Monday, 4 June 2012

Black History and Black Holes of Information

Levi Carroll continues to be a fascinating character-- especially in the month of February. 

Once a year, in honour of Black History Month, local newspapers are known to pay tribute to Levi as the former slave who lived for an extended period of time in the 1820 log schoolhouse at a time when it found new life in a new location where it was re-purposed as a family residence. More often than not, the one known photograph of Levi and his family accompanies said articles. Perhaps more poignantly, however, few facts about this gentleman are actually mentioned and are usually punctuated by a caveat that “little is known” about him (or other early black settlers to the area—especially those who lived in the Waterloo Region during the 19th century).

This particular story ALWAYS has tugged at my heartstrings--- that a man could be discussed, annually, as a historic icon for local Black History and yet few actual details of his life were ever included in the newspaper accounts. To me, it seemed that Levi was a man “without a story” in that his only claim to fame seemed to be that he had been some former slave who had lived in a well recognized regional historic building. It seemed flat, not personal—like the history we didn’t like as children where you memorized a bunch of dates, names and facts and then regurgitated them for tests. The humanity always seemed to be missing—as in, who were these people and how did they REALLY live their daily lives? 

 As an academic and trained researcher, this just wasn’t good enough for me so I went on a search---one that has taken me over five years now—to uncover as much as I could about the log schoolhouse so I could tell its story--a biography of the schoolhouse, so to speak. In so doing, it wasn’t long before I became captivated by Levi Carroll and began to follow the threads of his story, too. Yes, records are scattered here and there but if you know (or can guess) where to look you would be amazed at what some patience and a little time can yield in the way of solid information. Yes, it is true that names are often misspelled, dates may not correspond and people disappear in subsequent records (either die, marry and change names or leave the area) but if you are diligent, there are records that do exist even if they are not complete. 

Some cultures are excellent record keepers whereas others--not so much. In the case of black history, especially slave history, records are very difficult to track down. More often than not, only one name may exist for a slave in a ledger book of accounts--such as a first name or nickname--or perhaps, as was most common, the slave may have the owner's last name and be listed as "chattel" that may be sold or transferred upon the death of the owner to his heirs. For the early African slaves, many names were changed once they were sold ("Christianized" by traders or owners) whereby their original African tribal names disappeared. Record keeping regarding black slaves, then, until regular census-taking occurred in the mid-1800's, was more individualized and were usually found in bills of sale or transfer, wills, ledgers, etc. Sometimes, however, other means of gathering information can be quite fruitful, if nonetheless unconventional: legal interactions--e.g. arrests, etc.--are often reported in newspapers of the time.  Other times, church records can be of use. It just depends.

Throughout this project, I have had the pleasure to make the acquaintance of fellow history sleuths (many of whom are academics like myself—others are heritage professionals, archivists, librarians, genealogists, historians and even museum researchers).  I have often received as much information as I have tried to share.  Facts continue to be discovered as new leads are followed but the best part is that I can now tell you some of Levi’s story as I have come to know him.

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