Your family tree is waiting

And it might be getting impatient. Now is the time!

Lost histories and forgotten ancestors just shouldn’t be a thing. So I’m in the business of getting family trees started. Check out the new pages of Black  Girl Gone, Seeking Ancestors, to learn about my family history research services. And once you’re ready for some answers of your own, let’s get started on your family tree.

Special offer for Black Girl Gone readers! 
Blog subscribers: receive a 10% discount if you submit a research request before August 31, 2014

Toni Morrison’s Bench by the Road
Sullivan’s Island, SC
http://www.tonimorrisonsociety.org/bench.html

Also, I remain committed to the powerful benefits of genealogy for young people with my nonprofit, Ancestors unKnown. (Stay tuned for an exciting reboot over there that’s coming soon.)

 

 

Introducing Ancestors unKnown

Ladies and Gentlemen, Dames en Heren, I’m proud to introduce you to my brand new organization, Ancestors unKnown.

Ancestors unKnown introduces young people in the African Diaspora to new perspectives on their histories. We combine a Black history-based curriculum with genealogy/family history research, working in partnership with local organizations, historians, and genealogists.  Beginning in the U.S. (South Carolina) and Suriname, Ancestors unKnown is an international organization.  So in the years to come, I hope to introduce our work and serve communities on multiple continents and islands.

This is still the pilot stage. I want to make lots of changes and additions to the website. And there is so very much work to be done just to stay on track.  But I figure it’s about time to let folks in on the adventure in less cryptic ways.

ancestors blogging

Now I have a few things to ask of you:

1) Check out my first entry on Ancestors Blogging (which eventually will include posts from student participants and partners). Comments are also great!  Here is a piece (I feel like I cheated on this blog by writing over there – so this copy/paste action is how I rectify that):

…could a family that survived the trans-Atlantic slave trade and generations of slavery in the Americas really have left behind no memories? No stories to tell? No lessons to instill? I believe this to be an assumption worth challenging.  And sure enough, digging into some archives revealed tremendous stories waiting to be told, and remarkable ancestors who deserve to be remembered.  I believe everyone has a right to this empowered feeling of knowing her own history, or at least part of it.

2) Please head over to facebook to like the page: https://www.facebook.com/AncestorsUnknown

3) Please share the work we’re doing with your networks. The more people we can invite to the party, the better. (but wait, just so you know, there’s no real party.)

3.5) Eventually I’ll figure out the Twitter thing.  So I’ll be asking you to follow me there at some point too.

4) After all of that, tell me what you think.  Critical feedback is always appreciated.

Sheesh. Feels like I just walked outside wearing my brand new big-girl-pants. But the big ‘ole automatically-locking door just shut behind me.  And I may or may not have forgotten my key.

Big-girl-pants, don’t fail me now. There’s no turning back!

A new audience

For the first time in a very long time, I wasn’t unhappy to be somewhere at 9 a.m. on a Saturday.  Believe it or not, I was even early.  At the National Archives of Suriname, I was meeting the participants in the local genealogy project for the first time.

When I was in Suriname last year, I developed the project in partnership with two organizations: Naks, well-known for its education and celebration of Afro-Surinamese cultural heritage, and Evangelische Broeder Gemeente in Suriname (EBGS), responsible for the archives of Suriname’s Moravian Church.  Both groups are invested in history, ancestors, education, and young people.  And each group has its own youth audience. So it made sense to approach them with the idea of introducing genealogy research to a new audience of Afro-Surinamese young people, combining the extensive archives of EBGS and the historical knowledge of Naks.  

Although logical, the plan wasn’t without concerns.  Mainly, the two groups don’t typically work together.  The church group is typically opposed to the African history side of things, choosing the teachings of the missionaries in their approach to education, perpetuating beliefs that  African ancestors = non-Christian =  bad (I’m going to do my best to stay neutral here, since these are my friends).  Since Naks openly celebrates traditions that are rooted in African heritage, they have a tendency to rub the Christians the wrong way. You know, with the voodoo and all.

But both groups assured me this would be a perfect opportunity for a bridge to mend an arbitrary divide.  If young people from Naks and EBGS could come together to learn about a common Surinamese history, while identifying their ancestors and where they come from, a step could be made in a new direction.  Everyone (well, at least the decision makers) was on-board to cooperate and experiment with the new partnership.

