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

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.)



Bugging the elders

To save money, I’ve been staying with an older woman who lives in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina.  As I mentioned before, she’s 82 and delightful.  And we’ve spent hours talking.  Our topics range from her time in the Air Force, dating life (hers and mine), racism in the South, racism in the North, the children we both love (but never birthed), and memories of childhood.

Her honesty is refreshing.  And I’m happy that she likes me.  I was even shown a picture of her single nephew who’s about my age, with the slightest hints of our future together (though she doubts he’ll ever marry).

But there’s just this one thing that came up recently: Continue reading

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.

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…

Black Girl Gone Back to Africa

This revelation about my ancestry is coming sooner than expected.  On Saturday I did some research at the Schomburg in Harlem. I was only there for about 1.5 hours. I spent at least ten minutes of that time shaking and in tears…the super duper happy kind. Back to Africa kind of happy.

I went with a focused mission. In an attempt to tie up some loose ends before heading south, I wanted to take a look at a book my great grandfather, Charles Sumner Long (my mother’s paternal grandfather), wrote back in 1939. Since he and his father were both prominent leaders in the A.M.E. Church in Florida, it makes sense that the book is about the history of the church. I recently purchased and read a book about this same history, which made numerous references to Charles’ father, Thomas Warren Long. I have also come across numerous references to Charles’ book. But unfortunately, it’s no longer in print and can now only be found on microfiche. Hence my trip to the Schomburg.

My expectations weren’t too high. I suspected the book would carry a neutral tone and as the author, Charles wouldn’t go into much detail about his family. So when I saw a photo of Charles on one of the first pages (I had never seen his image before), I was satisfied and felt my 1.25 hour-long trip to Harlem was worthwhile.

I set myself up with a well-funded copy card, prepared to print any page that made reference to anyone with the last name Long. I scrolled through the book, zooming, straightening and focusing the film almost obsessively. I printed various pages with tidbits about Charles and his father’s role in the establishment of numerous churches in Florida. Somewhere in the middle of the book, between two chapters about a black bishop and a black politician, Charles wrote a brief chapter about his (and my) family history. I started crying as soon as I read, “He was the slave of John Roberts…” It felt like striking genealogy gold.

Here’s what I read:

Can this even be real?!  He dumped so much information on my lap that it took me some time to process. In all honesty, after I printed the page, I had to put it out of my mind just to regain the capacity to get through the rest of the book. And not until I left the library did I fully digest exactly what I had learned about James Long, as well as Thomas (though I already had a small bit of his story). I’m still digesting it, really.

First of all, most people assume that if their ancestors survived the slave trade, they came from the west coast of Africa.  And since the Zulus are from southern Africa, not many people are even aware they fell victim to slave traders.  But it happened, and apparently not so infrequently.  According to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, between 1783 and 1825, 25,477 were taken from southeastern Africa to Cuba alone, (21,038 disembarked).  Although his circumstances were less common, my third great grandfather certainly wasn’t alone.

The Spanish trade to Havana, Cuba started in 1789, which is perhaps right before the time James would have arrived.  And apparently Matanzas was big on sugar production.  So I can make the assumption that James was working on a sugar plantation.  Beyond that, I can’t even begin to imagine what he experienced.  An entirely new area for research has opened up.

Although I have found an African ancestor, which for many would be the jackpot that brings such a project to a close, there is so much more work to be done.  I need to catch up on these areas of history that I previously had no idea related to me.  As far as the Longs, there is one big, gaping hole in the story. If James purchased his freedom in Cuba and moved to Florida, under what circumstances did his son come to be enslaved? Was he also re-captured into slavery after moving to Florida? And was his wife enslaved as well? I’ll need to do some research on this John Roberts character in Jacksonville. Perhaps details about his plantation will direct me to the details that will fill in these gaps.

And speaking of traveling (was I at some point?), these new insights have added at least two more trips to my agenda, keeping in mind my agenda has become more of a long-term thing.  Cuba (Matanzas in particular) and Mozambique, since it seems the most common route from southeastern Africa to Cuba was from Mozambique to Havana. Perhaps this is wishful thinking.  But who knows what kind of records of the trade they kept  in either Mozambique or Havana?  I may be getting greedy, but I think I might have a chance to learn James Long’s African name.