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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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.Skip to next paragraph
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"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.
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.