My other concern had nothing to do with Suriname, but young people everywhere.  I wasn’t so sure the passion for genealogy research would translate for a non-retiree audience.  I pictured teenagers losing their eyesight from deeply-committed eye-rolls, incapable of seeing documents that were not produced by and/or for their phones. And I feared history and ancestors would be rejected by a forward-thinking generation.  My insecurities had me convinced I was too idealistic in thinking young lives could be impacted and changed through knowledge of the past.  But again, Naks and EBGS assured me their young people would get it.  They assured me it would work.

So in spite of my unplanned return to Amsterdam, planning for the project continued. Thirteen participants were identified for a pilot run of the project, 5 from Naks and 8 from EBGS.  They kicked-off with a special event back in November.  And the bi-monthly sessions began in January, alternating between genealogy research with EBGS and Surinamese cultural heritage workshops with Naks.  I had been receiving updates and general assurances that things were “going well.”  But I still wondered if they were just keeping secret the fact that the young people were bored to tears – that is, when they weren’t sparring with crucifixes and voodoo dolls.

Now that I’m back in Suriname, Saturday was my first opportunity to see it firsthand – see my idea come to life, see it actually working.  So I woke up early.

Not all of the participants were there, 3 or 4 were missing, I think.  And not all of them are young, with ages ranging from late teens to early 30s.  But that didn’t matter even a little bit (at least they were under 70, right?).  I couldn’t have been happier to see them.

To begin the research process, they had already spoken with their families, arriving at this session with hand-written notes on their family trees.  They introduced themselves and explained their interest in their ancestry, and why they wanted to know where they came from (most of this was in Dutch –  I did my best to follow).  They listened intently to the brief lecture/explanation from the Archives staff.  They welcomed me and my brief introduction with smiles (and embarrassing applause).  They broke into groups and helped each other comb through the census archives.  They chatted with me and answered my random questions enthusiastically.  They took vigorous notes.  They even went over time and continued to research.  And although I was looking at them carefully, I didn’t see one yawn or eye-roll.  They actually seemed interested. And when the session ended, they planned to return on their own time to continue researching.

It was like a dream come true.  Beyond the empowerment of these young people to do their own research and learn the value of their own histories, I was excited for their ancestors. Finally recognized.  Finally going to be known.

Gosh, I cried a little when I got home.

Faithfully complicated archives

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve spent a lot of time with the team managing the archives of the Moravian church, also known as Evangelische Broeder Gemeente Suriname (E.B.G.S).  And this may be some evidence that differing belief systems need not stand in the way of best friendships.

The folks from the archives are working hard, providing a valuable service to the community.  They care about history and value its role, particularly in the lives of many Black Surinamese.  For those with ancestors who joined the Moravian church at some point in the generations since arriving in Suriname, the records can trace back quite far, making them a valuable and much-appreciated resource.   But none of us can deny that these records have some dirty roots.  And they’re associated with the German missionaries who had little or no perception of the humanity of their “saved” subjects.

My feelings about the church’s history are complicated.  Sure, they may have cosigned and perpetuated the enslavement of African people during the years of legal slavery, and maintained systems of mental slavery well after – such as through the marginalization, even criminalization, of traditional, African-influenced spiritual practices.  But those Christian missionaries kept some damn good notes.

EBGS Catalogue covering the area of Waterloo, Suriname, 1869-1890

Among enslaved converts, the records were copious.  Not only did they record the dates of baptisms and adopted Christian names, family relationships and physical descriptions were sometimes included.  For African people recently brought to Suriname, their ethnic group and area of origin were commonly recorded.   And they tracked pretty much every indiscretion of an individual that may have led to judgement or exclusion from the church.  For example, when someone attempted to escape from a plantation, the incident and the resulting punishment were recorded.  Or, every time a man (or woman) cheated on a committed partner, the occasion was written in the missionary’s notes, including names and the juicy details, in the better cases.  For although they accepted that enslaved couples could not marry legally, they expected the couples to live as close to Christian norms as the laws of Suriname would allow – like the 1 woman + 1 man rule.

