10 Million Names helps Linsey Davis discover her family history

Written by on May 20, 2024

Terri Lynn Martin/ABC News

(NEW YORK) — “ABC News Live” Anchor Linsey Davis is accustomed to seeking the truth and reporting it.

That instinct for fact-finding transcended recently to Davis’ personal family history, with a genealogist from the 10 Million Names Project helping the Emmy-winning journalist track down an ancestor born in the early 1800s.

ABC News has partnered with the 10 Million Names Project, which aims to break down the genealogical “brick wall” that makes it difficult for Black Americans to retrieve ancestral documents and history, including names, from before 1870. The project seeks to identify every individual enslaved before 1865 in the present-day United States.

10 Million Names genealogist Kenyatta Berry revealed to Davis that her great-great-great paternal grandfather was the first in her family to register to vote, and very likely among the first Black Americans to cast a ballot.

“Like many African Americans, I don’t have any information about my family ancestry going back more than a few generations,” Davis said. “It’s one of the many tragic legacies of slavery: not knowing the full details of our roots.”

Davis headed to Georgia, where her great-great-great-grandfather, Tobe Murray, was born. She first visited the Georgia Archives in Morrow County, which maintains a massive collection of the state’s most important historical documents.

Murray, Davis’ great-great-great-grandfather, was born in 1829 and was likely formerly enslaved. Several historic registration records kept at the archives showed Davis proof that Murray registered to vote under dangerously difficult circumstances.

Davis was able to hold the same book that Murray touched in June of 1867 and saw where he wrote an “X” to mark his signature to register to vote, since he most likely couldn’t read or write.

Murray marked his name with an “X” after a clerk wrote his name in cursive, according to an expert at the Georgia Archives.

Following Emancipation in 1863, most free Black Americans lived among hostile white communities, according to historians. They were denied education and fair wages and lived primarily in rural poverty, facing constant threats of violence.

However, in 1867, it was not unusual for Murray to be registered to vote, since Congress had passed the Reconstruction Act of 1867, allowing Black men in Southern states to vote and hold office for the first time.

As Davis and Professor Susan O’Donovan dug deeper, they discovered that Murray was most likely a farmer and still a registered voter in 1898, more than 30 years after he first registered.

“I really didn’t think at that time that quite often a Black male, especially someone if we believe he was enslaved, would then have the wherewithal to say, ‘you know what, I’m going to go forward and get my rights and act on this’ and carry it out in the midst of, you know, all of the brainwashing that that went on at the time, that you’re a second-class citizen or less now,” Davis said.

The Union victory in the Civil War led to the freedom of about four million enslaved people. However, challenges persisted during the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, and freed Black people in the South faced uncertainty.

White Southerners regained control and enforced laws, known as the Black Codes, to restrict the activities of freed Black people and ensure their availability as a labor force.

The 15th Amendment, adopted in 1870, prohibited denying voting rights based on race, color or previous servitude. During Reconstruction, Black Americans were elected to Southern state governments and the U.S. Congress.

Newspaper articles from the 1870s displayed the language and tone mostly white editors used at the time when writing about elections and political campaigns.

“The Negroes voted solidly, blindly, and in full force behind the Independent candidates,” an early Morgan County newspaper wrote. “They were organized better, voted more unanimously and with more determination than ever since they have been given the ballot.”

Persistent and overtly-racist voter suppression tactics continued in Georgia and throughout the South in the following decades, according to historians.

La’Neice Littleton, a historian at the Atlanta History Center, says that despite suppression, the Black community has been fighting for the sacred right to vote generation after generation.

“Time changes, but attitudes don’t,” Littleton said “…and so we see a consistent fight on the part of Black citizens to organize, mobilize, strategize, and exercise their right to vote and participate in democracy.”

Times have certainly changed since 1867. In fact, according to Georgia state registration files, there were almost 1.7 million new voters in the lead-up to the 2020 elections.

During her trip, Davis met up with young canvassers of the New Georgia Project in Georgia, where voting-rights activists continue to be a formidable force, working to encourage voting in November’s election.

New Georgia Project CEO Kendra Cotton and the young and inspired team went door to door, reminding fellow citizens that voting is a right, a privilege and a duty. It’s an opportunity to be counted as equal Americans.

“We want our voters showing up and making their voices heard, because we fundamentally believe that the best way to get good progressive policy in the state is not to beg for it from folks who don’t share your values, but it’s to vote in people who already do,” Cotton said.

Davis said her visit to Georgia meant a lot to her. She learned about a missing part of her own history, saw the struggle her great-great-great-grandfather had to go through, and realized that even though things are better today, the job is not finished.

“I didn’t actually think I would be emotional about it,” Davis said. “But being with this kind of living document that I can only imagine, you know, what Tobe had to endure and I can’t help but feel pride.”

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