When the Library opens its new Treasures Gallery next year, displaying some of the most striking papers and artifacts that span some 4,000 years, one of them will certainly stand out: The Blackwell’s Kinfolk Family Tree.
It’s a dizzying, almost overwhelming piece of folk art that depicts the genealogical history of an African American family from Virginia. It’s 8 feet tall and 6 feet wide, contains more than 1,500 names spread out on curving trunks, branches and leaves and details family connections from 1789 to the 1970s. Its most famous member? Arthur Ashe Jr., the tennis great.
“The first time I saw it, my chin nearly dropped to the floor,” says Ahmed Johnson, the reference librarian in the History and Genealogy Section who worked with the family to donate the canvas. “And the fact that it’s an African American family that can trace its way back to the first ancestor? Slavery usually made that impossible.”
The research, and the strikingly original canvas, comes from decades of work by the late Thelma S. Doswell, a D.C. school teacher and genealogist who wrote several books on the field. She got started early, being entranced by all the people she did not know at a family reunion.
“I met so many people I didn’t know,” she told a family newsletter in 1982. “I told my mother then that I had to know who these people were.”
She dug into files at the U.S. National Archives, state and local courthouses and antebellum census documents that listed names of the enslaved and sending detailed questionnaires to relatives. The genealogical work, as Johnson pointed out, succeeded in undoing what slavery was designed to do: dehumanize the people trapped in its clutches. Her work was admirable by any standard, Johnson said, but considering the historical hurdles faced by Black American families, it was exceptional.
“It’s always a hit every time we display it,” Johnson said. “People just can’t get over it.”
Doswell created the tree’s folk-art design and artist Wilfred T. Washington put ink to canvas, writing in names by freehand. It was unveiled at the 1959 family reunion.
“I was just a kid then,” says JoAnne Blackwell, president of the Blackwell Family Association, in a phone call from her home in New Jersey. “But it made such an impression on me and everyone else. It made me want to go back to the reunion every year.”
At the foot of the tree is a heavy black rectangle with “The Blackwell’s Kinfolk” written out by hand, in red ink and capital letters. “From 1789” is in gold lettering at the bottom right corner.
A gray rectangle lies directly below that, with an explanatory code in red and black lettering. It spells out the abbreviations used in the tree: “M/B” means marriage bond, “U/M” means unmarried, “N/C” means no children and so on.
The spreading tree above is massive and irregular — it sometimes resembles a meandering river breaking off into multiple streams and creeks rather than orderly tree branches marking the procession of time and generations.
Another striking feature: The tree follows the Blackwells’ matrilineal heritage, with women’s names as or more prominent than the men’s. JENNIE BLACKWELL is the huge name at the base of the trunk, from which everyone else descends, with a smaller notation of “M/B” MIKE below it.
Most names are in small, neat black lettering tucked within the boundaries of a green-bordered leaf. Jeanette. Alvin. Cleotis. Josephine. Cordelia. The name of Ashe, the tennis star, is marked out in gold leaf. Matching gold lettering at the bottom explains: “Tennis Champion – World.” (Ashe won five Grand Slam titles, playing singles or doubles.)
“I chose the oak tree for its characteristic strength,” Doswell told a Washington Post reporter in 1987 in a feature story about the family tree.
Doswell hardly stopped in 1959. She kept at her research and, aided by enthusiastic family members filling out their own histories, completed two more family trees. Both are larger, more detailed and more straightforward in design. The second version, completed in 1971, has 3,333 names and is at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture in Baltimore.
The third tree, completed in 1991, documents some 5,000 names and is at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture in Richmond.
Ultimately, Doswell was able to trace the family back to west Africa. The names of the first members put on a slave ship bound for the United States: Ama and her daughter, Tab. They were forced upon the Doddington and landed in Yorktown, Virginia, in 1735. There, her research shows, they were bought at an auction by slave owner James Blackwell.
The family’s newest historians, Richard Jones and Laura Blackwell Anderson, have digitized more than 6,200 family members onto a genealogical website service, making the history accessible to all family members.
The family is also planning their reunion next summer in Yorktown, so that they can visit the places where the family’s story began in North America nearly 300 years ago. It has been, as Doswell’s work makes clear, an epic journey.
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