So, assuming the notes are legible, and one speaks a fair amount of old German, missionary notes that pre-date the nineteenth century can provide some people with the information that so many of us just hope for.  A man who has adopted Christianity offers his African name and ethnic group of origin, along with the name of his committed, romantic partner, and his tendency to cheat with a woman from a neighboring plantation.  C’mon, that’s jackpot.

In the decades following legal slavery in Suriname, the church continued to maintain detailed records and track the lives of its followers.  And since families often stayed close-by, in the same areas for generations, they can be relatively easy to trace.  Details of births, baptisms, (now legal) marriages, and deaths can be found in these gigantic, stereotypical-looking, old books.  And because they’re frequently mentioned in comparison, I assume some of the other local churches, such as the Roman Catholics, maintain a similar level of abundance and detail in their records.  So, all things ugly still considered, I enthusiastically recommend church records to anyone who’s looking.

The notes are cold and matter-of-fact. They depict harsh realities and blurred perspectives of decency. And, most often, they turn my stomach.  But, if I could, I would read them like a Toni Morrison novel.

Genealogy instruction leads to envy

First of all, I’m convinced that time in Suriname moves more quickly than it does in other parts of the world.  It’s impossible for me to believe or admit that I have already been here for more than three weeks.  I don’t know if it’s the busy schedule or the periodic naps/comas that I claim are sun-induced.  But whatever the cause, I’ve lost track of time.  The fact that I’ve met a ton of incredible people who have been invaluable resources for the projects I’m working on, and the fact that I’m feeling pretty comfortable with my surroundings (with the exception of some transportation woes)  may be the best and only evidence to prove to myself that I have, indeed, been here for more than a mere few days.

And today was no exception to my busy schedule.  It started with a 9 am workshop (to be honest, this hour and I had lost acquaintance when I was in Amsterdam) that I provided to several members of the Moravian church archives staff on the process of researching and building family trees.  I’ve been working with this group quite a bit recently.  They have tons of missionary archives that date back to the 17th century, many of which reveal unbelievable details about formerly enslaved Surinamese ancestors.  So not only are they a resource for my thesis research, they’ve also become a partner in a family history research project we’ll be launching next month for local young people.

The staff of the archives gets a growing number of requests each week, primarily from people in the Netherlands seeking information about their ancestors.  If these people know (or suspect) that their ancestors were members of the Moravian church, they send a note to the archives, requesting someone to comb through the books and any/everything related to the names they provide.  They are almost always heavy and challenging requests.  And charging no fee, this team always obliges – helping as many people as they possibly can.  One of the researchers walked me through her process.  And I’m just not sure their work is valued enough – particularly since the majority of the records are written in Gothic German.  (Say what?)  As a side note, today I witnessed one of the staff members having her Gothic German language lesson over skype with a woman in Germany. (Say who?)

Moravian Catalogs listing details about enslaved ancestors

So anyway, because we’re now best friends, when one of the leaders of the archives asked me to train his staff on how to create family trees, I was happy to share whatever insight he thought I had.  The reasoning is that, although the team is pulling the records and sharing them over email, they have not been included in anyone’s process of building a tree.  So the logistics of the process were unclear.

I created a little presentation about my process, focusing on my mother’s mother as an example family tree starting point.  I wrote down all of the many resources I could remember that have been helpful in my own research process.  And I mapped out a process that might be useful for others to remember when establishing the “building blocks” of a family tree.  I took the example from my grandmother through four additional generations.  In addition to my own tree, I threw in a few Suriname-specific sources that I know factor in to most research processes, such as Suriname’s 1921 census.

Yeah, so it was pretty brilliant.  And I think they were interested enough – at least enough to seem engaged and ask questions throughout.  But I’m not so sure it was helpful.  Here’s why: Suriname is way ahead of the U.S. in terms of available resources for family history researchers.  And my complicated, convoluted process seemed almost irrelevant as we talked through their options here.  For example, in the U.S., if we want to access the birth, death or marriage records of our ancestors, we first have to solve the mystery of what city/state to go to, which office in that city/state holds the records, how you make the request, if you even can make the request, and finally, how much it’s going to cost.  You can use some creative census and city directory information to find people.  But once you find one bit of new information, I’m pretty sure you’re also authorized for a private investigator’s license.

