Enslaved children, trauma, and “American Family Values:” A Recap of the 2021 Southern’s SAWH Keynote

Enslaved children, trauma, and “American Family Values:” A Recap of the 2021 Southern’s SAWH Keynote

Though attendees lamented their inability to meet up for drinks afterward, the Southern Association for Women Historians’ annual keynote remained an illuminating and fascinating event. Judith Giesberg’s address “‘I desire some information about my mother’: Henry Tibbs’ Search for His Mother and What It Can Tell Us about How Slavery Shaped American Family Values” raised important, if heartbreaking, questions about slavery, child-trafficking, and trauma with the use of digital archives.

Giesberg is the director of the Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery, a digital archive of over 4,300 advertisements and letters that attempted to reunite Black families forcibly separated by slavery. Drawing on this archive, the digital humanities project reveals that these reunification attempts extended beyond the traditional patriarchal nuclear family. Many documents contain friends and grandparents searching for loved ones. It also shines light on a devastating fact: 46% of the database’s documents mention a mother, which indicates what Giesberg called a “routine and casual removal” of mothers from children. In fact, if historian Michael Tadman’s estimates are correct, one in three enslaved children under the age of 14 lost a parent to long distance sales. If one million slaves were sold, then 50,000 children were sold through the domestic slave trade, many of whom were sold alone. Thus, Giesberg showed, the story of U.S. slavery is the story of child trafficking in her captivating keynote address.

Henry Tibbs’ story took center stage in Giesberg’s keynote for what it revealed about childhood trauma and memory production. Tibbs’ wartime and postwar life can be traced through archival records: he rose to corporal during the Civil War and survived the horrors of the Fort Pillow Massacre, settling in Yazoo, Mississippi after the war. It was during this period that he began looking for his mother Hannah. On December 11, 1879, the Southwestern Christian Advocate in New Orleans published his request for information.

Newspaper text of ad
“Henry Tibbs searching for his mother Hannah,” Southwestern Christian Advocate (New Orleans, LA), December 11, 1879, Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery, accessed December 16, 2021, https://informationwanted.org/items/show/1400

Henry Tibbs’ letter to the editor in search of Hannah detailed the traumatic story of his last meeting with his mother. Jailed by a slave trader to await his sale, the young Tibbs wept to the extent that the trader “told me if I would hush he would bring my mother there next morning, which he did.” When Hannah arrived, the trader cruelly forced her to choose Henry from a lineup. Hannah quickly and successfully identified her son and gave him “some cake and candy.” This, Henry Tibbs remembers, was “the last time I saw her” before he was sold, alone, from Virginia to Louisiana.

Tibbs provided as much information about his age and the names of enslavers and slave traders as possible; neither the names nor the dates were accurate. Giesberg discovered more likely matches due to geographical location and phonetically similar names from sources outside of Last Seen. She explained that reading and writing was illegal under slavery and thus the letter writers likely never saw their names in writing and relied upon their auditory memory instead. Furthermore, Tibbs was a young boy when he was sold and thus far removed from the event, which is why, Giesberg reasoned, many of his details were likely inaccurate. Giesberg was able to roughly approximate the year due to Henry’s details about his mother.

The gaps in Tibbs’ memory, Giesberg argued, are not only due to the significant passage of time but also the effects of trauma on a young child’s mind. Today we know that children often forget details of memories made during traumatic events but do not forget the trauma itself. Even if the memory is retained, trauma literally reshapes the brain, causing children to age more quickly or miss developmental milestones. This extremely traumatic experience of child trafficking and abuse affected, through the domestic slave trade in the U.S., roughly 50,000 children. What did this do to their memories and brain development? How did this hinder their ability to reunite with their beloved family members? Only 100 documents in the Last Seen digital archive recount a successful reunion. This does not necessarily mean that these are the only success stories, as some might simply not have been announced, but it does reveal the difficulties in recalling an event long past with enough accuracy to successfully locate a loved one.[1]

In the antebellum period, white abolitionists in the U.S. North often emphasized the depravity of the separation of enslaved families as evidence of the moral evils of slavery. Why, then, Giesberg asked, was this topic quickly dropped after the war by white Americans? Giesberg pointed to the romantic reunions and reconciliations occurring at the end of Reconstruction between white northerners and southerners in which they “came together as a nation” and thus abandoned Black southerners to the violence of Jim Crow. White publications celebrated the nuclear, child-centric family structure, obfuscating the attempts of freedpeople to reunite with loved ones and undo decades’ worth of trafficking. Giesberg argued that this timing was deliberate. The Black presses and their “Dear Editor” pieces presented a counternarrative to remind America that the “structural exercise in child abuse” of the domestic slave trade could not be resolved in a single generation.

Giesberg’s presentation was a masterclass in utilizing documents that are often unreliable to create stories that may remain forever incomplete, but no less significant. Despite these discrepancies, like Tibbs’ inability to recall the precise date and names of his abusers, Giesberg was able to provide an educated guess that allowed her to continue telling his story. The accessibility of this digital archive allows other historians, regardless of institutional access, to recreate similar stories. Giesberg’s use of the Last Seen database reveals how we can use these advertisements to understand how child abuse and cultural violence shaped America. In fact, Giesberg argued in the ensuing Q&A, family separations, such as those occurring at the United States-Mexico border and through ICE raids, are still central to the American story.

[1] These findings support Heather Andrea Williams’ work with the same advertisements. See Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2012). Chapter 5, Information Wanted: The Search for Family After Emancipation; and Chapter 6, Happiness Too Deep for Utterance: Reunification of Families are of particular interest.

Melissa DeVelvis

Melissa DeVelvis is an Assistant Professor of History at Augusta University in Augusta, Georgia. She specializes in the nineteenth-century U.S. South, Civil War Era, and women and gender studies. Her book, Gendering Secession: White Women and Politics in South Carolina, 1859-1861, is under contract with Cambridge University Press. Follow her on Twitter at @develvishist.

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