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In the 1880s, Edward Taylor contacted the editors of a black weekly newspaper in New Orleans. Born into slavery, he had fought in the Civil War and established himself as a blacksmith when freedom came. He had a wife, six children, and his own plot of land in a community near a meandering creek known as Bayou Maringouin.
But Mr. Taylor never forgot what he had lost during his decades of servitude. So he placed an ad in the Southwestern Christian Advocate. “I wish to inquire for my people,” he wrote.
Mr. Taylor was around 11 when he was sold by his sister and three brothers in Maryland and sent to Louisiana. As a middle-aged man, he still remembered their names – Charlotte, Noble, William and Reverda — and the anguish of this forced separation. He joined thousands of black people who posted notices in local newspapers hoping to find relatives after emancipation. There is no record that he ever received a response.
More than a century later, Mr. Taylor’s descendants and two genealogists are using the information in his ad to try to reunite his family, one of many black families split up by the American slave trade. I’m sharing her story with you because I believe someone might have the missing clues that could finally bring the Taylors together.
In recent years, historians have digitized a wealth of advertisements, which appeared in more than 260 newspapers, offering rare insight into the aspirations of the newly emancipated and an invaluable online resource for black families researching their ancestry.
Black people across the country were determined to rebuild families broken apart by slavery, and the ads reflected their “extraordinary will to keep looking for themselves, despite all odds,” said Judith Giesberg, a historian at Villanova University. and director of an archive titled Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery, a digital collection of over 4,500 listings.
Mr Taylor’s great-great-great-granddaughter, Taiwo Kujichagulia-Seitu, learned of the advertisements in May. She had hoped to learn more about her enslaved ancestors, but thought it unlikely that she would find everything they had written. Slaves were generally prohibited by law from learning to read and write. So finding her words in the diary, she said, was “crushing and moving.”
“You placed me here at this time for a reason, so that I could complete this process of reuniting our family,” she said, describing her prayers for guidance in her search. “Even if he’s not here to see it, it would be a sense of accomplishment to put those pieces in place, to put our family back together.”
Mr Taylor placed the first advert looking for his siblings in 1885. He placed a second in 1889, which included his parents, who managed to escape slavery in 1842 but were unable to save their children. (Mr. Taylor’s older brother’s name is spelled Revida in one advertisement and Reverda in another.)
“My father’s name was Moses Taylor, my mother’s Eliza,” Mr Taylor wrote. “The last time I saw them,” he said, they were in Prince George’s County, Maryland. They were all separated “long before the war”.
The number of people who were eventually reunited with loved ones through the ads remains unknown, Dr. Giesberg said. So far, she has found 92 reviews describing successfully reunited families.
Mr. Taylor died in 1902 and the memory of his story has faded over the generations and the dispersal of his descendants.
The Taylor family was among the hundreds of thousands taken away by the American domestic slave trade. Between 1800 and 1860, approximately one million slaves were forcibly moved from states like Maryland and Virginia in the Upper South to cotton and sugar cane plantations in the Deep South, according to Joshua D. Rothman, historian at the University of Alabama.
Husbands have been torn from their wives, mothers from their children, brothers from their sisters. Historian Michael Tadman has estimated that internal trade separated about a third of first marriages in the Upper South and separated nearly half of all children in the region from at least one parent.
I came across this story because Mr Taylor, his mother and three of his siblings were among 272 sold by Jesuit priests in 1838 to raise money to save the college we now know as Georgetown University, a story I reported. since 2016. (Mr. Taylor’s sister, Charlotte, was born after the sale and her father was enslaved by another man.) Mr. Taylor first found himself with a new owner in Maryland, but was resold and sent to New Orleans. aboard a slave ship in 1846.
The exact location where he spent his early decades in Louisiana remains unknown. But he enlisted in the Union Army as a member of Company E of the 75th Regiment of American Colored Troops, a unit praised for its bravery in capturing Port Hudson, a heavily fortified Confederate stronghold. in 1863. Mr. Taylor was shot in the thigh in battle, but he survived and was honorably discharged in 1865, according to his military pension records.
By the 1880s he had found his way to the parish of Iberville, where dozens of people enslaved by the Jesuits had ended up. At that time, hundreds of black people across the country were placing ads.
“Dear Editor,” a man from Holly Springs, Mississippi, wrote in July 1880: “I wish to inquire about my father, Thomas Duncan, who was sent to Texas during the war.
Four years later, a Brenham, Texas woman who had been sold placed an ad looking for her son. “His name was Absalom,” she wrote. “When I left him, he was three years old.”
When Ms Kujichagulia-Seitu decided to take a DNA test earlier this year, she had no idea her ancestors had roots in Maryland. She was born in Oakland, California. All she knew was that her grandparents and their families were from Louisiana.
The test results shocked her: they showed a connection to the descendants of the Maryland families who had been sold off to save Georgetown. So she emailed the historian who runs the Georgetown Slavery Archives, Adam Rothman.
Dr. Rothman had heard about the Taylor ads from Richard J. Cellini, the founder of the Georgetown Memory Project, an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to tracing the descendants of those enslaved by the Jesuits. The project’s lead genealogist, Judy Riffel, discovered the notices in the Lost Friends online database, which is maintained by the Historic New Orleans Collection, a museum, research center and publisher.
Dr Rothman spoke to Ms Kujichagulia-Seitu about her great-great-great-grandfather’s advertisements.
“It was heartbreaking,” said Ms. Kujichagulia-Seitu, a performing arts teacher who incorporates African American history into her work. “Did he go to his grave still looking for his family?”
Ms. Riffel and Malissa Ruffner, genealogists at the Georgetown Memory Project, followed the family’s trail, poring over dozens of archival documents. They found a Reverdy Taylor in Baltimore in 1900—and other Taylors with similar first names in Maryland and Louisiana—and located a woman named Charlotte who ended up in Mississippi.
Charlotte was married to Creer Rayborn, who was enslaved by a man named Mark Rayborn. DNA tests show a link between the descendants of Mr. Taylor and the descendants of Charlotte Rayborn, a promising lead. But so far there is no documentary evidence linking Charlotte Rayborn to Mr Taylor’s family.
Ms. Kujichagulia-Seitu hopes that someone, somewhere, has a missing link.
“I’m praying about it,” she said, as she focused her research on Reverdy Taylor, who stands out for his unusual first name. “If we can find it, that might be the missing piece of the puzzle.”
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