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

Article excerpt

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.

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. …