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.)



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.

Gone Back to the States

Although I don’t regret moving by any means, I often say that Amsterdam would be 100x better if I could transplant all of my favorite people there.  Sadly, no one seems willing to support me on this mission.  At least not yet.  But one good thing about leaving a lot of people you love behind is having the opportunity to appreciate them even more when visiting.  My time in the States is quite short, with only two weeks split between nyc and chicago.  So on this visit, I have had to soak up as much love as I can as quickly as possible.  And not knowing when I will see many of them again makes this visit that much more critical.

This July visit was planned before my one-way ticket to Amsterdam was even purchased.  As soon as my dear friend knew the date of her wedding, I knew my return to the States would be planned around it.  Shortly after that, I found out my sister was expecting her third child, who would be born in March.  Two visits wouldn’t have been possible.  So the priorities of this July visit were baby, wedding, and friends.  And since my Mom is in Chicago, it only made sense to tack on an extra leg to the midwest. 

I arrived at JFK on Tuesday evening and was immediately greeted by a funky wave of humidity.  And having left behind a 70-something degree situation in Amsterdam, this was less than pleasant.  Then after about a 25 minute wait, I was on the A train headed for Manhattan.  As if no time away from the city had passed, the familiar smells of day-old piss and body odor made me feel right at home.  Five semi-talented boys attempted to entertain the car for a couple of stops by jumping around and dancing, a loud family of four shared with all of us the happenings of their day, and a stinky lady passed through only briefly, but left behind her odor for many stops to come.  I already missed the independence and odorlessness of my bike rides.

The reunions and couch surfing began immediately.  Late-night chats, lunches, dinners, drinks, desserts.  And somehow, I’ve managed to see most people I have on a priority list.  My niece made a special trip into the city from jersey to meet me, wearing the cutest little outfit and accompanied by my sister. We had most of a day together while my sister worked.  The following day my friend’s wedding was perfectly gorgeous and full of love, giving me my fill of good friends, tasty food, alcohol, and dancing (my favorite combination of things, by the way).  And it’s been nonstop since then.

The whirlwind tour will continue with some more family time before I head out to Chicago in a couple of days.  In the meantime, I’m sitting in union square park, waiting for my next date.  Almost every bench is filled, as the lawn is “temporarily closed.” An insane number of temperamental drunk people apparently use the area as a meeting spot at this time of day.  And the noise of the traffic is only slightly shielded by the fighting drunks and a little girl crying. Once I see all the people I love, I’m ready to get back to the parks and (my) lazy days in Amsterdam.

A Happy Holiday

I used to love, love, love Christmas (still do!). And judge me if you’d like. But it didn’t have anything to do with baby Jesus. I’m purely into the secular and commercial aspects of the holiday. I believed in Santa until my sister killed the illusion. And I probably could have kept the fantasy going for much longer because I wanted to believe in it. Not so much the fat, white man breaking into homes while people sleep part – that’s undeniably creepy. But it was the mystery of a generous spirit arriving once a year to reward you for being good and kind. And the excitement, generosity, and overall happiness of my family. It was all so fantastic.

And my Mom went big with it. Christmas was such a major affair in our house. We’d have the tree decorated well before the holiday, including the various ornaments my sister and I made throughout the years, and lots of pretty lights. A few wrapped presents were placed under the tree in advance. But the real magic would happen overnight between xmas eve and xmas morning. We’d go downstairs early in the morning to find a fantasy land where barbies and cabbage patch dolls came to celebrate. My dad would have put some things together, with plenty of treasures for my sister and me to enjoy in amazement on our respective sides of the tree (I think she normally had the right side and I had the left). The barbie pool and several dolls would stand out on her side, while a big sled and the “hungry, hungry hippo” game waited for me. I have such vivid, and fond memories of looking over the railing from upstairs to see what was in store for us downstairs on xmas morning. It never disappointed, always filling me with incredible amounts of joy. And although it was somewhat materialistic (who doesn’t like to get fun things every once in awhile?), the overarching sentiment was the fun of anticipation and surprise.

As part of the natural cycle of life, my sister, brother-in-law, and I stayed up until about 3am this morning to prepare for xmas morning for my two nephews. Wrapping, assembling things, making it all look festive and exciting – it was a serious effort. And just like it has pretty much every year before, it made me super happy, remembering how much I love this holiday. The only major difference between xmas now and then is the ability to sleep through the night (xmas was the only day of the year on which I thought it perfectly acceptable to start my day at 4am). And just like my sister and me, my nephews are lucky boys – surrounded by family, love, and incredibly cool presents.

I’m not into many holidays. Valentine’s Day can stay in its exclusive, cardboard, heart-shaped box, Easter and its bunny never really caught on (though one year I got a poorly handwritten note from the Easter bunny thanking me for the cookies I provided, which was really sweet), and 4th of July offends me and my enslaved ancestors. Christmas is my favorite. And for this reason, I’ll always make my best effort to celebrate it with my family – even if that means flying in from Amsterdam every year.

Although the Dutch also celebrate xmas on December 25th, their major holiday around this time of year is Sinterklaas. It’s similar to xmas in that gifts are given to children and there’s a Santa-like figure named Sinterklaas, who happens to be thinner than Santa and from Spain. One major difference is it’s celebrated on December 5th. Oh, and Sinterklaas has a little helper named Black Piet, who is normally a white man in black face, clearly acting as Sinterklaas’ slave. Uhhhh, yeah. I’ll probably have more to say on that next year. But let’s just say I don’t think the Dutch holiday will be replacing xmas anytime soon on my list of favorites.

For now, I’ll just leave it at Happy Holidays to all, whether it’s Christmas, Sinterklaas, Festivus, or whatever holiday brings you joy. I hope everyone is even slightly as blessed as I feel on this day.

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 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.



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 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.