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
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
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. …