We are family: Piecing together the past

African-Americans face unique challenges when they try to trace their ancestral roots, as Tony Burroughs learned. But new tools may help.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Tony Burroughs was a sophomore at Southern Illinois University when he first heard Alex Haley, then best known as the author of "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," talk about tracing his family history back to Africa. He's been fascinated by genealogy ever since.

But when Mr. Burroughs began researching his own family in 1975, about a year before Haley's "Roots" garnered international acclaim, he had no idea how much detective work would be involved. Genealogy is always painstaking, but it can be much more difficult when one's ancestors were slaves.

For one thing, slaves did not have surnames, so the only way to identify them was by who the owner was. Later, segregated records, inexplicable surnames, and a deficit of written or signed contracts became obstacles most genealogists must now contend with when researching African-American ancestry.

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Before the abolition of slavery in 1860, for example, almost 250,000 of the 4 million slaves in Southern states had actually been granted freedom. Many settled in Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma and - partly due to fear, illiteracy, and a lack of money - didn't leave much of a paper trail.

But Burroughs, who is now a professor at Chicago State University and a leading authority on genealogy, was not about to let these challenges stop him.

"People look at the problems rather than the beauty and richness of it," he says. "I looked at Alex Haley and thought, 'If he can do it, anybody can do it.' "

Burroughs began his research in 1975, after reading a newspaper article about giving thanks to your ancestors and tracing your family tree. He read the piece, appropriately, on Thanksgiving Day. The story mentioned a book on genealogy published by the Boy Scouts, which he purchased the next week.

A few weeks later, he interviewed his mother, father, and grandmother, "and I just got hooked on hearing those stories they were telling." It was like piecing together a puzzle, he says, trying to figure out what had happened and who was who.

The Boy Scout book suggested getting birth certificates, death certificates, and census records, which Burroughs did. Another recommendation was to visit the family cemetery. There, he found valuable information, as well as some new mysteries.

"What shocked me was that there were people buried in our family lot, and I didn't know any of the names. And Dad said, 'I don't have a clue, go ask your grandmother.' So I went to her, and she only knew who one of them was."

Burroughs began scrutinizing death certificates in public records and eventually learned that his great-great-grandmother and her sister were buried there, along with his great-grandmother and great-grandfather. "It amazes me to this day," he says, "because these are my family ancestors buried where they were supposed to be, and still no one knew they were there."

Burroughs interviewed his father again, and learned that his great-grandfather was from the Carolinas, although he couldn't remember if it was North or South Carolina.

The answer became a bit clearer when Burroughs began reading a little red notebook that his grandfather had kept. The book contained notes about his grandfather's parents and children, including where and when each person had been born. That told Burroughs that his great-grandfather had been born in Spartanburg, S.C. After consulting a geographical dictionary, he found that Spartanburg was both a city and a county. But it took him 15 years to learn whether his great-grandfather had lived in the city or the county.

Digging deep into the past

Burroughs is still researching his family, 27 years after he began. He has been able to trace his roots back to 1773, and he has discovered family members in 16 states and four countries. He hopes to search even further back in time, but documentation grows scarce in the early 1700s, and very rarely crossed the Atlantic.

Still, Burroughs, who has written the book "Black Roots: A Beginner's Guide to Tracing the African-American Family Tree," (Fireside, $16) insists that the most difficult part of researching African-American ancestry is not related to slavery. It is, he says, in the 75 years that followed.

Interracial marriage was not permitted in many states until the 1950s, for instance - and not until 2000 in Alabama - so that there were no marriage licenses of mixed-race couples, and few of African American couples. Similarly, newspaper obituaries rarely mentioned the deaths of African-Americans. (Lynchings, on the other hand, were commonly reported.)

"The first obstacle African-Americans run into is that sometimes their ancestors don't want to talk about the past," Burroughs says, referring to the shame and hardships imposed by "separate but equal" legislation. "So you have to deal with the fact that sometimes your early history is blocked because it has been repressed."

But, he adds, "The depths of where you came from is a reflection on how you got to where you are. So we need to be honest with ourselves."

