Finding Lucy: Obstacles to searching for descendants of slaves

This Sunday will mark 164 years to the very day Lucy Waggoner was sold for $647.
Lucy Waggoner
Lucy Waggoner(Submitted)
Published: Feb. 3, 2023 at 7:06 PM CST
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WSMV) - A solemn picture of a 9-year-old girl took WSMV4 on a journey.

Ambrotype of Lucy
Ambrotype of Lucy(Submitted)

We wanted to find Lucy Waggoner -- the little girl from the picture.

What made our search so difficult is that the picture of Lucy was taken in 1859 as an ambrotype and she was a slave.

As WSMV4 celebrates Black History Month, we also uncovered the difficulties that descendants of slaves have researching their history.

WSMV’s Marius Payton first saw the ambrotype while thumbing through a Tennessee State Museum magazine.

Her face, her innocence... captivating. Who was she? Why was she alone? What happened to her?

We went to the museum and spoke with the curator of 18th and 19th-century history, Richard White.

Who is Lucy?

“What we were fortunate enough to acquire last year was a 9th plate ambrotype of a very young, enslaved girl,” White said.

Normally that would be the end of the story, but inside the ambrotype was a Bill of Sale and had information on the girl. It had the girl’s name, Lucy, her age, 9, and also the amount she was sold for back on Feb. 5 of 1859: $647.

Bill of Sale of Lucy Waggoner
Bill of Sale of Lucy Waggoner(Submitted)

“[The Bill of Sale] identified the person who owned her, the enslaver, prior to her being sold. So, we have the original enslaver to who she was sold. We have the counties that they resided in so, it put her in Tennessee in Davidson County. So, with the names and the locations those are the pieces you could start unraveling the story of Lucy a little bit.” White added.

Slaves would often take the last names of their enslavers. So we know Lucy’s last name was Waggoner. The curator found census records from 1860, 1870, and 1880 all listing a Lucy Waggoner. All of the listings would have been about the same age as Lucy Waggoner in the ambrotype.

“We believe we’ve brought her up to around 1880, and then we think at that point the trail has gone a little cold for us. So maybe we could get some help with some of that.” White said.

So, we reached out to the Afro-American Historical Genealogical Society (AAHGS), a group dedicated to the study and research of African American history and genealogy.

We gave them all the information about Lucy, and from what we knew, it would be a tough search.

“Records aren’t as accessible or available, but there are some record sets that we could tap into because those that were enslaved were considered property. So, we tend to do some investigations into property records,” said Taneya Koonce, the president of the Nashville Chapter of the AAHGS.

What the AAHGS found

Lucy could be verified with documents up until the 1880 census, and that’s where we hit obstacles.

The 1880 census found a 29-year-old Lucy Waggoner, who was then a mother of three daughters. Her age and location made her a reasonable possibility, but it couldn’t be verified with other documents.

They also found a city record from 1884 of a Lucy Waggoner dying. The death happened near where Lucy would have lived, but it wasn’t a death certificate and again, it couldn’t be verified.

“One thing that I do think was interesting about Lucy, I’m really sure, I’m pretty sure. I feel it in my heart that the death certificate was for her. I find it so compelling she lived so close to the hotel that her enslaver owned so it shows a connection that she had to her enslaving family.” Koonce said.

Until her death can be verified, our search for Lucy and her descendants continues.

Highlighting an all too familiar issue for other descendants of slaves looking to add branches to their family tree.

“Starting from the person who was enslaved and trying to trace forward when you don’t have the history of the family per se, it is much more difficult,” Koonce said. “But sometimes you can find out some interesting information that you sometimes can connect so it just depends on the case.”

Koonce said if you are searching your history you need to be two things, patient and thorough. It helps to find institutions that are knowledgeable about different search avenues. If you think you may be a descendant of Lucy Waggoner or know someone who might, we would love to hear from you.