Help Me to Find My People

The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery

By Heather Andrea Williams

264 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 7 halftones, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-2836-3
    Published: February 2016
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-0-8078-8265-8
    Published: June 2012
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-4269-5
    Published: June 2012

John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture

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Awards & distinctions

Hurston Wright Legacy Award Nominee

Library of Virginia Literary Award Finalist

After the Civil War, African Americans placed poignant "information wanted" advertisements in newspapers, searching for missing family members. Inspired by the power of these ads, Heather Andrea Williams uses slave narratives, letters, interviews, public records, and diaries to guide readers back to devastating moments of family separation during slavery when people were sold away from parents, siblings, spouses, and children. Williams explores the heartbreaking stories of separation and the long, usually unsuccessful journeys toward reunification. Examining the interior lives of the enslaved and freedpeople as they tried to come to terms with great loss, Williams grounds their grief, fear, anger, longing, frustration, and hope in the history of American slavery and the domestic slave trade.

Williams follows those who were separated, chronicles their searches, and documents the rare experience of reunion. She also explores the sympathy, indifference, hostility, or empathy expressed by whites about sundered black families. Williams shows how searches for family members in the post-Civil War era continue to reverberate in African American culture in the ongoing search for family history and connection across generations.

About the Author

Heather Andrea Williams is Presidential Term Professor and Professor of Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom.
For more information about Heather Andrea Williams, visit the Author Page.


"Williams examines the historical fact of family separation and renders its emotional truth. She is the rare scholar who writes history with such tenderness that her words can bring a reader to tears. . . . [The book] has a propulsive narrative flow, and with each successive chapter the suppleness of Williams's prose grows."—New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice

“[A] fine new book. . . . A broadly ranging study. . . . Help Me to Find My People. . . provides opportunities for remembering that the continued existence of slavery for centuries depended on whites learning to rationalize guilty feelings by pretending (or even believing) that African Americans did not feel family separations deeply.”—Women’s Review of Books

“[Williams] retraces the journey of freed African-Americans through one of their most harrowing experiences after emancipation—finding their family members.”—Carolina Alumni Review

“William’s descriptions of scenes of mother and children being separated and sold to different owners are heartrending persuasion that the worst part of the horrible American system of slavery was not the backbreaking work.”—North Carolina Bookwatch

“An excellent book. . . . [that] should be added to everyone’s library in the hope that these sad events will act as a constant reminder that we need to be kind and thoughtful to everyone as we are all Americans now.”—Lone Star Book Review

"[Help Me To Find My People] deserves an important place in [the Black History] annals."—DG Martin, Durham Herald-Sun