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How to Trace Your Family Roots

For African-Americans, finding your ancestors can be tough, but it’s not impossible. Genealogist Kenyatta Berry and local experts give advice on how to start.

You may have been watching The Real Housewives of Atlanta this season when the cast took a tour of historic Savannah, Ga. When they visited a church that had been a station in the Underground Railroad, one of the women lamented sadly over how our history was forever lost because of slavery.

That's a giant misconception that Detroit native Kenyatta Berry is dedicating her life to correcting. A lawyer and genealogist, Berry is the national president of the Association of Professional Genealogists and one of the experts included in the PBS fall 2013 series Genealogy Roadshow.

"It's not true that as African-Americans, we can't find our history," says Berry, who now lives in Los Angeles. "Slavery provides a challenge, but it's not the end. It just takes different techniques."

Tracing your roots, step by step

The first step, says Berry, is to begin with yourself.

"Start with what you already know about yourself and your parents and work backwards," she says. "For African-Americans, it's critical to interview your living relatives."

Ask them for the plain facts: dates of marriages, graduations, births and deaths. Ask who lived where and when they moved. Ask about their livelihoods and find out the maiden names of the women. All of these details can provide a gateway to the past.

"Make it casual, not like an interrogation," says Berry. "People know more than they think they know."

Your next step is to consult the census. The first U.S. Census was taken in 1790. The individual information compiled by the Census Bureau is released to the public 72 years after the date that it's compiled. That means that you now have online access to personal census data from 1940 or earlier.

"That's a wealth of information," says Berry. "The census can help you fill in the gaps. It will give you a picture of the relationships in the household, where people were born and what they were doing at the time of the census."

There are pitfalls, however, in relying upon census information. According to Leslie Strong Williams, "Census records are only as good as the enumerator." Strong Williams is the president of the Fred Hart Williams Genealogical Society in Detroit. Founded 35 years ago, the society is the oldest such organization in Michigan.

"Many of the people taking the census weren't literate themselves," says Strong Williams, who makes sure she includes her maiden name, Strong, as a way for future generations to be able to trace her lineage. "Many spelled names phonetically. They often only documented who was present at the time, so family members were left out simply because they weren't home."

Both Strong Williams and Berry recommend the practice of "cluster genealogy." That means researching census records five pages ahead and five pages behind the record you're looking for. Related people often lived on the same block. And if someone wasn't at home at the time the census was taken, they could have been enumerated at the house next door.

And here's a tip to make sure you can retrace your steps and not lose valuable research. "Cite your sources," Berry says. "That will help you along the way."

Their history is our history

If you're lucky, your family research may be fairly productive—until you try to reach beyond 1870. That's the first year that formerly enslaved African-Americans were counted in the U.S. Census as humans and not property. That means that if you want to research Black family ancestry before 1870, the census won't be much help. Here's where your research will require a different strategy: Researching the history of the White families who may have enslaved your ancestors.

This, says Berry, is where it becomes clear how entwined the histories of Blacks and Whites are, despite the deep racial and cultural divides that still exist today.

"We know about the cruelty of slavery, but you have to remember that these families lived side-by-side and relationships developed," Berry explains. "Many slave owners only had one or two slaves, and they worked beside their slaves in the fields. And for those who had many slaves, they often willed their slaves to family members. This not only benefitted the White owners, but it was also their way of 'keeping the families together.'"

It may be counterintuitive that to find out more about a Black family, a researcher must know about the White families connected to them. But that's exactly what held true for Connie Taylor when she started investigating her family tree. A Detroit-area entrepreneur, Taylor got hooked into genealogy after trying to settle her mother's estate. In researching the legal title to the Chicago home that had been in the family since 1920, she realized that her ancestors had migrated from Mississippi. Her research and constant networking led her to the Dorsey A. Outlaw Plantation in Oktibbeha County, Mississippi.

"Having been raised in the North, my head was filled with all the stereotypes about the South," says Taylor, who lectures widely about her journey. "When I got off the plane, I was worried about what Whites would do to me, especially when I started asking questions about slaves. But the people who opened their doors to me were the White people I had been afraid of."

Along with a group of her relatives, she visited the plantation where her ancestors lived. It is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

"It was incredible to be in the place where they had been," says Taylor. "That house was built by them. The fine fabrics were woven by them. I had no idea of the level of skill and craftsmanship that was in my family until I saw it firsthand."

That, says Berry, is exactly why a serious genealogist must eventually get off the computer and actually visit sites, libraries and courthouses firsthand.

"Much of the information and history is still kept locally and isn't necessarily online," says Berry. "To effectively break the barrier of 1870, you might need to follow how the property passed in the White families—bills of sale, wills, land records. If you want to know where the records exist about slaves, they exist in the documents of slaveholding families."

Berry offers a few more tips for tracking down ancestors who were enslaved.

"If your ancestor had an unusual surname like 'Ailes,' then look for Whites with the same surname living in the same county in 1870," says Berry. "If your ancestor had a common surname like 'Berry,' then you need to look at records such Freedman's Bureau labor contracts, which were sharecropping agreements."

Why The Past Matters Now

Berry has helped many ordinary people sift through records to piece together the extraordinary stories of their past. For many, the research is life-altering, often laced with awe and tears.

"When you learn about the struggles, triumphs and successes of your ancestors, it becomes an emotional experience," says Berry. "They are no longer faces in a photo or names on a record—they come to life in a way that is very powerful. "

Taylor agrees. "I remember finding the names of my great-grandparents and screaming out loud right there in the courthouse," she says. "This research has given me such respect for my family. The shame of being a descendant of a slave and the shame of having a mixed-heritage family has all evaporated. I'm through with that."

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