In March 2008, I was 13 when my dad and I watched the TV miniseries “Roots,” which follows the fictional story of a man born in 18th century Gambia who is sold as a slave in America, and the many generations who come after him.
It inspired me to ask questions about my own family’s past. Suddenly I started searching online, interviewing older relatives, and exploring libraries and archives. Surprisingly, more than half of Americans can’t name all four of their own grandparents, and over 20% of black Americans have never looked into their family tree. But, as a result of my research, not only can I name all of mine, I can trace my family tree straight back to the 1790s.
I also discovered something crucial that contrasts sharply with what many African Americans are taught about our history. As students, black people are repeatedly told that we all descend from slavery, and that we all were (and only were) slaves. Most people assume that every black American who lived in the US before 1870 was a slave.
That is simply not true.
In 1860, three years before the Emancipation Proclamation, The United States Federal Census Schedule reported 488,070 free black Americans. True, many might say quasi-free, since these African Americans could not vote. But free they still were — almost half a million of them — roughly 12.5% of the entire African-American population at that time.
Huldah Peck, my great-great-great-great-grandmother — on my father’s side — was born free in Greenwich, Conn., in 1836. Her parents, George Peck, a stonemason and Nancy Felmetta, were also free; as were Nancy’s parents, York and Tamar, the latter born in 1773, three years before the US Revolution. It’s striking to think that my father’s ancestors were free for nearly a century before the Civil War.
While most of my mother’s family were enslaved on South Carolina plantations at this time, learning about this other side — this free side — made me realize that slavery does not fully define my past.
Huldah’s children also illustrate the importance of self-reliance and entrepreneurship in my family. Her son Edward B. Merritt, born in 1871, worked in real estate at a time when the majority of blacks in much of the nation labored as farmers or domestics. His son, John Sherman Merritt, was a homeowner in Greenwich, Conn., who worked four jobs to support his young family. John’s daughter, Adele Matilda Merritt, enjoyed a privileged Greenwich childhood complete with charm school, a penchant for photography, and later- international travel. And Adele’s daughter — my grandmother, Joyce Marie Watkins — was a small business owner who settled in Yonkers, NY.
Black children grow up believing that their only history is a history of slavery. Nikole Hannah-Jones and The New York Times’s 1619 Project, argued that America’s entire history is founded on slavery. The truth is more complicated, interesting, and nuanced than that.
Researching my family’s past has given me a sense of belonging to this nation. I am part of the large story of striving and success that has built the American dream. All this has empowered me to walk with my head held high, and I hope it inspires others to look beyond the stock narratives of the present and find their own lessons from the past.
For me, Huldah’s 100-year-old headstone in Rye Brook, NY, will forever serve as a reminder of her unique status and history — a history I am proud to call my own.
Dennis Richmond Jr. is a journalist and the author of “He Spoke at My School: An Educational Journey.” He is the founder of The New York-New Jersey HBCU Initiative. Follow him on social media @NewYorkStakz.