African-American Genealogy: A Personal Search for the Past

By Woodtor, Dee Parmer | American Visions, December-January 1993 | Go to article overview
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African-American Genealogy: A Personal Search for the Past

Woodtor, Dee Parmer, American Visions

As a child, Adele Logan Alexander, a writer in Washington, D.C., heard stories of a white judge and his daughter Mariah, her great-grandmother. Not until recently was she able to piece together the lives of her ancestors - free people of color in Georgia's plantation belt. (See American Visions, October 1991.)

In no small measure, genealogy and family history help to forge a positive identity with the struggles and the persistence of African Americans that began when they set foot on the shores of the Americas. Though subtle, the distinction between genealogy and family history needs to be made. Genealogy is the documentation of a lineage traceable to a common set of ancestors, generally a couple. It follows a specific format that documents bloodlines from one generation to the next and as far back in time as possible. Family history is the study of one or several lineages in the context of history, and it tells the story of a family in the same way that author Alex Haley did in Roots. Genealogy is, in a sense, the skeleton, and family history is the body.

All over the country, African Americans are using the tools of historical and genealogical research to explore their roots. This rise in consciousness is due, in part, to the Roots saga that first appeared on television in 1977. The popularization of Alex Haley's family story lent credibility to the millions of stories that had been passed down from one generation to the next, stories that had been heard only within African-American families and stories that had been given little historical legitimacy until Roots was televised.

Haley's research, however, was not designed as a guide for others to follow. African-American genealogists had to create an organizational structure of genealogical societies before the fledgling movement, which gained momentum in the late 1970s, came to fruition.

No beginning researcher should have to work alone anymore. Those starting now should first join a local society, then a national society, and eventually a statewide genealogical society in the state of research. Membership in one of these societies generally includes a free subscription to the society's journal or newsletter, which offers helpful hints on researching. Feel free to ask questions of professional genealogists, both black and white, particularly at the beginning stages.

The title of professional genealogist does not imply certification, although a certification program is available nationally. It does imply some knowledge of history, and possibly genealogy, and years of experience. Professional genealogists make the study of genealogy their living, whereas amateur genealogists are mainly interested in tracing their family history or pursuing the study as a hobby. In a field that doesn't require certification to practice, it's not unusual to find amateurs who are much better than professionals (and vice versa, of course).

Since its establishment in 1977, the national Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society in Washington, D.C., has grown from one chapter to 14 affiliate chapters throughout the United States. Its founder, James Dent Walker, known as the dean of African-American genealogy, recently passed away, and the society is run by his wife, Barbara. In addition to the affiliate chapters, there are several independent societies in major cities across the United States and in Canada. (See sidebar, "Genealogical Societies.")

Your first step into the past is not into a library (unless it is to find a book about genealogy); your first step is to find out what all of your family members know about the family's past. The focus should be on the oldest individuals, gradually expanding to relatives in the parents' generation. Only after both sides of the family's oral history have been collected should the beginning researcher decide which side of the family to research.

Interviewing family members is a skill that can only be developed with guidance and extensive practice.

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