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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.

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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.

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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Records that have been archived by race present another challenge.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.