Antebellum Diaspora Project
The Reunification of American Families Separated by Slavery
In the Antebellum South
Our Shared Story
There are currently 30 million African Americans living in the US today who are directly descended from ancestors who were emancipated in 1865.
As the Transatlantic Slave Trade came to an end, slaveholders and slave traders could no longer legally bring people of African descent into the US with the intent to enslave them. However, with the invention and licensing of the cotton gin and the US government's desire for more territory, the demand for free slave labor never waned. In fact, it exploded, and the US government incentivized slaveholders with free land. Commodified black bodies were moved southerly and westerly in record numbers. By the end of the Civil War, nearly 2.5 million of the 4 million American-born enslaved people living in the US had been forcibly migrated and permanently separated from their families.
Many of the newly emancipated people tried desperately to reunite their families. Some even placed "information wanted" ads in black-owned newspapers across the country looking for the whereabouts of their next of kin. During the years of Reconstruction, the Freedmen’s Bureau aided in the effort to help formerly enslaved people reunite their families, but in 1872, the US Congress, which included many former slaveholders, defunded the Freedmen’s Bureau -- only 7 years after its inception. It was not nearly the time needed to help families that had been forcibly separated for generations to restore their families, and our families have largely remained separated since the antebellum era.
I have researched my own family’s genealogy for more than 15 years, and I was completely shocked and elated to receive a picture of my paternal Great-great-grandmother Laura Adkinson Campbell Singletary, who was born around 1840. I was in awe of just how much my own face resembled hers.
It turned out that G-G Laura, who was enslaved for many years on a farm in Marion County, South Carolina, was actually born in the state of North Carolina. She was one of the millions who had been permanently separated from their families by forced migration through sale, inheritance, migration of slaveholders, being given as gifts, forfeited as collateral, and sometimes exchanged to settle gambling debts. There is no evidence or indication that G-G Laura ever saw her family ever again. Sadly, this massive wave of forced migration affected nearly all back enslaved families between 1810 and 1865, and the contemporary effects of those separations still impact African American communities across the US today.
In 2017, a DNA test revealed my biological connections to tens of thousands of others living in the US resulting from the forced migration of my ancestors. I am one of the 30 million descendants of the ancestors who were emancipated in 1865, and we are inextricably tied to this difficult history and to the descendants of slaveholding families.
I have created the Antebellum Diaspora Project and Podcast to make space for others to share scholarship, oral history, and documentation to help millions of African American families reclaim our history and reunite our families who were separated by slavery in the antebellum South.