When Alton Glass and his grandmother, Hattie, joined the Robert Frederick Smith Explore Your Family History Center for a virtual genealogy research session, there were great expectations to learn more about their family tree.
Yet, they both had no idea where this moment in African American genealogy would lead. Through multiple research sessions, the Glass family not only discovered their African American ancestors born into slavery, but they also uncovered a new link to a slave owner found on the most unlikely of documents – a 20th-century will.
This African American genealogy story shares how one family uncovered the identity of a small slaveholder through a shared surname and a migration path to find their enslaved ancestors born before the Civil War. We hope the affirmation of the Glass family legacy serves as inspiration for your own quest.
Start From Where You Are
Our early success begins with Alton's grandmother "Hattie Mae," listed in the 1940 census as a child of three living in Tiptonville, Tennessee, with her parents, John W. and Annie Mae Glass, and brother Charles. A marriage record for J.W. Glass and Annie Mae Shelby documented their union a few weeks before Christmas 1933.
Part of the Glass family history also reveals at least one other marriage for John W. in the 1930s to Maggie Gipp of Lauderdale County, Tennessee. Before leaving these records behind, museum specialists in African American genealogy research encouraged the Glass family to make notes of these related branches to provide a complete picture of their family's tree.
Be Flexible with Name Variations
During our next step, it was critical to identify Hattie's father, John W., with his birth family through a delayed birth record. Historically, an individual requests a delayed birth certificate to document any birth before a state begins issuing official birth certificates. A 1914 Tennessee state law required statewide registration of births, marriages, and deaths. However, compliance was ineffectual until the late 1920s.
John W.'s delayed birth certificate identified him as "Wallace" and his parents as Wallace Glass and Jennie Beard. This delayed birth record also confirmed the family's 1910 census record for Lauderdale County, Tennessee. The document names parents, Wallace and Jennie, with their eight children – including Hattie's father, John W. or "Wallace," at age five and a baby identified as "Fat Rag."
Check Out the Neighbors
When conducting African American genealogical research, we recommend reading the entire census page and share this vital tip with visitors during our research sessions. On the 1900 census, we found Hattie's grandfather, John W. or "Wallace," listed as a married man in a household of two, raising one daughter alone. But was he really raising her alone?
Reviewing the entire census page, we found his wife, Jennie Glass, in a household two doors away. She was recorded as a married domestic servant in the home of a white farmer, J. Jackson, and his family.
Overcome the 20-Year Census Gap
Most of the 1890 census was destroyed in a 1921 fire at the Commerce Building in Washington, D.C., making tracing family history to the 1880 census difficult regardless of race and especially challenging for African American genealogy research. Fortunately, in this best-case scenario, Hattie's grandfather's death certificate listed his parents as "Wallace" Glass and Matilda Robinson – steering us in the right direction and allowing us to confirm their 1880 and 1870 census records.
Reach Beyond the 1870 Brick Wall
After finally reaching the 1870 census, it was imperative to identify Glass family members born during slavery, research slave schedules and find out if any local slave owners shared the Glass surname.
Another vital element in searching for African American ancestors beyond the 1870 Brick Wall, the first major goal in African American genealogy, is finding slave owners who share a similar migration pattern. "Wallace" Glass, the family patriarch, who, according to the 1880 census record, was born in Virginia and migrated to Tennessee during slavery, where his oldest children were born.
When All Else Fails, Try "Wildcards"
Our team encountered many barriers when spelling the Glass surname the conventional way on the slave schedules, but using "wild cards" or using selected letters in a name followed by an asterisk led us to a pivotal moment – finding P.T. Glass, a slave owner.
Using census, biographical research and website wiki trees, we discovered Presley Thornton Glass, or P.T. Glass, a Virginia native who migrated to Tennessee with his birth family. Thornton was a lawyer, a Civil War veteran, and a member of the Tennessee State House of Representatives. He later served in the 49th and 50th U.S. Congresses.
But, how do we find an African American Glass family record and definitively link them with local slave owner P.T. Glass?
Remember Local History Blogs
As we began searching for Glass family wills on Ancestry Library Edition, it was near the end of one of our many sessions, but my genealogy curiosity only continued to grow. "What if I tried a Google search for 'slaves of Presley Thornton Glass of Lauderdale County, Tenn.'?" That certainly couldn't hurt, I thought.
This African American genealogy "aha moment" led to the blog Black Ripley and a 2014 post on Presley Thornton, including a bequest on his 1901 will stating, "I give and bequeath to my former slave 'Prince Glass' five dollars."
This is the same Prince Glass who appears on the family's 1870 census as one of "Wallace" Glass and Matilda Robinson's eldest children, with a twin brother Peter. Later that evening, we found P.T. Glass' original 1901 will pictured below.
Explore Your Family History
The Robert Frederick Smith Explore Your Family History Center helps people begin their family history journey. In 2022, we have broken the 1870 Wall for three other families and continue searching each day. Join us to learn the basics of researching African American ancestry.
Lisa Crawley is a genealogy reference assistant and program manager with the Robert Frederick Smith Explore Your Family History Center.