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Chicago was well represented at the First International Black Genealogy Summit in Indiana last month.

Searching for family, Chicagoans trace their roots

by Chika S. Oduah
Nov 11, 2009

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Afro-American Genealogical and Historical Society of Chicago

Many Chicago-based genealogists have been able to retrieve family photos.

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Evelyn Nabors/Afro-American Genealogical and Historical Society of Chicago

Chicago-based Genealogist Evelyn Nabors was able to meet a long lost relative, Emmanuel Nabors (pictured above) before he died in 2007.

Related Links

The Web site of the Afro-American Genealogical and Historical Society of ChicagoPatricia Liddell ResearchersInternational Society of Sons and Daughters of Slave Ancestry

The Tools for Digging

Genealogists use oral histories, written histories and DNA to trace their roots. Oral histories are often embellished, but they can be a starting point.

“They told me my great great grandfather in Mississippi was wealthy and had a whole bunch of property," said Nettie Nesbary of Calumet Heights. "He didn't."  She said that research helps to weed out the fantasies.

The written histories are the most important tools. Many black genealogists in Chicago take yearly trips to the Allen Public County Library in Fort Wayne, Ind., to research the second largest database of family genealogy in the nation. The Family History Library in Utah, the world's largest genealogy library, can supply copies of records to family research centers in Chicago by request. 

Vital records like birth certificates and marriages licenses are often used, along with obituaries, wills and property contracts. Technology is advancing the search for roots. DNA testing is becoming increasingly popular. Author and Chicago-based genealogist Jimmie Jones used DNA to supplement nearly 30 years of research. In 2007, his DNA results indicated that his paternal genetic sample shares ancestry with the Yoruba people of West Africa. His maternal samples were traced back to Dogon people in Mali.

African Ancestry conducted Jones’ test. The Washington, D.C.-based company claims to have the largest database of indigenous African genetic samples. Its co-founder, Dr. Rick Kittles, is an associate professor at the University of Chicago. Gina Paige, the president, said business has grown as more African-Americans learn about it. She said among the highest number of requests are those from Chicagoans.

Kimberly Warren was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2005. In March, she began to search her family history to find where the gene might have come from.

“It’s something in my body,” said Warren, who is 37. “I want to know who in my family it was that gave it to me.”

She joined the Afro-American Genealogical and Historical Society of Chicago this year to learn how to begin tracing her family roots.

As the society’s youngest member, Jones is part of a growing community of African-American genealogists in Chicago.

Formed in 1979, the Afro-American Genealogical and Historical Society of Chicago is one of the largest of its kind in the nation. Some of its more than 200 members have published books, appeared in documentaries and lectured at national conferences.

“We’re here to dispel the mystery of our history,” said Roberta Mack, a society member. Mack has traced her family roots back to the 1860s. She said Alex Haley’s “Roots,” a historical novel published in 1976, made it okay for blacks to research their family.

“There are so many unknowns,” she said, “and we have to search for the answers and for the truth.”

The genealogy of African-Americans is receiving more and more attention. The family histories of President Obama and the first lady were published in the New York Times earlier this year. Chicago’s rich history of black Americans is preserved at a number of cultural and religious institutions, including the DuSable Museum of African American History and Trinity United Church of Christ.

“We grew up with African-American history,” said Patricia Bearden. “You’ve got a cluster of black genealogists right here in Chicago.”

Bearden is the president of the International Society of Sons and Daughters of Slave Ancestry. Formed in 1996, the non-profit organization preserves the records and artifacts of former slaves.

“There’s a growing acceptance among African-Americans to find out who they are,” Bearden said.

After the Afro-American Genealogical and Historical Society of Chicago was formed, Adlean Harris and Curtis Brasfield created Patricia Liddell Researchers in 1989. Harris and Brasfield were instrumental in teaching blacks in Chicago how to research their roots. Brasfield published his genealogical research of Chicago’s first black Mayor, Harold Washington, in 1993.

The community of black genealogists is expanding. Gwen Holland teaches genealogy at her church, Fernwood United Methodist Church at South Wallace and 101st.Street on the Far South Side. Her pastor, the Rev. Albert Sampson, asked her to teach the classes after the church formed a genealogy department in the 1980s.

Holland also began a local chapter of Freedom Walk America in 2007, making it one of the newest black genealogy groups in the city.

Chicago had the highest number of participants at the First International Black Genealogy Summit held last month in Fort Wayne, Ind. More than 50 Chicagoans attended the three-day meeting that attracted nearly 500 genealogists.

One of the organizers, Marjorie Sholes, a former president of a genealogical society in California, said the summit indicated an increasing awareness of African American genealogy.

But, the topic of family history was not always open for discussion among African-Americans.

Misconceptions and Challenges

“In the past, African- Americans lowered their head in shame,” said Bearden. “If you’re ashamed of it, you won’t talk about it.”

Many black genealogists say that getting information from relatives is not always easy. Bearden began researching her family history in 1991 and started visiting relatives in Mississippi in 1992. She said that black Americans have a history of shame.

Prying information out of relatives is a challenge for many genealogists. Deborah Abbott, president of the African-American Genealogical Society of Cleveland, Ohio, said blacks have been taught to devalue their history.

“We’ve been told that slave records don’t exist, but they do,” she said. “But the information is listed under the slave holders – it’s there.”

Abbott’s curiosity about family history began when she was invited to a family reunion in 1989 by relatives she had never heard of.

“I thought I better find out who these people are,” she said.

The Uncovered Treasures

Despite the challenges, black genealogists continue to teach others how to preserve their family history. But some organizations find it difficult to keep their doors open.

Last December, the office of the International Society of Sons and Daughters of Slave Ancestry in Beverly flooded. The group had quickly run through a $250,000 state grant it had received in 1999. Volunteers were running the organization, and now Bearden had to find another office. She was determined to keep the group functioning.

“When you know that blood that’s in you, you can’t give up,” she said. “They didn’t give up.”

The group relocated to the Hotel Florence Museum in Pullman. Bearden pays for the daily operations with her own money. The museum’s current exhibit includes photographs of former slaves and artifacts.

The pride that black genealogists share comes from their knowledge of family history.

Warren has not found any relatives who may have had multiple sclerosis, but she said she has learned more than she could have imagined about her family.

“I come from a family of quartet singers,” she said.

She will continue to research. She already made the promise to her mother, the last living relative on her side of the family.