But in my training today, they asked, “why couldn’t you just go to your CBB?” The  Centraal Bureau voor Burgerzaken (Central Registration Office) is a one-stop shop for recent ancestor research.  Not sure of every detail about your great grandparents? Just go to the CBB, give them your information, and they can provide you with your family tree.  I hear it may take some days.  But still – they provide you with your family tree?  A central place where everyone registers – and your family can actually access the information? Imagine that.

And you might not even need the CBB.  Because in Suriname, every single family has what they call a “family book.” When children are born, parents receive a family book that lists the names and relevant details of the parents and grandparents.  So right there, the children have the starting point of a family tree.  And if you can access your grandmother’s family book, you’re golden.  Also in today’s training, one of the women pulled from her purse her mother’s family book.  Since her mother recently died, she holds it for sentimental reasons.  This means she also carries with her the names of her great grandparents – and something they may have also held themselves.  Practical and sentimental.

Now, the barriers of the research begin to resemble U.S. barriers once we reach the late 19th century, when records still weren’t kept consistently.  And, of course, slavery presents a frustrating challenge for any Black family researcher.  But even then, if an enslaved ancestor in Suriname fell in with some Christians, you might learn about him too – as well as that affair he had with the woman from that neighboring plantation.

So sure, it’s great to have a new perspective on approaches to this research in other countries.  But I felt a bit silly when describing how complicated and inaccessible information can be in the U.S.  And kinda jealous of the practical and sentimental advantages they have here.  No, no, make that very jealous.

An anniversary, a milestone, and more to come

The one-year anniversary to mark my arrival in the Netherlands came when I was in Greece.   I sat in a cute little restaurant in Athens, avoiding returning to my temporary dorm-like residence, getting a little tipsy on wine.  At that time I attempted to write the 100th post for black girl gone.  Most of it was about the journey that brought me here – a journey that began far longer than a year ago, as evidenced by this blog alone.  But it was a ho-hum of a post, with the weepy sorrows of years long gone.  I can get plenty of that with a quick scan of old posts.  So fortunately, a dead battery and a failure to save resulted in the loss of what I had written.

Beyond acknowledgement of a challenging path, some really smart decisions, and a newly found trust in my instincts and distrust of expectations, I think my one-year anniversary and 100th post should focus on what’s next.  The year, and whatever else ahead…

1) Genealogy overload

I went almost completely dark on my personal family research well over a year ago.  And last year I picked up the projects of several others in Amsterdam, researching family histories that stem largely from Suriname and the Dutch Antilles.  But I’ve even fallen behind with them.

No more of that.  Re-opening my own research, while furthering and creating noise around the local genealogy project will be a priority.  My family research has left plenty of unanswered questions.  And the local interest and passion for family history is certainly enough for me to gain more momentum for the project in Amsterdam.   For this reason, you can expect somewhat of a shift in this blog.  Expect more family history and genealogy-related posts.  Accept it, my friends.  This will be a defining aspect of my life.  In the longer-term, I expect it to take me back to the southern states of the U.S., Salt Lake City, Cuba, and southern Africa – at least.  I expect to earn the title of genealogist.  And I can’t wait.

ancestors await...

2) Write a Master’s thesis

By August.  I want to (and I will) finish by August.  Is denial of access to one’s family history a form of social oppression?  It will be some type of a comparative study of black Dutch and black Americans, as descendants of survivors of slavery, and their perceptions of identity, as potentially impacted by a (lack of) knowledge of ancestry.  Or something like that.

study habits

3) Suriname

It’s there.  And I don’t see why I shouldn’t be.  So I’m setting my sights on creating a plan to spend a few months moving a genealogy research project forward in Suriname by the end of this year.  This will require support, funding, and a more concrete idea.  But my instincts are telling me this will be important.  So before I understand it so clearly, I’m going to work on putting a plan into place.

Suriname census

4) More traveling; more writing

I continually taunt myself with the cliché, “life is short!” But hell if it isn’t.

