Selections from:

From Maria to Bill Cosby:
A Case Study in Tracing Black Slave Ancestry

Johni Cerny

Selected citations from the article in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly - March 1987

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Interest in black American ancestral research was shared only by a small segment of America’s black population prior to the advent of Alex Haley’s Roots. When interest surged during the post Roots era, libraries and public record offices were over-whelmed with requests for information and research assistance. A number of instruction manuals were written to guide the amateur through the basics of slave research, and some libraries added titles to their previously sparse black research collections to help budding family historians meet their personal challenge.

The memory of Roots and its emotional impact persists in the minds of Americans today, some ten years later. While the number of blacks actively researching their family’s past has decreased significantly in the intervening years, interest has remained high. People gave up in frustration when the study guides, manuals, and lectures, in the newly emerging field, failed to provide the type and depth of instruction needed to trace individual slave families prior to Emancipation. Many people began research expecting the same results they read about in Roots. Discouragement set in when they discovered that documenting their great-grandparents’ lives as slaves during the mid-nineteenth century produced too few facts to link them to an earlier generation.

Whether their ancestors were free or slave, black Americans initially should approach their family research just as any other American genealogical research problem is begun. Discovering black ancestors back to the end of the Civil War can be accomplished without encountering an extraordinary number of obstacles, the exception being instances when a family changed its name a number of times before making a final choice or when a mother’s children had different fathers and did not share the same surname. Past this point, the search for enslaved ancestors requires the black genealogist to acquire a considerable knowledge of resources for white genealogy, a thorough familiarity with the limitations inherent in various genealogical records, and a repertoire of the most skilled techniques that can be employed in using these records, if those enslaved ancestors are to be correctly identified, tracked, and linked to earlier generations.

The Cosby Line under study – particularly the problem in linking Sam Thomas Cosby and Maria – serves to demonstrate that tracing slaves, without exception, is difficult. Few research problems involving slave ancestry are alike, but much of the methodology employed in one case can be applied in others. The methods used in this study are not the only ones for solving research problems of this type. The goal here is to present a typical case that involved the use of a variety of records to generate as much information about one slave family as possible. It is not uncommon to find fewer details about a slave family than the number that surfaced in this case.

The Cosbys in this study are progenitors of the American entertainer Bill (Dr William H.) Cosby. Like many families, the Cosbys had recollection of an ancestor born in slavery, this one being Zack Cosby, whose birth family was unknown, but who was said to have sisters Catherine and Louisa. Rather than move the reader step-by step through the process of documenting generations of the later Cosbys, this discussion will focus upon the research necessary to identify Zack's parents and grandparents as slaves. The problem and frustrations encountered while tracing the Cosby line are characteristic of those abandoned by others.

. . . Identifying the slave-owning family is a necessary aspect of tracing an enslaved black family prior to the end of the Civil War. There are several ways to do this, depending on the circumstances. Many genealogists approach the tracing of a slave family with the misconception that freed slaves routinely took the names of their last owners. This is not always the case. When newly transported slaves were sold to an American master, their African identity and African name were usually disregarded. They were given only first names, and on a farm or small plantation there was little duplication of names. On larger plantations, where duplication did exist, identifying adjectives were appended to the names to help distinguish between individuals – as, for example, three men on the same plantation who were identified in records as Old Dave, Big Dave, and Young Dave.

When the Civil War ended, most slaves legally adopted surnames. Some slaves had surnames prior to being freed, but they generally kept their choice a secret from the white community. Slaves were often known by several surnames and made a final choice when they were emancipated. Others experimented with several names until they settled on one that suited them. They often took the surname of their father, who may have been a slave on the same plantation, a slave on a nearby plantation, a slave sold to another owner years prior to Emancipation, a deceased slave, a free black in the neighborhood, a white neighbor, an overseer, or the slave’s owner (who may have been black or Indian himself). The name preferred by a slave may have been that of a current owner, a former owner, a prominent American, a locally prominent citizen, or the given name of the father. A large percentage of former slaves took the surname of the person who owned them at the time of their birth.

DJY: The report goes on to record information on how Bill Cosby’s ancestor Zack Cosby (born in slavery in 1841 in Nelson County, Virginia), was the son of one Sam Cosby (whose slave mother was named Maria). Sam and Maria were slaves owned by one John Cosby – a farmer (small plantation owner) of Nelson County. Interestingly this John Cosby was the son of John Cosby Sr. and his wife Jemima Yancey (daughter of Archelaus Yancey of Louisa County, Virginia)