African Americans doing genealogical research usually hit the wall of 1870.
That was the year the first United States census was taken after the Civil War ended in 1865.
Prior to that, most African Americans in the nation were enslaved and therefore not listed by name on any census. If they were listed at all, they were usually identified as the property of someone, and then only by the most rudimentary identifiers: sex, age, and sometimes occupation.
But those seeking to unearth earlier details about their ancestors and their family’s legacy may have an opportunity to start that journey Saturday, the first day of Black History Month. The Metro Atlanta Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society in partnership with the Georgia Archives will host a symposium on African American family research at the state archives in Morrow.
Television shows such as the PBS series “Finding Your Roots,” hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr., author and African American history professor at Harvard, have increased the popularity of black genealogical research, said Tammy Ozier, a presenter and co-host of Saturday’s event. While Gates’ research team is trained to uncover documents prior to 1870, Ozier said any layperson patient enough and driven enough can find records that aren’t always obvious but that can yield answers as well as clues. The state archives is a place many might begin.
“Newspapers, church records, Freedman’s Bureau records, ledgers, all of those offer a view into the world your ancestors lived in,” said Ozier, president of the Atlanta genealogical organization.
Start with the information you know and work backward, she said. Begin with interviewing the oldest family members. It’s not easy, she said, since older African Americans can be reticent about talking about their lives, particularly during segregation. Finding another trusted family member to make an elder feel more comfortable talking about the past can be key, she said.
“You want to know what kinds of foods they ate, what stores they went to, how the family got from Oklahoma to California, and that’s how you begin to weave a family story,” Ozier said.
Those stories yield details that can be clues.
As important as it is to gather stories, it’s also important to get names, dates of birth and death, towns and counties of residence, which are vital to searching archival documents. All are pieces of a larger narrative, deliberately obscured by enslavement. Yet it’s possible to reach back and gather bits of the past to tell a more full story.
“Do it in smaller pieces,” Ozier said. “Give yourself time. You’re not going to get to Africa in a day.”
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