Char Bah's search for her ancestors began at the Cross Roads Baptist Church in rural southern
Virginia. Char's family helped form the church in 1871, just six years after being freed from
slavery. In tracing slave ancestors, African-Americans are challenged by a lack of records.
Slaves often took the surnames of their owners, which could change when they were sold, and
many documents were destroyed in the Civil War. Char knew the odds were against her finding
anything at all. She began by recording oral histories with family members from different lines.
Memories of older relatives, like her distant cousin Lazarus Bates, helped Char leap frog back
into the 19th century and provided names and details that would come in handy later on.
Oral histories also help bring the past to life, as happened when Lazarus relayed to her this story
about his grandfather: "And I went to my grandmother's house and she was dressing grandpa. I
could see just scars all over his back. Whips, you know? And I asked my grandmother, I said
'Grandma, what is wrong with grandpa's back?' And she said, 'Slavery son, slavery son, slavery
son.' That's all she said to me." Char had a wealth of stories, but she wanted facts to confirm
them. The paper trail started back at the church cemetery, at a funeral in 1964 for Char's uncle,
Felix Scott, and his daughter who both died in a tragic drowning accident. People who attended
the funeral signed a register and that was handed down to Char when she started researching her
Char decided to pick her mother's line and try to
get back as far as she could. She knew her grandparents, Jessie and Kate Scott, but the
register provided a name she did not know: Jessie's father Clave - her great-grandfather. Char
went to the Halifax County Courthouse looking for records on Clave Scott. Eventually, she
realized that Clave was not his given name, but Claiborne. Then she was able to locate
Claiborne's marriage license from 1878, which gave his age as 21. This put his birth date
around 1857, eight years before the end of slavery. It also gave her the names of Claiborne's
parents - Jessie and Oney. With this information, Char could enter the world of the slave
period. The next step was to look for Claiborne on an Old Slave Birth Record using Scott as
the last name for any owner.
At the Library of Virginia, Char continued her search. She was lucky because in Virginia,
unlike in other slave states, many owners reported slave births, sometimes naming both
mother and child. Under an owner named Martha Scott was listed a slave named Leony, or Oney,
and in 1857 the birth of Oney's son, Claiborne. Back at the courthouse, Char looked for a will
that showed Martha Scott inheriting anything. In 1851 her husband had died, and his will
gave his wife Martha $1000 and his slaves. An inventory attached to the will itemized William
Scott's property, including household objects, livestock, and slaves listed by name. There,
Char found her great-great grandmother Oney, who was listed as being worth $600, and her
great-great-grandfather Jessie, worth $200. "In finding this document I was very excited;
this was my very first slave owner I found on my people. It was also sad that it was a price
put on my people at that time. But I looked at it as a stepping stone because now I am beyond
a wall I thought I might never be able to get beyond."
After this breakthrough, Char went on to research other branches of her family tree, turning up
more slaves and owners going back to the early 1800s. One of her biggest challenges has been to
track the surname changes that often occurred when a slave was sold to a new owner. As of last
count she had documented a staggering 92 surnames used in the family over the last two centuries.
In the course of her research, Char learned much about the plantations of Halifax County. She
was even able to visit a surviving slave cabin her ancestors likely built and lived in.
"I feel very fortunate to be able to enter part of their world. Genealogy allowed me to be
able to step into the past and to feel what they had gone through, and to know that they
tried tremendously to survive. To be able to know who my ancestry is, is not to bring shame
to what they were; it is to elevate them to what they made possible for the generations after
Char began by recording oral histories with older
A register from a funeral
provided a clue to Char's family history
Char found Clave's marriage record at the
Char found a will, listing
the names and prices placed on her great-great grandparents
A slave cabin likely built by Char's ancestors.