Unlocking the Past

updated 09/25/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/25/2000 01:00AM

Poring over records in Louisiana's rural Point Coupee Parish courthouse in 1984, historian Gwendolyn Hall spied something she had rarely seen before. "I was looking at the testimony of slaves and other people involved in the conspiracy in 1795 to overthrow slavery in Louisiana," she says, when she noticed that the papers posed an unusual question. "They asked, 'What is your nation?' " says Hall, still surprised at her discovery. "The slaves would identify their African ethnicity."

To genealogical novices, that might seem an obvious query. But records of the slave trade were often poorly kept or destroyed, sometimes intentionally, effectively separating slaves from their African pasts. In fact, the papers Hall discovered in the dusty basements of parish courthouses may have survived in part because they were written in French and Spanish. In any case, they helped trace the origins of as many as 8,000 slaves. "This," she says, "was quite a find."

Building on her initial discovery, Hall, now 71, spent the next 16 years sifting through archives in Louisiana, Texas, Spain and France and assembling the largest-ever genealogical resource on American slaves. "Databases for the Study of Afro-Louisiana History and Genealogy, 1699-1860," a CD-ROM available at Internet bookstores, provides backgrounds on more than 100,000 slaves. "This is a revolutionary breakthrough in African-American genealogy," says Tony Burroughs, a genealogist at Chicago State University. "It's the most significant publication of its kind since Roots in 1976."

That is certainly true for people like Percy Pierre. A Louisiana native, now a professor of electrical engineering at Michigan State University, he had traced his ancestry back to the early 1800s but couldn't find the origins of those who were first brought to the Mississippi River Delta region. With Hall's CD, he was able to reach back two more generations, learning that his family line began in Mozambique's Maqua tribe. "When I began my search, it was difficult to contemplate the situations faced by my ancestors—there was lots of anger," says Pierre, 61. "There still is, but finding them brings some joy."

Hall's whole life has been about opening closed doors. Born in New Orleans, one of three daughters of a labor and civil rights lawyer and his wife, Hall was radicalized by the segregation she saw as a white woman growing up in the South. "I was always a rebel on the race issue," says Hall, who registered black voters in the 1940s and founded a political action group.

After a failed first marriage to a concert pianist who took her to Paris for several years and fathered her son, Leonid, now 49, Hall returned in 1955 to the U.S., where she married writer Harry Haywood Hall, an African-American Communist. Though they had two children, Haywood, 44, and Rebecca, 37, the couple drifted apart, partly because her husband, who died in 1985, wanted her to help him in his work rather than pursue her own. "His attitude was that nothing I could conceivably do was as important as the [Communist] movement," recalls Hall. Resuming her studies, she earned her doctorate in Latin American history from the University of Michigan in 1970 and went on to teach Caribbean and African-Latin history at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "I thought history could explain why this mess exists, and maybe I can find some way to change it," she says.

Though she is pleased at how well her CD-ROM has been received, Hall was dismayed when reporters in Louisiana used it to show that Gov. Mike Foster's ancestors owned slaves, which he hadn't known. Still, while it may embarrass some families to learn that their forebears owned slaves or were of mixed race, Hall believes in facing facts, not ignoring them. "Colleagues kept telling me not to record all the names," says Hall, retired and living in New Orleans and working on a book titled Africans in the Americas. "But these people were real, alive. I'm a historian. I teach the truth."

Nick Charles
Hilary Hylton in New Orleans and Bob Stewart in San Antonio

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