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Discovering Grief And Freedom In A Family's History Of Slavery

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NPR continues a series of conversations about The Race Card Project, where thousands of people have submitted their thoughts on race and cultural identity in six words. Every so often, NPR Host/Special Correspondent Michele Norris will dip into those six-word stories to explore issues surrounding race and cultural identity for Morning Edition.

The wrenching film 12 Years a Slave, based on true events, re-creates the story of a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the 1840s. The Golden Globe-winning film has prompted an uptick in six-word entries concerning slavery sent to the Race Card Project, particularly from people who have tried to uncover their own family connections to slavery.

For many of those people, like Robert Goins of San Francisco, the search can be difficult — and the discoveries painful.

Goins was researching his ancestors in North Carolina a decade ago when he stumbled upon grief while going through a ledger on microfiche — hence, his six-word submission: "Found my ancestors and grief too."

"I found my great-grandfather's family and some notes held at the North Carolina archives," Goins tells Norris. "The family lived in Belews Creek — and Sauratown." Sauratown, Goins notes, sounds like "sorrow."

In his search, Goins found a ledger containing the name of the overseer of the plantation where the family members were enslaved, he explains. "When I first read it, it looked like 'Grief.' I actually think the overseer's name was 'Greif,' but I could not help but see it as Grief," Goins says.

"Grief is here. Grief will not let me go any further until I acknowledge it. Finding grief stopped me in my tracks," he adds.

Even 10 years later, the discovery still affects him, Goins says. He vividly recalls rolling his fingers across the microfiche image and seeing his ancestors listed among livestock and farm implements. He says he felt like a swimmer who needed to find air.

To get his head back above water, Goins kept digging. He needed to find some stories, he says, "that were not as difficult to handle. ... I needed stories where [my ancestors] were ... autonomous, they were doing things, they were living, they had children, you could see their movement. They weren't put on a place and [told], 'You had to stay here.' "

So Goins dug into another branch of the family, he says. And he found a very different document in "The Order Book," held at the Albemarle County Courthouse in Charlottesville, Va. The book, Norris explains, was akin to a government census used to keep track of free black people in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Goins found a reference there to his great-great-great-grandfather, Michael Goings, who was born in 1805 or 1806 in Albemarle County, Va., and lived as a freeman.

"He was a coal miner, he was a coal hauler. He lived to be 80. He moved from Ohio to Michigan during the runup to the Civil War and moved back to Ohio after the Civil War," Goins explains. "His wife died a few months before he did."

Discovering an ancestor who was born in a state where 90 percent of black people were enslaved — and who nevertheless managed to obtain his freedom — meant everything to Goins, Norris explains. "The fact that he worked and earned wages — that finally made him feel like his head was above water," she says.

As Goins describes it, "I felt grounded. I felt like, 'Wow, why didn't I know this all of my life?' This is what I needed. I needed this to help me in difficult times. I needed to hear that they survived and that I could survive as well."

Nevertheless, Goins still feels burdened by his discovery. The history he has uncovered is still difficult to talk about, he says, even with members of his own family. That's something the Race Card Project hears often in relation to personal stories about slavery, Norris explains — "especially when people go digging."

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