I enjoy traveling.  And I enjoy writing.  I need to do more of both to spend more time enjoying this too-short life.

the look of travel

5) The fellas

I’ve gone back and forth on this issue, to dramatic degrees.  All resulting in very little.  Dating/not dating/white boys/no boys/single lady/ cat lady.   I’m putting all of it away.  To be honest, this is less about some level of personal growth, and more about simple boredom with the subject.  Look, folks. I’m human, okay?  Of course I notice that most of my friends are in stable relationships that are leading to marriage and/or babies.  But that doesn’t mean any of this knowledge occupies a significant amount of space in my mind.  It shouldn’t.  And it doesn’t.

This year, whatever happens with the fellas will be fine with me.  Let’s just leave it at that.

"I don't like any of these boys..."

I enjoyed last year very much.  And it looks like, more than ever, I’m in control of the year ahead.   So I think I’ll enjoy this one even more.  I hope you’ll continue to join me!

The Genealogy Project

I was fortunate enough this past weekend to sit at a table with a diverse group of black folks who are just as interested in their family histories as I am in mine.  The best part of it is they’re allowing me to join them on their journeys to learn about their ancestors, as we will work as a supportive group of researchers in what I’m calling “the genealogy project.”  This makes me very happy.

So I’ve mentioned the internship already.  It started with an introduction to NiNsee.  Genealogy already fell within their purview, primarily for those with Surinamese and/or Antillean ancestry.  So when I proposed the idea of working with a group of people to help them research their family trees, they were into it.  But even with my enthusiasm and their support, I worried that it wouldn’t become a reality.  Between my focus on school and their already full plates, I thought it might be one of those things that gets pushed around and tweaked for awhile, until it’s finally forgotten about.

Fortunately, my pessimism is no longer a decision maker for me.  My new approach (most of the time) is to acknowledge what my hesitation or fear would want me to do, and then do the opposite – no matter how uncomfortable.  So in this case, I just kept following up.  It has required asking a lot of questions, meeting new people, and doing lots of research – more of which I still must do.  Although I have a pretty good grasp on the history of Africans in the U.S., those who were taken to the Caribbean and South America have diverging stories, both in enslavement and freedom.  So the history of Suriname is new to me – fascinating and new.

I have one primary point person at NiNsee who is working with me on the project.  Since the original proposal, she and I have met several times.  A few weeks ago we took a trip to the National Archives in the Hague, where we tried to figure out how the records related to former Dutch colonies are organized.  Although they have plenty of relevant records, primarily from Suriname, they’re not all organized so nicely.  But the staff is incredibly helpful – in spite of their obvious preference to speak Dutch.  We were able to ask lots of questions and gain some level of familiarity with their process.  And before we left, we found one of her ancestors that she had been hoping to learn more about on a Surinamese census.

In addition to the research side of it, I was worried about finding people to participate in the project.  I’m American and I’ve been here for only a few months.  I’m not necessarily well-positioned to find a unique group of black, Dutch genealogists.  But after making an announcement at a NiNsee event, and using some leads they already had, I managed to recruit a group of 8 people (it could be as many as 10).  They range in age from early 20s to 60.  And I’ve already heard some incredibly interesting family stories and a few mysteries to uncover.  In individual meetings with a few of the participants, they each have had their notes that always include partial names, scratched out dates, and question marks.  And they each speak about their families with a combined sense of enthusiasm and frustration.  Most have someone to ask questions.  But most often, that source has limited knowledge.  And the real knowledge holders are usually long gone, having never been asked enough of the right questions.

Although each participant has her and his own family to research, my goal is to remove some of the isolating feeling that can result from this type of project.  For this reason, I’ve pitched it as a group project.  NiNsee will be a resource, I’ll do whatever I can to help, and the group will offer support and inspiration, meeting every one or two months.  Folks will make progress and they’ll face barriers.  I’m hopeful the group will appreciate sharing in these various stages.

So Saturday was the kick-off.  Although the full group was not able to attend, I can see it’s the perfect group with which to launch this type of project.  Everyone shared some of their stories and I shared some tidbits about my family.  We had some interesting discussions about history and racial politics.  Catalogs were pulled out and folks looked for their family names.  And we could barely finish before everyone wanted to launch into break-out conversations with other members of the group.

Since the meeting, I’ve already received some updates about conversations members of the group have had with mothers, grandmothers, and aunts (fathers have demonstrated a trend as being the ones who speak the least about family…).

And so it begins!  Everyone seems excited.   I’m definitely excited.

