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A colorful image of names written in on a winding family tree
The Blackwell's Kinfolk Family Tree highlights two prominent members. Arthur Ashe Jr.'s name is in gold, right. Family genealogist Thelma Short Doswell is highlighted in yellow, left.

An African American Family History Like No Other

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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 full Blackwell family tree, with thousands of names inked in a huge canvas of dripping limbs and branches
The Blackwell’s Kinfolk Family Tree as of 1959. Artist: Wilfred T. Washington. History and Genealogy Section. 

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.)

 

Wide group shot of perhaps 100 people kneeling and standing in a large open space.
The Blackwell family. Photo: Courtesy JoAnne Blackwell. Jay Paul Photography.

“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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Comments (9)

  1. Looking at this is affirmation that ALL OF US are related. No matter what color, we are all here together. Beautiful!

  2. What a wonderful family!

  3. I feel so blessed to be in this family and to have learned from attending family reunions with my dad and then with my daughters. We are in the photo shown here and I believe this was taken at my dad’s last reunion. I will treasure it and will continue to teach those that come after me about our history. My fascination with our history started 45 years ago when I did an 8th-project about my family.

  4. I will never forget the time, I invited cousin Thelma to my eighth grade history class in 1973. And she literally taught the class how to trace their ancestry roots.What a great moment that was for me.

  5. All good research is meant to be passed on to the next generation to continue.
    I invite all of our family members and friends to attend the 2024 Annual Blackwell Family Reunion in Yorktown, VA. We’re still in the planning phases with more information to follow.
    We will be celebrating family and life at the location where a huge part of our American story began back in 1735. According to multiple sources, on June 18, 1735, the slave ship Doddington, Captained by James Copland and his crew of 18 men, disembarked 167 Africans along the York River. The journey began along the Gold Coast of Africa with 188 Africans on board. Two of the surviving Africans were women we have come to know as Ama and Tab. They were purchased by James Glenn Blackwell of York County. Our American story began there, but continues on thru us today.
    The first time I saw Tab’s name hand written on the Will of Robert Blackwell’s from 1790, I sat there behind the Microfilm screen crying to myself for a long time at the Library of Virginia in Richmond. I txt the image to Jo (our current Blackwell Family Association President, JoAnne Blackwell) and she told me to take my time.
    Months later, running my fingers across the actual pages of the Will Book in the Lunenburg Courthouse made that capture of my family in print even more real. In 2018, the tears I shed after coming out of the female slave dungeon in Cape Coast Castle, Ghana connected me even more deeply to them. I felt their spirits with me. It was a moment in my life that has profoundly changed me.
    It’s one thing to make a pilgrimage to a historic location of your ancestors with one loved one, but it’s a completely different blessing to be able to do so with our entire family. That’s what 2024 means to me. I want as many men, women, and children as possible to converge in Yorktown along the shores where Ama and Tab first stepped their feet upon the soil of the Virginia Colony.
    In Cousin Thelma’s book she wrote, “According to certain family legendists, she (Ama) proceeded life on this continent with fear and homesickness knowing that she would never see her African family again.” In 1755, her daughter Tab was stripped from her arms as James Glenn’s son, Robert, married and expanded south west of the colony in pursuit of a land grant. Further traumatizing both Ama and Tab. What we seek is a healing for all of us.
    In Yorktown next year, I want us to gather as family to commemorate Ama, Tab, and Cousin Thelma; the three women that are responsible for more than my simple words can speak. Cousin Thelma pulled family together to find our ancestors for us. Now we must continue to pull together to honor their work and sacrifice. Not only to honor them, but also to honor ourselves.

  6. This is remarkable. I could only wish this for my family. I am.onky one of a few doing genealogy. To have so many interested in family research is commendable. Congratulations

  7. I am blown away. My family is working on its history and tree. We’re up to about 2,000 names. The Blackwell family example inspires us to keep at it.

    • It’s an amazing thing to see, particularly in person!

  8. I went to the Blackwell family reunion in 1981 I found my Grand Mother all my aunts and cousins

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