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Project identifying enslaved Texans gets "emotional" for one family

Researchers find records for enslaved Texans
Researchers find records for enslaved Texans 05:26

What started as a simple search for family history a year ago is becoming a multi-generational journey of self-discovery.

Last year, we told you about CBS News' producer Rodney Hawkins and his family's efforts to restore their ancestral cemetery in East Texas. It's one of many projects across the country aimed at preserving historic black burial sites.

Family members came from all over the United States to complete the restoration of the nearly 200-year old cemetery, Old Mount Gillion — including Billy Curl, the great uncle of Hawkins.

The man he was named after — a sharecropper named Bill Curl — was Hawkins' great-great-grandfather. When his grave was uncovered last year, it brought back some unexpected memories for Hawkins' grandmother.

Linda Reynolds and Kyle Ainsworth are digging deep into the archives at Stephen F. Austin State University. They found that there were 182,576 slaves in Texas in the 1860 Census.

The pair are digitizing the records for each enslaved person registered as property in Texas. They call it the Lone Star Slavery Project.

As part of the project Ainsworth and Reynolds, were able to find a bill of sale from 1842. The document stated that the cost was $5,900 for 14 slaves, including Hawkins' great-great-great-grandfather. 

"I'm getting kind of emotional reading this, just because I'm sorry. Despite this being a document that shows my ancestor as an asset, it still documents that he existed," Hawkins said.

"Your reaction is the whole reason to do the research," Ainsworth said.

More priceless documents were found and shared with some of Hawkins's oldest living descendants including that bill of sale.

"I have a history now," Curl said. 

Other documents, including a voter registration roll, showed how far the country has come and how far it still needs to go.

"I remember going to the polls with my father. He had to recite the alphabet before they would let him vote," Curl said.

"That's humiliating," Hawkins said.

"And he did it. And paid two dollars for his poll tax. I'll never forget that," Curl said. 

Hawkins' family is restoring their cemetery to honor all those ancestors who endured so much.

"We don't have generational wealth. We're not millionaires, we're not wealthy people, but we have a home, and I call that our legacy," Curl said. 

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