For Black History Month: Research & Share Your Family History

Troy Johnson’s Maternal Father Rev. Freeman Foster his 2nd Wife Hazel and 8 of his 15 Children (circa 1933)

Every February someone asks me,
“What are you going to do for Black History Month?”
As trite as it might sound, I always reply,
“Every month is Black History Month at”

I view the question the same as, what are you gonna do for Mother’s day or Valentine’s day.  While I’m sure this is not the person’s intent, the implication is that we need a day to do something special for our mothers or a loved one.  Similarly, everyday is Mother’s day and Valentine’s day for me.

Today I decided to contradict myself and do something that was specifically motivated by Black History Month and share a small aspect of my family’s history.

The initial impetus actually came from a post made on my discussion board from a very popular contributor “Cynique”.  Cynique, a septuagenarian, wrote what I thought was a fascinating, piece about her recollections from he past.  The piece called “A Flashback black history ala Cynique” touched on her recollections of seeing Jackie Robinson, play against the Cubs at Wrigley Field, standing in line to view the mutilated body Emmitt Till, and more.  She personalized many of the things I’ve only read about in history books — things too many of our young people know nothing about.

African American Collection

Cynique’s stories (from time to time she will provide her personal perspective on historical and contemporary events) touch me because, I just don’t get enough of those stories from my own family.  Perhaps there is too much pain in those recollections, or maybe people have simply forgotten.

In any event, since so much of my history was stolen during that f’ed up institution of slavery, the failure to pass down family history today seems inexcusable.  I invest energy, time and money trying to reclaim this forgotten family history, because in many ways I’m reclaiming myself.

The photo above shows my maternal grandfather, Rev. Freeman Fenner Foster (seated center), and his family circa 1934.   The Rev. F.F. Foster though illiterate, was a shrewd businessman.  A family legend describes how Grandpa used to make marks in the dirt which were unintelligible anyone else, but was his unique system for tabulating.  He was known for not being easily taken advantage of in business transactions.

Rev. Foster was known for moving frequently (a characteristic my mom always say I inherited).  As an adult, he owned a large home and an automobile when most men of his time and background were struggling to survive.  By the time Rev. Foster passed in 1958, he’d accumulated over 900 acres of land in North Carolina.  That land is still in the family today.

Freeman’s 2nd wife the former Hazel Pulley (seated holding the baby) was considerably younger than he was.  Another story from the family tells how my oldest uncle (standing rear, left) was teased; “How’d you let your ‘ole man beat yo time?”.  Martha and Rev. Foster had nine children together, including my mom who was not born when this photo was taken.  Tragically, Hazel died in 1945 at the age of 36.

Two of the people pictured remain alive today.

Below is a copy of a portion of the 1850 US Census, which shows Hazel Pulley’s Great-Grandfather Jackson Pulley.  “Jack” was born abt 1815.

According to this census Jack was a farmer and owned about $100 worth of land.  Jackson is listed as “black” and his wife, Cinthya, is listed as “mulatto”.  I find it fascinating the my third great grandfather, a black man, was not enslaved in 1850.  Was he ever enslaved? Were his parents?  This is information I hope to learn one day.

Unfortunately, other than what this census record tells me, I know little else about Jackson Pulley.  I do know that all of Jackson’s descendants, their spouses and children where listed as mulatto or white in this and subsequent censuses (though by the 1920 census Hazel Pulley would be listed as “negro”).  We do not have any relationship with Hazel Pulley family.   I know the reason for the estrangement, but I’ll heed my mother’s advice, “Boy, don’t be puttin’ all your information in the street”.

I included links to the website  in this blog post and below.  I’ve had an account for over a decade now.  It has helped my research tremendously.  I previously performed this research manually by visiting the National Archives and it was a very tedious and time consuming effort.  Today, in a few minutes, I can pull up documents on my home computer.  In the past such a search may have taken days.

The teriffic thing about is that they will find related documents for you.  The information my come from other family tree, census records, passenger manifests, and other primary source documents.  The 1850 census I posted above was pulled from a few moments ago as I was writing this. helps you do DNA testing.  The results can be matched with others who have taken the test to help you find family members and distant relatives.   I now, as result of the DNA testing, my father’s line can be traced by to Western Africa, in a region where where Togo, Benin, and Ghana are today.

Also, the privacy settings allow you to decide what you want to share with others.  For example information about living people is hidden on my tree.

Please leave comments and link to stories about your family history.

Read Part 2: “Opal’s Jim Crow Blues” by Cheryl Wills.

Happy Black History Month,

African American Collection


Troy D. Johnson is the President, founder and webmaster of, LLC (The African American Literature Book Club). Launched in March of 1998, has grown to become the largest and most frequently visited website dedicated to books and films by and about people of African descent.

  • Great, timely post! I’ve been planning to post a similar message as soon as I finish my daily fiction quota…about my journey as I researched FREEDOM IN THE FAMILY: A MOTHER-DAUGHTER MEMOIR OF THE FIGHT FOR CIVIL RIGHTS with my mother. The hardest book I’ve ever worked on…but the most important!

    • I still remeber the first time I had the pleasure of meeting your mom. You and she were at Faye’s Black Board event during BEA in Chicago. I want to say it was 1999. The photo is on your page:

      Of course your book is very important, if not you who would preserve and elevate this history. If you have the book’s ISBN I’l add it to your page right away.

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  • I am thinking of signing up with

    My father’s maternal second cousin (80+ yo) is one of my last links to his lineage. I had a good conversation with her a couple of days ago where I was able to get the hometown my great-grandmother was from as well as the names of her parents.

    I did a quick search on and census came up with their names, and I definitely want to see that.

    My maternal and paternal (great-great)grandmothers are both from South Carolina, from towns about 60 miles apart from each other, so things could get interesting.

    • Hi Melissa it is really good you have that connection — many people do not. I would try to record the conversations. Video equipment is less expense than a good camera was a generation ago. Preserve the conversations for the gnerations that come after you. I think you’ll realyy like too. Let me know how you make out.

  • SF

    One of my most precious possessions is a cassette tape of my late grandmother talking about life long before I was born. I, like you, want to reclaim my history. Thank you for your very motivating article!

    • Hey SF, be sure preserve that recording by transferring that cassette tape recording to a digital file.

  • Hi Troy, what a wonderful and inspiring family history. It’s clear that you honor your legacy and they will surely bless you for remembering them.

  • Kathy Hardy Jones

    I have been researching my family since 1996. My cousin who is also doing research has been researching since the 1980’s but we have joined forces which has worked for us. We just discovered(DEC 2010) a cousin through Ancestry her GGrandmother and ours were sisters and we had never had any contact or knowledge of the other family. Genealogy is a great endeavor that I think all people of African ancestry should do if there are missing links in your family. They will be triumphs and tragedies, and sometimes long periods of time with little or no progress. But we have discovered alot and it is well worth the time and money we have invested in it.

    • Kathy, thanks for sharing. That is great news about discovering your cousin. I bave SO many 2nd cousins most if wbom I don’t know.

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