist, was solemnly baptised, A little negro girl, daughter of Ositte. Father unknown...."
But there's more:
JH: "My sixth-grade grandmother was also an Ositte."
But there's more than just a possible family connection here.
JH: "It's interesting that this record says fahter "unknown". Usually, when it says that, the father was known. That information would be omitted entirely. But if the time is taken to clearly unknown, the child was probably born ot a White father."
The current Archbishop of New Orleans is a native of Louisiana. Honore says that the understanding of the community that came from growing up here, prompted the Archbishop to make the records available. Over the next two years, the Archdiocese intends to put all its registers from 1718 to 1812 online, in honor of the anniversary of Louisiana's statehood. You can see the records here.