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In the 1880s, Edward Taylor contacted the editors of a weekly black newspaper in New Orleans. Born a slave, he had fought in the civil war and settled as a blacksmith when freedom came. He had a wife, six children and his own plot of land in a community near a winding stream known as the Bayou Maringouin.
But mr. Taylor never forgot what he had lost during his decades in slavery. So he placed an ad in the Southwestern Christian Advocate. “I want to inform for my people,” he wrote.
Mr. Taylor was about 11 when he was sold to 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 fear of that forced separation. He joined thousands of black people who posted in local newspapers in hopes of finding relatives after emancipation. There is no record that he ever received a response.
More than a century later, the descendants of Mr. Taylor and two genealogists use the information in his ad to reunite his family, one of several black families shattered by the American slave trade. I’m sharing his story with you because I think someone out there may have the missing clues that could finally bring the Taylors back together.
In recent years, historians have digitized a large number of advertisements, appearing in more than 260 newspapers, offering a rare glimpse of the ambitions of the newly emancipated and an invaluable online resource for black families searching for their ancestors.
Black people across the country were determined to restore families devastated by slavery, and the ads reflected their “extraordinary will to keep seeking each other despite all odds,” said Judith Giesberg, a historian at Villanova University and its director. from an archive entitled Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery, a digital collection of more than 4,500 of the advertisements.
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 she was unlikely to find anything they’d written. Enslaved people were usually barred from learning to read and write by law. So finding his words in the paper, she said, felt “overwhelming and emotional.”
“You have placed me here for a reason at this point so that I can complete this process of reuniting our family,” she said, describing her prayers for guidance in her quest. See, it would be a sense of completion to put those pieces in place, to bring our family back together.”
Mr. Taylor placed the first ad for his siblings in 1885. He placed a second in 1889, which included his parents, who escaped slavery in 1842 but were unable to save their children. (Mr Taylor’s older brother’s name is spelled Revida in one ad and Reverda in the other.)
“My father’s name was Moses Taylor, my mother’s Eliza,” wrote Mr. Taylor. “When I last saw them,” he said, they were in Prince George’s County, Maryland. They were all divorced ‘long before the war’.
The number of people who eventually found their relatives through the ads remains unknown, said Dr. Giesberg. So far, she has found 92 posts describing successfully reunited families.
Mr Taylor died in 1902 and the memory of his story faded as the generations passed and his descendants dispersed.
The Taylor family was one of hundreds of thousands dragged into the American domestic slave trade. According to Joshua D. Rothman, a historian at the University of Alabama, between 1800 and 1860, about a million enslaved people were forcibly relocated from states such as Maryland and Virginia in the High South to the cotton and cane plantations in the Deep South.
Husbands were snatched from their wives, mothers from their children, brothers from their sisters. Historian Michael Tadman estimates that domestic trade split about a third of first marriages in the Higher 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 the 272 people sold by Jesuit priests in 1838 to raise money to save the college we now know as Georgetown University, a story I’ve reported since 2016. (Mr. Taylor’s sister, Charlotte, was born after the sale, and his father was enslaved by another man.) Mr. Taylor first ended up with a new owner in Maryland , but was sold again and sent to New Orleans aboard a slave ship in 1846.
Exactly 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 the American Colored Troops, a unit commended for its bravery in the storming of Port Hudson, a highly fortified Confederate stronghold in 1863. Mr. Taylor took a bullet in the thigh during a battle, but survived and was honorably discharged in 1865, his military retirement records show.
By the 1880s, he had made his way to Iberville Parish, where dozens of people enslaved by the Jesuits had ended up. By then, hundreds of black people across the country were posting ads.
“Dear editor,” wrote a man in Holly Springs, Miss., in July 1880, “I want to inquire about my father, Thomas Duncan, who was sent to Texas during the war.”
Four years later, a woman in Brenham, Texas, who had been sold, placed an ad 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 TSWT test earlier this year, she had no idea that 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 results of the test shocked her: They showed a link to descendants of the Maryland families sold to save Georgetown. So she emailed the historian who runs the Georgetown Slavery Archive, Adam Rothman.
dr. Rothman had heard about the Taylor ads from Richard J. Cellini, the founder of the Georgetown Memory Project, an independent nonprofit dedicated to tracing the descendants of the people enslaved by the Jesuits. The project’s lead genealogist, Judy Riffel, discovered the entries in the online Lost Friends database, which is operated by the Historic New Orleans Collection, a museum, research center and publisher.
dr. Rothman told Ms. Kujichagulia-Seitu about her 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 still go to his grave looking for family?”
Ms. Riffel and Malissa Ruffner, the genealogists of the Georgetown Memory Project, have followed the family’s trail and studied dozens of archival records. They found a Reverdy Taylor in Baltimore in 1900—and other Taylors with similar first names in Maryland and Louisiana—and found a woman named Charlotte who ended up in Mississippi.
Charlotte was married to Creer Rayborn, who was enslaved by a man named Mark Rayborn. TSWT tests show a link between Mr. Taylor and the descendants of Charlotte Rayborn, a promising lead. But so far there is no evidence linking Charlotte Rayborn to Mr. Taylor.
Mrs. Kujichagulia-Seitu hopes someone has a missing link somewhere.
“I pray for it,” she said, directing her research to Reverdy Taylor, who is notable for his unusual first name. “If we can find him, that might be the missing piece of the puzzle.”
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