Finding the truth
Walter English helps Black Americans research their family history; photo by Lauren Petracca
Walter English had a feeling that there was more to his family story than what he was being told. For many Black people there are big holes in our records and connecting the dots while trying to fill in those gaps can be an arduous and an emotional journey.
“We’re taught slavery happened, Rosa Parks didn’t get up, and Martin Luther King had a dream, and now we’re here,” says English, a poet and an artist who is also known as Walt Way.
But English recognized that our history had more to it than that and set out to find some answers on his own in 2011. “It was important to me because it gave me a chance to see myself in history, outside of what’s taught.”
He wanted to begin his research with an awareness of his family dynamics and the trauma often associated with digging in the past. “I never wanted to pry,” English says.“Both of my parents were born in the South during the 1950s, and I wanted to find out without bothering them.”
English started with a free trial to ancestry.com but he hit roadblocks early. In 2012 his father passed away, and he had lost touch with that side of the family. On his maternal side, his mother and grandmother never talked much about their family history.
“My grandmother is ninety-nine and from Albany, Georgia,” English says, “I can only imagine her experience during those times.”
So he stopped looking for a while. Ten years would pass before a historian friend reached out offering to help him build the family tree that he had only scratched the surface of a decade earlier.With their help, he saw photographs and more, including the slave census with the name of his great-great-grandfather, Brister English.
This was a breakthrough.
“I’ve been interested in history since the seventh grade in Mr. Johnson’s class,” English says.“He had us research so much that it was hard not to become curious.”
That curiosity and those lessons rooted in research have been beneficial as he uncovers Brister’s story and more. Born in South Carolina around 1815, he was enslaved by Thomas English until Thomas passed. Brister was then passed on to Thomas’s son, Thomas Cassander English. Once slavery was abolished, English says that Brister would go on to own land and was an employer of others according to the 1880 nonpopulation census he discovered.
English shared his early journey through a series of TikTok videos that went viral, and he leveraged the social media platform to further connections and asked TikTok “detectives” to assist with information about his family or the families that owned his ancestors. You can watch many of these videos on a playlist on his TikTok at @formerlovepoet.
There are moments of excitement, frustration, and despair. There are also times when English says he gets angry thinking about the conditions his ancestors had to endure—naked, afraid, shipped on boats and sold on slave blocks. And there are periods of euphoria when he learns of the brilliant lineage within his bloodline.
“I get a sense of pride when I see what my ancestors did. The land they owned, the achievements they obtained, the life they lived,” English says. “Our history is more than chains and dreams.”
One of the early connections he made on TikTok was with Chuck Perry, the great-grandson of Cassander English.
English reached out, and while it took Perry a bit, he eventually got back to him. They set up a call, and you can hear a part of that conversation on his TikTok account. During their talk, Perry recalled stories he had heard as a child and of Cedar Hill Plantation—where Brister and others were enslaved. Perry had the privilege of hearing many of these stories firsthand from his family, something far too often not afforded to Black Americans because of who controlled and owned their narratives. In their conversations, Perry said that he felt it was his responsibility to share with anyone connected to the family, even if that connection was through slavery.
“It’s not my fault that my family tree runs through yours,” English says. “I just want to get more information about mine.”
English still uses those short videos on TikTok to highlight his journey and educate others. While many interactions have been positive, there are the individuals that English refers to as the willfully ignorant. “I look at it as a time to not really talk to them but around them,” English says. “One person may say slavery never existed, and I’ll take that comment and show new resources in my database.”
He says that it is his goal to elevate the value of those troll-like or gaslighting comments. He uses his humor and creativity to do more than match their energy, he says.
“I know when they go low, I’m supposed to go high,” English adds with a laugh, “and I’m working on that.”
Since last fall, English has researched as far back as 1790 on his paternal side to Ned English and 1809 on his maternal side to Issac McKibben. And he’s still searching.
“It’s hard to describe the feeling,” English says. “It’s something you definitely have to experience.”
With all the emotions he’s gone through over the last few months, he says he feels connected to something that’s bigger than him. And it’s a feeling that he wanted to give others. So, on Christmas Day last year, he launched the Brister English Project, named for his great-great-grandfather, as a way of carrying on his legacy.
“I see him as someone who wanted more, not only for his family but his people,” English says. “I hope to accomplish what he started by giving something, and my something is connections to history we as Black people have had stripped from us.”
His process for others starts, like it did for him, on Ancestry, with their parents and working his way backward. He uses his own experiences and checks for everything from birth certificates to newspaper articles and uses his historian friend as an additional resource. When it comes to slavery, he says that the search usually starts on Ancestry too but ends up on a database of resources he’s created, including slave schedules, newspaper ads, the Freedmen’s Bureau records, probate records, and more. English says that connecting someone to their past can be a mixed bag and nerve racking, but he loves coming across stories and photos that will resonate with each person.
“Telling someone who’s studying to be a lawyer their great-great grandfather was one of [fewer] than 1,300 Black lawyers in the 1930s is great,” English says. “But then someone learning their line was bred to be the [slave owner] family’s companion is tough.”
As for English, his personal journey continues while helping others discover their ancestry. Next, he hopes to travel and visit the land that Brister owned that he’s recently learned is still in the family.
“I think it’s important to step foot where our ancestors walked,” English says. “I was told the earth remembers everything, and once you make that connection the feeling has to be unreal.”
English says that looking through records and hearing the stories is one thing, but being in the same space will bring even more context.
“I want to walk to up to Brister’s grave and say, ‘It took a little over 200 years, but the world knows your name, Grandpa,’” he says.
To English, that would be priceless.
If you’d like to support the project or learn more, visit BristerEp.me.