Learning and Interning

You know that organization that I’ve mentioned a few times, NiNsee?  This may be an example of a crush turning into love.

NiNsee (pronounced nin-say) stands for Nationaal instituut Nederlands slavernijverleden en erfenis, which means the National institute for the study of Dutch slavery and its legacy.  Several months ago (before leaving the states), when I mentioned my interest in studying the significance of genealogy research for young people throughout the African diaspora, an academic adviser recommended I take a look at NiNsee’s work.  I looked them up, was impressed by what they were doing, and sent a blind email to them.  I figured it wouldn’t hurt.  And it didn’t hurt.  It also didn’t lead to anything.

A few weeks later, planning for my move, I learned what my address in Amsterdam would be.  So I did what probably 90 percent of you would do in this era of google that we live in – I looked up the street view of my apartment and most of the neighborhood.  I dropped the little google guy in various locations, just trying to get a sense of the area and what life was soon to be like.  On maybe the second or third drop the google guy was directly in front of NiNsee’s office.  I thought that was pretty crazy.  And since I believe in signs, I took it as one.

Months later, I walked through the neighborhood and found the office in person.  Although I knew it was close-by, I hadn’t thought about it in awhile.  So it was a pleasant find.  I thought about how perfect it would be to walk or ride my bike to the office in less than five minutes, walking in with some type of legitimate purpose for being there.

I took a few pictures of the building, which is quite lovely, including haunting images of African people in the windows.  The logo incorporates the Dutch monument for the history of slavery – which actually shares a history with NiNsee as they were a dual response from the government to the demands for an apology for Dutch history in the slave trade and slavery.  As a side note, I’m learning interesting things about the ongoing controversies related to these matters, which I’m looking forward to sharing when I can find the right words to use.

Maybe two weeks after that I introduced myself in one of my classes, including a brief babble about my research interests.  The professor lit up, saying, “I have to connect you with a woman I know at this great organization called NiNsee!”  My eyes kind of teared up.

Only two or three more weeks passed before I found myself in NiNsee’s office, chatting with one of their researchers.  She gave me a tour of the small museum, which shines a spotlight on slavery in Suriname, the largest Dutch colony, and the Antilles.  Many of the documents, images, and descriptions look similar to what I have seen in U.S. museums and libraries.  The power of this exhibit is in the fact that the history is familiar and well-documented, yet so widely unheard or ignored by Dutch people.  But it’s impossible to deny the evil history when you’re looking right at it.

Anyway, she introduced me to some folks in the office.  Everyone was incredibly pleasant and impressively smart.  As we began talking about my interest in genealogy, they shared with me the work that’s been done to document the names of all enslaved people at the time of abolition (former enslavers received compensation of 300 guilders per person for the loss of free labor – so they were pretty complete when documenting every single black person who was worth money).  And I learned that many black people in Amsterdam, primarily Surinamese, are beginning to seek the details of their family histories.  So before leaving, I set up a meeting with another researcher for the following week to discuss how I might be able to get involved with the genealogy side of things.

The following week, we brainstormed.  A proposal and yet another meeting later, we were basically making an internship official.  I still need to make some revisions to the proposal, and many of the details have yet to be decided.  But the gist of it is I’ll be putting together a user-friendly guide for people tracing black ancestry in the Netherlands (on the beginner level, of course).   The coolest part is we’ll identify 10-15 young people (though some may not be so young) in the community who are interested in developing their family trees.  I’ll work with them for six months or so, tracing their families as far back as we can go.  I have this image of the young researchers working with me, as well as supporting each other on their projects.  At the end of the core project, we’ll use the findings to put together some type of workshop for the general public.  Sounds pretty perfect, right?

On top of all of that loveliness, they mentioned wanting to figure out a way to get me to Suriname.  So another objective will be to find a way to fund a visit.  Apparently some really valuable things related to genealogy are happening in Suriname.  It’s a budding movement that has some folks applying for funding.  Only problem is the english grantwriting has been a challenge.  Oh but wait, I have grantwriting experience.  C’mon.  It’s a dreamy dream!

But I can’t pretend that something about this doesn’t scare me.  It’s like the universe is enthusiastically saying, “oh, this is what you want? well then heeeeeere ya go, my friend!”

