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 Chika Oduah/MEDILL

10-year-old McKinzie Domer imagined herself meeting her great-great-great-great grandmother.

Genealogy brings history to life for black youth

by Chika S. Oduah
Dec 02, 2009


Chika Oduah/MEDILL

Patricia Bearden said genealogy can help students, like her granddaughter McKinzie Domer, with many academic subjects.


Chika Oduah/MEDILL

The Rev. Albert Sampson brought genealogy to his church and encourages youth to take an interest.


Chika Oduah/MEDILL

Jimmie Jones began teaching genealogy to Boy Scouts as a way to help the troop that his son was once a part of.

 Chika Oduah/MEDILL

Chicago-based family historians Kimberly Warren, James Gettings and Patrica Bearden share how and why young people should learn their family history.

Speaking to her reflection in a wall-to-wall mirror in her grandmother’s living room one evening, 10-year-old McKinzie Domer summoned her great-great-great-great grandmother.

“Fredonia, you have helped me,” she said. “When I’m having a hard time, I think about what the slaves went through and what you went through.”

After a pause of silence and a lean forward, she asked her ancestor what it was like to travel as a young girl with her slave owner to Aberdeen, Mississippi, from Virginia, before the Civil War.

“Was it hard when you walked?” McKinzie asked. “Did you, like, wish you had a bed, or shoes?”

Since she was 4 years old, McKinzie has been learning the histories of her ancestors from her grandmother, Patricia Bearden, and said she is now spiritually connected to Fredonia--one of her favorite ancestors.

“I feel like I know Fredonia; I know what she went through,” she said.

Bearden, who is the president of the Chicago-based International Society of Sons and Daughters of Slave Ancestry, said when her granddaughter was in first grade, she asked if Harriett Tubman knew Fredonia because they both lived in the same time period.

“That’s when I knew she had connected to that generation,” Bearden said. “That’s good because chronology is one of the hardest things for kids to get.”

Now McKinzie is so deeply steeped in her family history that she made presentations on it for the Juneteenth commemoration of the end of slavery at the Chicago Children’s Museum, the Woodson Regional Library and the Hotel Florence Museum.

“If you want to learn about your ancestors and where they were born and who their slaves were,” McKinzie said, “you should come listen to me and I will tell you about mine and maybe you’ll get interested.”

The doe-eyed, charismatic girl is fulfilling a vow that her grandmother had made to make sure that her grandchildren knew their family history at an early age.

Bearden is part of a vibrant Chicago community of African-American genealogists working to engage youth in understanding their past. Efforts span local churches, Boy Scout troops and even the Chicago Public Schools.

On a recent Sunday morning at the Fernwood United Methodist Church in Roseland, the Rev. Albert Sampson told his congregation, “We are a people that don’t have to be ashamed of its history or legacy,” then lined up the children and told them, “You represent a tradition.”

His church teaches that tradition through its genealogy department and its “Grandparents Raising Grandchildren” program.

Meanwhile, Boy Scouts from Troop No. 534 learn about their family roots with their genealogy counselor, Jimmie Jones, and have an opportunity to earn a merit badge in genealogy. Jones, who has been with the troop for 28 years, leads them on research outings to the library and the national archives, and gives them assignments to talk to their parents about family history.

“Oh, these boys — they really like it,” Jones said.

Scout master Eddie Banks Sr. said, “As a black man, I think young black men need to talk about their family roots,” he said.

Even the Chicago Public Schools have become involved in teaching family history. Internationally renowned genealogy expert Tony Burroughs was consulted to help develop a genealogy curriculum for the schools and recommended genealogy software that has been placed in every high school and middle school in Chicago. Some teachers have added genealogy into their history classes.

“We’re giving students the tools as well as the training,” Burroughs said.

The Bronzeville Alliance also is talking to principals about adding after school programs on genealogy. Burroughs leads alliance workshops, teaching families how to do their own family research. The efforts reflect the alliance’s African philosophy of Sankofa, meaning “return and get it.”

Group organizer John Owens said learning family history will encourage students to be more involved in academics and may also curb youth violence.

“When I watch the students when they get out of school, I can count only one of them holding a book in their hand,” he said.

Lanette Stigsen, who coordinates trips to Ghana for Chicago students through the Kokrobitey Institute in Ghana, recently began working with the Bronzeville Alliance to promote the genealogy curriculum.

“These young people need to know that they come from a place worth remembering — that’s Africa,” Stigsen said.

Patricia Bearden, a retired Chicago school teacher, said she became a believer of teaching genealogy after using it with her second grade students.

“It definitely calmed the classroom down,” she said. “They changed their whole way of looking at themselves and each other.”

Bearden won a Golden Apple Award in 1991 and with a few colleagues, wrote an award-winning book in 1999 about her experience with teaching family history to her students.

Her granddaughter is inheriting that experience. Her eyes light up and her speech quickens when she talks about her family.

“Fredonia reminds me of my granny,” McKinzie said. “My great-great-great-great grandmother was brave, like granny is.”