For these Atlantans, genealogy helped them connect to their roots

Tech advancements and support organizations allow for deeper dives into genealogy

One winter in the late 1800s, there was a tragedy in Illinois. An accident involving a train took the lives of a couple with a large family, and eight children immediately lost their accustomed support system.

More than a century later, Karen Molohon began delving into the fallout of the devastating loss which impacted her family history.

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Changing resources

As Molohon, 68 and a Cobb County resident, looked into her paternal lineage, she gained new details on family stories, including the family in the accident.

“During the wintertime, they were going to town in their horse and wagon and got hit by the train — it was a runaway train,” she said. “And they left eight children — young children. One of them was my great grandfather … Because the family was so large, not all the relatives could take the whole family in, so you piece together who went to stay with who.”

Each child had to have a court-appointed guardian, and not all of them ended up with family. Molohon, in a probate court file, found a note her great-grandfather wrote at 16 stating that he no longer needed a guardian.

Details like these give a story new depth.

“That makes your ancestors come to life — to be able to tell the story,” she said. “You never know what you’re going to run across. And it could be something you don’t want to know about, or the family’s tried to hide a secret. We call those skeletons in your closet. But then, there are good things that you find out people have done or been involved with.”

Credit: contributed by Karen Molohon

Credit: contributed by Karen Molohon

Molohon is active with the Atlanta-based Georgia Genealogical Society and the Cobb County Genealogical Society. When she began her research close to 40 years ago, resources were different.

“Back then, of course, none of it was electronic,” she said. “It was all handwritten or typed notes and letters going back between the relatives or ancestors trying to find out information about their family and how the family had grown.”

Online offerings have expanded since then.

The GGS website, gagensociety.org, is a good jumping-off point. It has a map of the state divided into regions with listings of genealogical societies, libraries and other places where those interested in researching their roots can further their work.

Documentation is important

Madelyn Nix, 76, is the current head of the GGS and holds the distinction of being the organization’s first Black president. She’s been a member since around 2008 when she began seriously researching her own lineage.

“All of my friends were going to family reunions, and I was not, and I said to my mom, ‘Where’s the family? Why aren’t we going to reunions?’” she recalled. “My father was one of two children. My mother was one of four children, and so we did not have a large family to have family reunions. I had a friend whose family had, like, 150 years of family reunions, so I said, ‘Well, time for me to go find some families.’”

In keeping with popular genealogical advice, Nix began researching her immediate family and worked back. Particularly challenging for her was the fact that a lot of her relatives were already deceased when she started her research. She recommends people fill out basic genealogy questionnaires with information that may be critical for future generations.

“Even if you’re not sure that you’re interested in your own history, think of your children, your grandchildren and your great-grandchildren who, like me, may come to the party late, and (relatives) may or may not be here to share their stories,” she said.

Nix found some travel necessary. Her father’s side of the family is from Butts County by way of South Carolina, so she visited both places to gather information. Her mother’s lineage initially revealed itself within Fulton County, but as Nix branched out, her search led her north to Cartersville and Gordon County. She joined helpful organizations along the way, including the National Genealogical Society and the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, as well as societies in Augusta, Georgia, and the Carolinas.

Credit: contributed by William Nix

Credit: contributed by William Nix

“I advocate this for others, especially when they are just starting out in genealogy,” she said. “I join the societies in the areas where I learn that I have family in order to be able to avail myself of the resources that they share.”

She also recommends researchers begin recording their findings early on.

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“Documentation is important,” she said. “When you don’t do that, you’re destined to repeat research … There’s a definite value in knowing documentation, citation and keeping track of where and how you’re researching.”

The process can be challenging for Black researchers because their families often had different last names in generations past.

“After slavery, some people might have said, ‘I want to be the Washingtons,’ and somebody else said, ‘I want to be the Lincolns,’ and even though they were biologically the same family, they had two different names,” Nix said.

Nix said she hit “the brick wall” when researching her mother’s family, the Rivers. She found a relative with a family bible, which listed the name as Riverson. At that point, she was able to go back further.

“It was an ‘Aha’ moment for me, and I was doing what I call the happy dance,” she said. “I try not to do it in public often, but every now and then, you just have to celebrate.”

‘I’ve got to come over there:’ a full-circle journey

For Louis Childers, 81, the process of tracing his origins led him to long-lost family on another continent.

Childers, also active with the AAHGS Atlanta chapter, enlisted a more genetics-based process, joining some websites where he began seeing family members he knew.

“One morning, I noticed that there was this match on 23andMe, and like any other match, I didn’t know who it was and thought I’d look at it later on,” he said.

He saw the paternal match on another site and realized the user had 100% African ancestry from Ghana and Togo. The relative was Bridget Agbee of Ghana, and she and Childers began corresponding.

“She could not believe that she had made a match with someone in America,” he said.

Agee told elders in her community about her discovery. They were initially skeptical, and the possibility of relatives in America was not necessarily an easy subject.

“The stories were, as she was growing up, that no one really talked about any ancestral lineage or any stories that would lead them to believe that anyone in her family was taken in the trans-Atlantic slave trade,” Childers said. “Of course, we came to find out that that was just a secret that the family didn’t want to talk about.”

Agbee’s close family includes doctors who delved into the subject of DNA matching with the community’s elders.

“They began to get interested, and that’s when they began to tell about the stories that they knew about and where our people had been taken,” he said. “I was just jumping out of my skin, and I said, ‘I’ve got to come over there.’”

He and a couple of American cousins visited Keta, Ghana, during the family’s annual gathering at Easter time. The American visitors felt an immediate sense of kinship with their Ghanaian relatives. The hosts spoke English, so the parties were able to share stories right off the bat.

“We walked out of the airport, and it was like we were looking at ourselves,” Childers said. “We were just talking to each other like we had always known each other.”

Particularly striking to Childers was the similarity in professions between his American and African relatives.

“I look at that family like, ‘Somehow, the vacuum of 400 years didn’t have any impact on us at all because we seem to be doing the same things,’” he said. “I mean, our families seem to still mirror each other.”

Later on, the interactions became emotional during the gathering.

“I looked like this person and that person, and then one of the elders — she’s deceased since I’ve been over there — she just came out and said, ‘He’s ours. He belongs to us’” Childers said. “She touched me and rubbed her hand over my face, and she said, ‘He’s ours. He came from us …’ It was quite moving.’”

In the two years since the trip, several cousins from Africa have visited Childers. Before he left Ghana, Childers and his son and daughter became an official part of the family: Childers’ Ghanaian hosts included the Americans’ names in their own written history. Childers, audibly emotional when he describes the reunion, marvels at the events the simple DNA tests he and Agbee took sparked.

“Had I never taken the test, and if she’d never taken the test, we never would have had that match,” he said.

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