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Chasing Alexander: Lansing man traces the story of his great-great-grandfather who escaped slavery

Posted at 6:45 PM, Jan 05, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-05 18:45:13-05

LANSING, Mich. — Brian Daniels is the co-founder and owner of emPOWer Lansing, a boxing gym on Michigan Avenue. But over the past few months, he has taken on another venture: discovering and sharing the story of his great, great grandfather, Alexander Pearson, a man he didn't know about until he signed up for Ancestry.com earlier this year.

"Back when COVID started, I started to delve into a bit of my history. Then, George Floyd happened, and I kind of jumped all in," Daniels said. " I found out that my great-great-grandfather was born a slave in North Carolina...escaped slavery, joined the 40th Colored Infantry in Tennessee and then eventually became a landowner just outside of Johnson City."

Daniels was able to find a research paper about his great-great-grandfather. Many descendants of enslaved people aren’t as fortunate.

Michigan State University history Professor Walter Hawthorne is one of three directors of enslaved.org, a website that publishes information about people who were enslaved.

"The 1870 census was the first census to mention Black Americans by name," Hawthorne explained. "I, myself, can do my own family history by using genealogical sources, using census sources and other sorts of materials, but, African Americans face this block in 1870."

Daniels also noted that, during the Civil War, "a lot of places were burned. Like, in North Carolina for instance, a lot of the slave registers are actually burnt down in 1865. So, there just is no record."

But that doesn't mean genealogy is impossible for those with ancestors who were enslaved.

"So, what we've discovered over the course of the last couple of decades, is that there's an incredible amount of information out there about individuals who were enslaved," Hawthorne said. "The problem that we face is that this information tends to be scattered around the Atlantic and also often in fragmentary form...You might just have a line in a census, or an advertisement that somebody who was enslaved has run away."

"One of the great hopes of this project is that, by compiling this fragmentary data—that's really in archives and libraries and private collections, scattered across North America and elsewhere—by compiling this and making it machine-readable, African Americans can have another tool that they can use to do their own family research," he said.

Daniels was intrigued by the information he found and set out on a pilgrimage to find his great-great-grandfather’s grave, as well as the remnants of the Buffalo Colored School, opened by his great-aunt Lydia, Pearson’s daughter, in 1930.

"My (fiancée) Maggie and I drove down to Johnson City, and we got in contact with the people who owned the land. A wonderful guy named Seth let me onto his property to see Alexander's grave and his son Walter, who's actually buried next to him," Daniels said. "We found the school, and we carried 100 pounds of stone out of the woods because I just felt I guess compelled. I'd come this far, I've worked this hard to find it and I wanted my family to be able to see it. We were...I just felt, I guess, in the presence of Alexander in that moment.

"We finished our trip by going to Silver Creek Plantation in North Carolina, where Alexander was born, which is now an upscale golf course. And they were telling me that they actually intend to remove the term 'plantation' from the golf course because they don't want to make people feel bad..."

Daniels intends to write a book called "Chasing Alexander," which will be the story of his great-great-grandfather, as well as Daniels' story as a Black American in the 21st century.

His goal is to understand himself better, understand the nation better and draw the parallels between the life that Alexander Pearson lived and the one he lives today.

"I think that we still see residual laws from the Jim Crow era. We still have the trauma from the Jim Crow era. And, I think that, until we are able to work on and move past that, we can't really move forward as a nation," Daniels said. "I also think that, until we understand our past and where we come from and who we come from, we can't really understand ourselves completely."

Enslaved.org has recently started accepting documents and family histories from the general public. Anyone interested in adding information to the website can contact the directors at enslaved.org@gmail.com. Hawthorne said they'd be happy to have that conversation.

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