Lights go out, curtain opens, spotlight shines, audience waits.  I stand there in full costume – not quite sure of the routine or what I’ve gotten myself into.  But the music is starting.  So I’m just going to dance and see what happens next…

Finding Family

As an extension of my genealogy research, I’ve been working on a video project, documenting the process of discovery that I’ve been on with my family this year. When my Mom and I traveled South in July, I took a Flip camera along to record various moments of the journey. Between the videos and documents found, I think it ends up being a pretty interesting story to tell. I’m calling the video “Finding Family.”

One aspect of documenting the story of discovering my family’s history that brings to light a frustrating barrier is our lack of family photos. Since I have no living grandparents, and neither of my parents were particularly nostalgic about holding onto old photos when they would have had access to them, we just don’t have many images of our ancestors. And when we started to think about who would have access to photos, as well as any other details about the family, we came up with some cousins who might be the key to what we’ve needed. Only problem is we don’t have relationships with these (or any) cousins – on either side of my family. Good news is this research project has not only introduced me to ancestors and their remarkable stories, it’s also been an excuse to find the living family. Family with photos, perhaps.

Well, the first new family I’ve found in this process actually found me. Using her ancestry.com account, she found that we have an ancestor in common. Our great grandfathers were brothers, meaning we have the same 2nd great grandfather – Calvin Strother. So she sent me a short email through ancestry, asking if I was indeed related to the Strothers, and if I might have more information about the family. I was so excited to hear from her. We quickly got into long email exchanges about our families and what we could piece together about the Strothers. I would happy-cry uncontrollably, looking at photos of my new cousin, her family, and the one photo she had of her great grandfather, James – my great grandfather’s brother.

James Strother - Sparta, Illinois c. 1925

I see an unexpected resemblance between him and my father.

Dad

 

She shared details she knew about our 2nd great grandmother and the date of her death, based on a letter her great grandfather received from one of the other brothers, asking for money to help with their mother’s burial costs. Perhaps my great grandfather received a similar letter.  I shared information I found about Calvin’s involvement in a controversial 1876 election in South Carolina. He and his brother were among the first black voters to begin voting democratic and faced tons of harassment as a result. Transcripts of their depositions in the trial that followed are fascinating. So anyway, my new cousin and I were so happy to have found each other. I’m looking forward to meeting her at some point.

 

1876 Deposition Transcript

And then there’s the white woman who received the surprise phone call from her black cousin. I described in an earlier post the discovery that my great grandfather’s white father has family still in Dawson, GA. My 2nd great grandfather and Kathy’s grandmother were siblings. Now since her grandmother never talked about her brother’s black family, cousin Kathy couldn’t give us much information or any photos of my great grandfather or his siblings. But we did leave Dawson with photos of my 3rd great grandparents.

 

Francis and Fanny Harper - 3rd greats

More recently, as I’ve been wrapping up the video project, I’ve gotten more and more frustrated by the complete lack of photos of my mother’s father. In spite of the fact that I knew him well and I was in college when he died, I don’t have access to one photo of him. So my mom and I decided she would reach out to a long lost cousin – her first cousin.

After my mom’s parents were divorced and she moved from Jacksonville to Philadelphia with her mother, she lost touch with much of her father’s family. But since her father and his father were brothers, and she knew him until she was about 9, we figured it wouldn’t hurt to write him a sincere, handwritten note (note to self: if you don’t want someone to write sincere, unsolicited, handwritten notes to you in the future, make sure you can’t be found on google).

Just a few days later, they were speaking on the phone for hours. And he was learning to use a scanner in order to begin sharing the many photos he has of my mother’s family, including my grandfather, great grandfather, great grandmother, and even my 2nd great grandfather (Thomas W. Long). Many of these photos will be of people I’ve never before seen. Fortunately, he described his mother (my grandfather’s sister-in-law) as a pack rat. The possibilities of what he will share are endless.

 

Long Family - sometime in the mid to late '50s.

To hold us over, he shared one incredible photo of my mother and uncle with my grandparents. This is the first photo I’ve ever seen of my mother at this age – same for my grandparents. Pop looks so cool and happy. Nana just looks lovely.

I think most people associate genealogy research only with making connections to the past – at least I used to. But I’m learning that it also creates opportunities to find family and connect in the present, making up for lost time…and lost photos.

