Nicka Smith visited Amherst’s campus on Monday, Oct. 4, to present her talk about the people enslaved by Israel Trask, one of Amherst’s original trustees, and their more than 6,000 descendants. Smith’s talk was titled “Held In the Balance: The Trask 250.”
She was invited to the college by the Steering Committee on the Racial History of Amherst. Smith spoke to the Amherst community in the Lipton Lecture Hall and to more than 300 people who were tuned into the live stream.
Smith’s talk and visit to Amherst are part of a larger project by the Steering Committee on the Racial History of Amherst College to investigate the college’s ties to slavery. Beyond her talk, Smith visited Professor of Black Studies and History Elizabeth Herbin-Triant’s class “Slavery in U.S. History and Culture” and the “Research in Black Studies” class.
Smith’s presentation went into the depths of her research, including her methodology and how she was able to find so much genealogical information that is often said to be “impossible to find.”
Nicka Smith herself is a descendant of the people enslaved by Israel Trask and his brothers, and she may be the first-ever descendant of enslaved people connected to a college or university to present their research on said university and its connections to enslavers at this level. For more than 20 years, Nicka Smith has studied genealogy, and she has extensive experience in the genealogical research of enslaved communities. Through her “Who Is Nicka Smith” Patreon and website, she shares her knowledge with other family historians. She is also the host of BlackProGen Live, a web series about genealogy and family history “with a special focus on Black and people of color.”
Smith began her talk by locating the audience within her own family story. She talked about looking into her great grandfather Honey and not being able to find his mother listed in the census. This is what sparked her genealogical research, but it wasn’t an easy or simple journey.
In researching the enslaved, some major roadblocks are that there is no central repository for documentation of the enslaved and that there is a lack of access to the documents that have been archived. Often, when researching the genealogy of Black Americans, people are told to look for the closest white person in the records because they will likely be well-documented. Instead of following this advice, Smith did the “unorthodox” and decided to research other people in her ancestors' communities. For example, Smith was able to find her great grandfather’s mother through conversations with extended family and found her on the 1880 census, but she could not find her on the 1870 census. So, she looked at the other people listed in the same household in 1880 and found them on the 1870 census in a different location where Honey’s mother and grandmother appeared under a different surname. By expanding her search beyond biological relationships, she was able to track down Honey’s family.
Smith also recommended using the “trifecta” of sources for genealogical material about people who were enslaved: the Freedmen's Bureau, Civil War pensions and wills and probates of enslavers. People who were enslaved were considered property and would this be listed in any documents about the “estate,” and the value of their labor was monetized.
Smith divided this monetization of labor into three categories: physical labor, vital labor, and virile labor. For example, the physical labor of an enslaved person could be quantified by their cotton bale production. The virile labor of a person who was enslaved would be the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren that they would have who would also be enslaved.
Smith ended her talk by naming the elders of the Trask 250. She acknowledged them and commented on how it was their labor that funded Amherst. Then she talked about the descendants, and how she has tracked over six thousand descendants of people enslaved by Israel Trask and his brothers.
Smith will be holding an open house for the public in the Amherst Archives Wednesday, Oct. 6, from 4 to 5:30 p.m.