I forget sometimes that not everyone knows about the brick walls Black Americans run into while researching their family tree. I've been doing this for so long that I assume that it is common knowledge that the 1870 census is the first census that list Black Americans by name. Before then, if Black citizens were not free, they were just a number, an age and a gender on the census.
Another brick wall we face is the surname. After emancipation, Black Americans could pick the surname they wanted. Statistically, only 15% kept the name of the slave owner. The other 85% selected names for various reasons. Sometimes names were tried on to see if they fit and then were discarded willy nilly.
Right now I am trying to figure out why my great-great grandfather Napoleon chose the surname Cotten. On the 1870 Mississippi census his family's surname was Anderson. I can't even find him on the 1880 census. On the 1900 census he is now a Cotten. His oldest son is living next door to a White Cotten. They both list their occupation as merchants which I thought had to be more that a coincidence. However, I haven't been able to discern what the importance of them being neighbors is. To make things more curious, Napoleon's brother is using the surname Cain on the 1900 census. Just another mystery to unravel.
I wrote to Sandra Craighead, a Mississippi plantation expert, after a disappointing trip to the Mississippi State Archives. At that time I still thought my ancestors were slaves from a Cotten plantation. Craighead dispelled that notion. With very little oral history to go on, I don't know which documents to look for to tell me what I need to know.
Hitting your head against these brick walls produce lots of frustration and headaches.