It has been quite a while since I've posted a book review on this forum. I've written a number of reviews for other publications in 2017, so that, perhaps unfairly, has resulted in a diminished number here. However, I recently received an opportunity to review There Is Something About Edgefield: Shining a Light on the Black Community through History, Genealogy, and Genetic Testing by Edna Gail Bush and Natonne Elaine Kemp (Rocky Pond Press, 2017) and jumped at the chance.
Ever since I read All God's Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence by Fox Butterfield, about twenty years ago, I've sought to learn more about Edgefield County when an opportunity presented itself. Located along the Georgia border in west-central South Carolina, the area produced some of the state's most noted politicians and fierce defenders of slavery and post-Civil War white supremacy. Born in Edgefield were governors George McDuffie, Pierce Mason Butler, James Henry "Cotton is King" Hammond, Francis W. Pickens, Benjamin "Pitchfork" Tillman, and Strom Thurmond. Edgefield also produced Preston Brooks (who caned Charles Sumner on the Senate floor in 1856), and Confederate general James Longstreet.
As one might imagine, Edgefield County had a large enslaved population, and the authors' attempts to connect to their Edgefield ancestors is the main focus of the book. In 1860, there were over 24,000 slaves in the county. This is the sixth highest total in the United States that year!
There Is Something About Edgefield begins with thoughtful and informative sections which provide the co-authors' acknowledgements, as well as a preface, forward, and introduction.
Co-author Edna Gail Bush supplies the first two chapters of the book. In the first chapter Bush examines her paternal ancestors and focuses on the family's ability to acquire land in post-Civil War Edgefield, and sadly, how it was eventually taken from them. Bush also shares the amazing story of her DNA findings. She had her brothers take the Y-DNA tests and found that the results indicated her paternal line as originating solely from European countries. As she states, "The fact is, for many African Americans, a European progenitor serves as the original head of the paternal line." (pg. 55)
In the second chapter, Bush seeks and provides information on her maternal ancestors. Doing genealogical research for African American ancestors is difficult enough, especially when searching before 1870, but finding maternal lines lend extra special challenges. Her search for information found an early date of about 1799 for one ancestor and also put her on the trail of her maternal ancestors' enslavers, the Burton Family. As Bush wisely writes "It is a sad fact that the only way I have been able to trace my enslaved ancestors is by looking through records that pertain to property, which may or may not even give the dignity of a name." (Pg. 80). After emancipation in 1865, things do not always get easier for the genealogist. Although census information is available for African Americans from 1870 on, there are still obstacles such as name changes, gaps here and there due to census taker errors, and often overlooked households or households with incorrect information.
Natonne Elaine Kemp examines the line of her Blair ancestors in chapter three. In doing so Kemp reminds us that networking with other researchers can be of great benefit. Sharing one's findings, discussing them with others, and receiving help with research obstacles is one of the most rewarding aspects of doing historical research. This chapter is infused with contextual history, which I sincerely appreciated. In telling about her ancestor's challenges, especially during the Reconstruction years, Kemp exposes the terroristic state in which Edgefield's black population found itself after the Civil War, when recently defeated whites sought to reclaim political dominance through intimidation, mayhem, and murder.
Kemp continues searching for her Blair connections in chapter four, but puts particular emphasis on an incident where a white Blair killed an African American man in 1872. The examination of this particular incident illustrates the significant knowledge one acquires during the research process. It is one thing to read about Reconstruction violence from a formal history book, it is yet another to get into the nitty-gritty of a specific tragic occasion, which in turn illustrates the larger situation. I also found Kemp's research on Calliham Baptist Church intriguing. The break from the church by its black members after the Civil War and the Calliham congregation's response is particularly fascinating.
The also book contains three short epilogues. The first provides a bullet-point list that enumerates post-1870 potential sources for information on African American genealogy. The second and third reemphasize the help that DNA testing can provide, particularly when searching a specific geographic area.
I was especially impressed with the book's documentation. Being a historian, it is pleasing to see a work so clearly cited. It adds a level of credibility that can only come through such work. Other pluses to the book were the included family photographs. Seeing the people who where being researched and written about adds a level of connection to their stories that words alone cannot fill. In addition, the defined terms related to DNA testing were helpful to someone who is not all that familiar with this rather new form of research. Lineage charts, maps, graphs, and other primary sources we all selected with care and only enhance the book's strengths.
One might not think that a book on someone else's genealogy would not be a "can't put down" type of book, but I found that There Is Something About Edgefield is one of those kind of books. It is not only a family tree book. Rather, by describing their exhaustive research resources, both traditional and non traditional, the authors give readers ideas on the plethora of ancestral information sources available to family history researchers. But not only that, this book gives hope. Hope for those searching to know their family's hidden pasts, and hope that through studying the past, we can create better presents and futures for all of us. By this point you can understand why I highly recommend this book. On a one to five scale, I have no reservations giving it an empathetic five! Well done!