Records that have been archived by race present another challenge. Often, the search is two-pronged: When researching their family history, African-Americans usually look in the obvious places first and, if what they're seeking is not there, must try to determine whether the records have been stored elsewhere or simply don't exist. Even some census records have been segregated.

To keep the process manageable, genealogists recommend starting just as Burroughs did - asking questions of immediate family members, preferably recording their answers on tape. Oral traditions have long been strong in the South, and stories passed down through the generations can reveal anything from odd nicknames to folklore, either of which might indicate a region or country of origin.

Burroughs, after hours upon hours of interviewing his relatives, failed to record his mother's memories, and she passed away unexpectedly without his getting her words on tape. "Taking my parents for granted was the biggest mistake I ever made," he says. "That's why I tell people that interviewing your relatives is the most important thing you can ever do."

Despite his successes, Burroughs still says that "African-American genealogy is in its infancy state compared to white genealogy." But he also points out that new tools may give the field new vigor.

New tools, old challenges

One of these advances is the new "Databases for the Study of Afro-Louisiana Slavery, 1699 to 1860," by Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, professor of history emerita at Rutgers University, whose book "Africans in Colonial Louisiana" has won numerous awards. In "Databases," Dr. Hall organized civil documents, manuscripts, and published census records into 114 categories on a CD-ROM released two years ago. It details the lives of slaves, their owners and, where applicable, those who freed them. The documents, written in French, Spanish, and English, were found in archives in Louisiana, Texas, France, and Spain.

Hall, a New Orleans native fluent in Spanish and French, spent more than a decade translating, transcribing, and archiving thesedocuments to create the largest database on slavery to date.

"I am 73 years old, and I came up in some very rough times as far as racial attitudes are concerned," says Hall, who is white. She was always disgusted by the treatment of African-Americans.When she came across an unprecedented number of notes on the migration and treatment of slaves - 100,000 documents in all - she knew she had to make this detailed history available to genealogists, historians, and African-Americans in search of their roots.

"There was a different system of maintaining records in Louisiana [than in other states]," Hall explains. "The law provided that all acts were public acts, and a notary had to draw up the papers and file them into volumes. Also, a lot of slaves ran away, and they were recaptured and interrogated, and their testimony was taken down."

Burroughs may have stumbled upon a similarly large stockpile of documents, mostly in French, pertaining to the slave trade in Virginia. There has long been hope that Louisiana is not the only state to maintain such copious records on slaves, and Virginia would be a particularly important place to unearth detailed documents, as it was the landing and trading point for so many slaves.

Helpful technology

Another promising tool these days is DNA testing. Labs across the country can test DNA taken from cheek swabs and then compare the encodings to that of general populations in African nations. In some cases, this allows people to determine which part of Africa their ancestors came from. But many populations have yet to be tested and compiled into a database.

Boston and Howard Universities, however, are leading research across the country in an effort to compile the results of thousands of DNA samples from 40 African populations - as well as European, native American, and Asian sample databases - so that individuals can make general comparisons based on their own DNA.

Rick Kittles, at the helm of Howard University's research, has discovered that his maternal lineage goes back to Nigeria, and his paternal to Germany. We as a population, he says, come from many places.

DNA testing averages about $300 per person, but discounts may be available if several family members are tested at one time. Professor Kittles and others believe the cost of testing will drop with time.

Many genealogists, Burroughs included, are optimistic that genealogical research will encourage Americans - regardless of age or ethnicity - to become better historians in general, whether that means discovering their roots or simply understanding the way Americans have lived over the past few centuries.

"My knowledge of history has exploded exponentially," Burroughs says. "And what you learn means so much more to you because you have a direct interest in it - you thirst for it. I do legal research, historical research, geographical research, linguistic research. I research patents and inventions, [go to] cemeteries and funeral homes. There is no facet of life that is not touched by genealogy."

Websites that are devoted to African-American genealogy include Afrigeneas, www.afrigeneas.com; Christine's Genealogy Web Site, www.ccharity.com; and Lest We Forget, www.coax.net/people/lwf/data.htm.

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