Saturday, September 28, 2013

Sobering Artifacts Remind Us Why We Research the Past

Once upon a time in America, there was a man, but he was enslaved.

He had a name, but those who had enslaved him did not recognize him as having a name, at least one that mattered. Nor whatever the name that the man called himself, it would not matter to others in the community where he lived. It would not be seen as essential.

Officially this man was identified---by a tag. He, was an object with a number:  NIGG 24. His status as a man, was honored by none, because this man was enslaved. And the record of this man is forever inscribed upon a slave tag. The tag had a key attached, but the key was merely used to unlock another object---a heavy ball that would keep NIGG 24 in his place. The tag contained some information, including his occupation--SLAVE. The key would unlock the 30 pound ball and chain that would have been attached to his leg and only when the ball was detached, could he walk freely.

So went part of the day, when attending the Central MD chapter of AAHGS, when members got a chance to see these items, hold them, and reflect. Some rare artifacts had been recently acquired by the District of Columbia Archives, and one of the members brought these particular items to share with the group at the meeting.

For many of us---for most of us, and also for me, this was the first time I was standing so close to a slave artifact and the first time that I got to hold such an object.

This was an artifact that spoke to a not too distant past of my ancestors, and I was humbled, and saddened. I thought of those whose lives were truly attached to such an object--which by its structure and weight reflected the pure restraint that one human being put upon another.

The slave tag was at one time attached to the body of someone enslaved by Col. T.W. Kiser of Concord North Carolina.

Close View of Slave Tag with Key
Image Courtesy of Melvin J. Collier

The image is one that deserves examination-and with this slave tag, there are many questions that arise. On the upper right hand of the slave tag, a small masonic emblem appears.

Masonic Emblem faintly stamped into slave tag.

On each side of the word SLAVE, appear the 3 circles often affiliated with the Odd Fellows are stamped.

Odd Fellow symbols also appear on this slave tag on each side of the word "SLAVE"

The large number 1850 is engraved onto the tag, but it is not certain what it represents. Does it represent a number assigned to the enslaved person? 

Or could this have been a tag assigned to a slave for use at a slave auction?

Who was Col. T. W. Kiser?

A brief look at census records of 1860 and 1850 do not reflect any T.W. Kiser. The surname Kiser and Kizer are both surnames found in Cabbarus county in North Carolina, which is where Concord is located. 

The bottom of the tag also reveals some interesting markings including a large "X" in the lower left a large "A" on the right and an oddly placed cross in the middle. Were these added at a later time than the time when the tag was initially created? A smaller "xx" can also be seen to the left of the 1850. Their meanings are not certain. Also faintly, the word "Roman" can also see engraved. Again, none of these meanings are clearly understood.

When the artifacts were being passed around, one could not help but note the remarks that there were signs that someone was possibly Christian, on the tag, but this was an artifact that reflected the bondage of another human being! A person--no name, merely numbers.

The weight of the ball was also extremely heavy--and it was clear that escape from any slave holder's hands would not have been easily accomplished. 

The chance to hold and touch these items left a sobering note for most of us.

The tone of the meeting was lifted as we were able to witness an outstanding presentation by researcher and scholar Melvin J. Collier, who revealed strategies on how to find the unknown, research enslaved ancestors and put a face an name on the unknown ancestors.

May we never forget the lessons of the past, and may we continue our search to know more.

1 comment:

Ms Vicky said...

SMDH but still the story has to be told Angela