The New Genealogy: It's Leading Americans to Discover Their Multiracial Roots

Article excerpt

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While Patti Heinegg, a retired engineer in Collegeville, Pa., neither labels himself a genealogist nor has sought recognition as a historian, both genealogists and historians have lavished praise on the research he's done to document the history of free families of African descent in colonial-era America. His Web site, www.freeafricanamericans.com, contains more than 2,000 pages of family histories taken from colonial court records from Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.

Dr. Ira Berlin, a leading scholar of colonial America and slavery and Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, has written that "Heinegg's work has been of inestimable value to genealogists eager to trace their family roots and to historians equally desirous of mapping the design of colonial society."

Published to mostly positive reviews in major U.S. newspapers this past November, Bliss Broyard's One Drop: My Father's Hidden Life--A Story of Race and Family Secrets captures more than a decade of research and family meetings to recount the life of Broyard's late father and literary critic, Anatole Broyard. In addition to examining her father's decision to withhold from his children knowledge of their Black roots, the author documents nearly 300 years of family history. One Drop takes an intimate look at a Creole family whose mixed race identity has been embraced by some family members while others, like Anatole Broyard, have kept quiet about their ties to Black ancestors.

To those who have closely followed his entrepreneurial exploits in addition to his scholarly pursuits, the news that Dr. Henry Louis Gates, the director of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute at Harvard University, is launching a company to help African-Americans learn about their ancestry through DNA tracing in combination with rigorous genealogical research may not come as a major surprise. Gates is well-known publicly as the narrator and producer of the "African-American Lives" series, the second installment of which aired this month on PBS. The series explores and highlights the ancestral roots of Black celebrities. The show has highlighted DNA tracing, a controversial scientific innovation that has grown popular among Americans seeking information about their ancestors.

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"I see myself as doing a service for a field that's deeply problematic because of the reluctance of some companies to reveal the complexity of the results" Gates told The Associated Press in November.

Observers have noted that developments such as the Free African Americans Web site and the genetic ancestry tracing point to what can be called the "new genealogy" Encouraged by the Internet's unlimited capacity as an accessible publishing space, the new genealogy has seen the unprecedented growth of genealogical research generated by many thousands of Americans who research their family's ancestry and publish their results online. In the mainstream media spotlight, talented authors such as Bliss Broyard and Thulani Davis have turned rigorous research and compelling family histories into provocative and informative books.

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"Genealogy has clearly undergone an explosion of multifold increase and frequency. It seems that many people all over the place with all kinds of backgrounds are trying to trace their family roots and connections, and they're making extensive use of sources on the Internet," says Dr. J. Douglas Deal, the chair of the history department at the State University of New York at Oswego.

"There's no question that in 2008 people of moderate means have available to them resources to trace their past only specialized researchers and persons of much more significant means were able to tap in the past. Part of that is the Internet and the government's putting records--immigration and other records--online. …