Why uncovering Black ancestry is an act of resistance

The genealogist, historian, and activist Dr. Antoinette Harrell on the importance of community, racial equity, and tracing family history.

By Lauren Grayson — February 7, 2023

How well do you know your family tree? For some, the branches extend into centuries of well-documented history with the swipe of a DNA sample. For others, like Dr. Antoinette Harrell, ancestral stories are kept alive through word-of-mouth passed down from generation to generation. This is the case for millions of Black and African Americans, whose lineage has been buried or erased entirely by slavery, making it difficult to connect with their roots.

Harrell, also known as the “Slavery Detective of the South,” is a genealogist, activist, historian, and author whose underground research revealed cases of illegal slavery well into the 1960s  — over a century after the Civil War. Her exposure of sharecropping and modern-day slavery in the Southern states of Florida, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi sent a shockwave throughout the country. The difficult discoveries were transformed into stories of resiliency seen by millions with the Starz thriller Alice, and an impactful Vice film Slavery After Freedom about how she tracks down modern-day slavery practices. She empowers others to spread her message: We all have a right to know where we come from.

Harrell will be a speaker at HP’s Black History Month Town Hall on February 8, leaning into the 2023 theme “Black Resistance” by shedding light on how Black Americans defy a painful past and centuries of oppression by arming themselves with knowledge and an urgency to act. She’ll be joined by Arthur Miller, the brother of Mae Louise Walls Miller, on whom the movie Alice was based and whose family was Harrell’s first case. Arthur Miller was also enslaved and held in involuntary servitude, only hearing about the Civil Rights Movement when African Americans began to march for their freedom in 1966.

Dr. Antoinette Harrell, genealogist, activist, and historian.

Dr. Antoinette Harrell, genealogist, activist, and historian.

She describes her work as “giving a rebirth to the ancestors and remembering them by standing on the shoulders of someone that came before you,” Harrell explains. “I always look at my genealogy as, ‘I am my ancestors. I am the future.’”

The Garage sat down with Harrell to discuss the impacts of 20th-century slavery and why in order to move forward, we must first look back.

Who or what inspired your research of Black history and culture?

My grandmother inspired me to pay attention to the Civil Rights Movement, while my mother helped me to learn more about my family history, because she kept the oral history together in our family.

Why is understanding your family history important?

I want to know who I am because I’m a descendant of those who were enslaved. Yes, I carry the last name Harrell, but due to selling and the trading there was separation in our family. It's a birthright, and that birthright was taken away when slavery was bestowed upon millions of people of African descent.

How did your work with grassroot organizations, like Citizens 4 Change, impact your journey?

My first mission and purpose was to collect oral histories, find photographs, and do whatever I could to hold onto some pieces of our history. But during that journey, I found human beings in need of food, clothing, shelter, so I had to learn how to juggle helping those in need while recording the experience.

Especially in the Mississippi Delta, where I went to collect stories and history about sharecroppers, I found people living in third world conditions who were the offspring of those held in involuntary servitude and the sharecropping systems.

“Every company should have a vested interest in bringing in diversity, learning, spreading the truth; and helping correct those things that are kept in the dark.”

What resources did you use to learn about your genealogy?

I just use what my mother gave me – the information that she passed on. I also started looking outside the home and into places such as the local clerk's office, libraries, universities, driving down the road, knocking on people's doors, and just making conversation.

How have the high-profile murders of Black men and women changed the way you approach your work as an activist?

It really hasn't changed. The only thing that has is that there's more awareness in a larger community. An example of that is if there was a lynching that took place in 1960, it would be known in that area and surrounding areas, maybe. Now, there’s social media and new ways of getting the message out. But we haven't seen many things change in laws and policies, and that's the main thing that we need to look at. So we are still fighting that long road of injustice.

Dr. Antoinette Harrell saving records in Tangipahoa Parish, Louisiana.

Walter C. Black, Sr.

Dr. Antoinette Harrell saving records in Tangipahoa Parish, Louisiana.

What can companies do to create systemic change?

A lot of companies built their wealth off the backs of enslaved people. What I see HP doing is seeking me out so that companies can really understand that we’re not talking about things that happened 1,000 years ago or 400 years ago – we’re talking about what's going on now. HP has customers of all colors, and every company should have a vested interest in bringing in diversity, learning, spreading the truth, and helping correct those things that are kept in the dark. If we want to see this world be a better place, we all have responsibilities, and that's what companies like this can do.

In what ways are you seeing what you discovered in your research manifest in modern day society?

What it revealed is that especially when it came to involuntary servitude, we weren't told the truth. The truth was concealed — at least, they thought it was. I said, ‘Wait a minute, I was born in 1960, yet people were still on plantations. They were still forced to be enslaved.’ So if it wasn't for social media, we still wouldn't know because he who controls the media, controls the story. He who tells the story controls the narrative.

What do you hope the HP audience will get out of attending the Black History Month Town Hall?

I hope they walk away with truth and knowledge that is new to them. I hope that those watching learn, contact me and say, ‘What else can I do to help you? What else is it that you want to work on? How can we help you tell these stories? How can we help you bring it to the forefront of America so that we can fix some of these things and do away with them? We're waiting.’ I hope they ask me, ‘How can I be the change? Because we need a change.’

READ MORE: A conversation about racial equity and recognizing bias with Heather McGhee