I didn’t attend my family reunion this year. Lucky for me, I got to hang out for an hour or so on Saturday with some members of the Blackwell family, originally from Lunenburg County, Va., who were hosting a reunion at the Hilton Charlotte University Place.
What’s interesting about the Blackwells is that, unlike most black families in the United States, they can trace a branch of their ancestry all the way back to Mother Africa…in 1735. In fact, in one of the hotel’s ballrooms, they proudly displayed a large canvas with a family tree that contained hundreds of branches and more than 5,000 names.
The tree is the work of a now-departed cousin, Thelma Short Doswell, who began tracing the Blackwell genealogy as part of her master’s thesis in 1953 after she retired as a special education teacher in Washington, D.C. She later became a certified genealogist.
Paul Blackwell Jr. of Clinton, Md., the family’s current historian, correctly noted that when Doswell did her work, there was no such thing as the Internet or Ancestry.com.
“She was researching with microfiche,” he said. “She actually went and looked at manifests of slave ships. She looked at wills and estates of plantation owners in the 1700s and 1800s.”
Over the years, Doswell put together three versions of the Blackwell family tree, each larger and more comprehensive than its predecessor. According to family members, her second tree is now in the possession of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African-American History & Culture in Baltimore.
In 1977, Doswell was featured in an Ebony magazine article on genealogy, along with “Roots” author Alex Haley and others. Family members said Doswell gave Haley an assist when he needed help tracing his own ancestry. They also tell the story of Haley standing in Doswell’s home, looking at her impressive family tree, and uttering the words “roots.”
So where did the Blackwell family get its start in America.
According to Doswell’s research and the family tree, in 1735 a slave ship called the Dottington sailed out of Goree Island in what is now modern-day Senegal in West Africa with a final destination of Yorktown, Va. Aboard that ship as human cargo was a woman named Ama (or Amar), a member of the Soninke tribe.
“The family legend is that she left Africa with 10 children, but only her and one child (Tabitha) made it,” Blackwell said.
In Yorktown, Ama was sold to a tobacco farmer named James Glenn Blackwell, who took her to work on a plantation in Lunenburg County, near the North Carolina border.
“And that was the beginning of the Blackwells as we know them as African Americans,” Blackwell said.
As for daughter Tabitha, he said, she later married an enslaved man named Jack, a member of the Ashanti tribe who also had been brought to the United States in the 1700s.
Blackwell family members said Doswell’s initial research traced family members to more than 30 states and several countries. Her later efforts traced the family’s lineage to a branch shared by tennis great Arthur Ashe.
Paul Blackwell said the tree has become such a treasure that family members are now exploring ways to update and digitize the data so that the family’s geneology can be easily shared online.
“What the tree means is that we have a root,” he said. “We know that we did not just show up in America when we were born. We have an ancestry that goes back to Africa and beyond.”
As I stood there looking at the Blackwell tree, I couldn’t help but be impressed. Of all the many tragedies of American slavery, perhaps the greatest was our loss of history. It was uplifting to see that at least one family has been able to reach back and reclaim it.