Tips from an Amateur Genealogist

Although I started my family research only earlier this year, I quickly became obsessed with it.  I also achieved an unusual amount of success in a relatively short period of time.  It’s been such a powerful experience.  I highly recommend it for any/everyone.

A few people have asked me for tips on getting started with genealogy research.  I do not claim to be an expert by any means.  But I have learned a few things along the way that may be helpful to some folks.  So I figured I’d share.  And since I had lots of success by starting online, here are a few tips for starting online family research. (Note: keep in mind I have mostly black ancestors, which in many ways informs my approach to the research.)

1) Write down who/what you know:

  • Parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, grandparent siblings, great grandparents, etc.
  • Full names (including middle names, if possible), birthdays, birth locations, death locations

2) Sign up for an ancestry.com account (they have a 14-day free trial)

  • Populate the family tree with what you know
  • Check out the hints they provide

3) Comb through these records:

Federal Census Records

  • The most recent published federal census is 1930
  • They go back in 10-year intervals (note: the 1890 census burned in a fire back in the day and, therefore, only exists in rare pieces. Don’t count on finding someone in 1890 using the federal census)
  • Go backwards – start by looking for your grandparents as children (knowing the date and place of their birth will help you find them on the census)
  • Keep in mind that only white ancestors will be found on the census prior to 1870, though free blacks should have been recorded in the northern states (I don’t have personal experience with this)
  • Each year they recorded different facts on the census.  Everything is useful, but pay careful attention to (and record) the following:
    • Names of parents, siblings, anyone else in the household
    • Birth location of individual and their parents (this is especially useful when looking for the parents of the oldest people in the household)
    • Ages/birth years (some census records will also provide the month of birth) – Note: ages and birth years are rarely precise and commonly change with each census – families frequently estimated birth dates
    • Some years the census will ask # years parents were married, providing year of marriage
    • Some of the later census records ask the household’s mother # of children born & # of children still living – compare this to who’s still in the household
    • Different spellings of names; are they using their middle names?
    • Address – at least get the city and county; later years will tell you the street name and house number (note: google the address – sometimes the street and even the house is still there)
    • Is the home Owned (“O”) or Rented (“R”)? – an owned home may give you access helpful property records
    • Literacy – who can read and write?
    • Occupation (confusion about whether a person is the same from one census to the next can sometimes be resolved by the occupation)

Federal Census Slave Schedules – 1860 and earlier

  • These records are not incredibly helpful. But if you have an idea of a slave owner’s name, and the approximate age of an enslaved ancestor, you may find these helpful.
  • They record the gender, age and race (black vs.mulatto) of black people – no names

State Census Records

  • Ancestry will pull state and federal censuses at the same time. State records are helpful because they could take place during the off years of the federal census (for example, Florida has an 1885 and 1935 census). They’re unpredictable. But take a look at what your states of interest recorded.

Marriage Licenses

  • Wife’s maiden name – this will allow you to search for a woman as a child, potentially leading to her parents
  • Date and location of marriage are important to record
  • Age at time of marriage

Death records

  • Social Security death index – with this, you have the social security #, which will help if requesting an actual death certificate from the county
  • Death Certificates – they provide lots of information, though they’re frequently not found online, and sometimes not fully completed
    • Look for: date of death, age, location and address, length of time in location, married/single/widowed, name of spouse, maiden name, name of parents

Military Records

  • WWI registration cards – ancestry has many of these.  If an ancestor would have been military age through 1918, it’s worth looking for a registration card.
    • Look for: age, physical description, address, occupation, single/married, date of registration
  • WWII registration cards – also found on ancestry
  • Civil War registration cards for Union and Confederacy also provide physical descriptions, locations, and ages. You’ll also get the name of the unit, which likely has been documented well enough to tell you the battles fought with a basic google search.

4) Some other helpful sites to try, using the information you already have:

5) Use Google – search in creative ways

  • last name, first name
  • “last name, first name”
  • “first name last name” + city, state and/or county
  • “first name last name” + birth year-death year
  • “first name last name” + occupation + location
  • any combination of the above

5) Don’t forget about siblings and spouses. They can lead to information about your direct line.  They also have interesting stories of their own.

6) Stay cool. It can be frustrating.