Juneteenth 2017 Celebrates Breakthroughs in African American Family History Research

Contributed By Diane Sagers, Church News contributor

  • 21 June 2017

A family history center librarian assists a patron with her family history work.

Article Highlights

  • Juneteenth celebrates the anniversary of the end of American slavery in 1865.
  • The recently digitized Freedmen’s Bureau records open doors for African American genealogy.
  • DNA tests can be used to fill in gaps in the genealogical record.

“[A DNA test] takes you from knowing nothing to knowing something. It has a strong effect on people to discover specific regions in Africa where DNA is in evidence. That is so profound. People get tears when they see that.” —Melvin Collier, African American genealogist and author

Juneteenth 2017 commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union General Gordon Granger traveled to Galveston, Texas, to reiterate that slavery in the United States had been abolished officially over two years earlier on September 22, 1862, when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued.

He declared, “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves.”

The Texas slaves were the last to receive the news. Celebrations followed in Texas and other places, and the day became the portmanteau word Juneteenth (“June” plus “nineteenth”).

Slowly but surely gathering records

News of the Emancipation Proclamation wasn’t the only thing to transpire slowly over the past 150 years. African Americans with slave ancestry have been laboriously trying to gather their family trees and reconnect with their ancestors ever since. Thankfully, technology and easier access to historical records are giving them their own reasons to celebrate over breakthrough discoveries in their personal family history research.

Even though many problems followed during the years since Juneteenth 1865, an important agency came from this period—the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, also known as the Freedmen’s Bureau.

The bureau was designed to help formerly enslaved men and women transition to citizenship, providing housing, food, education, and medical care. But the records kept provide even more information.

“The Freedmen’s Bureau asked not only for names, but they asked questions about backgrounds—who they had been slaves with, who their parents were, who their children were, where they were born. One would argue that the Freedmen’s Bureau records are some of the most valuable records to study the African American family,” said Margo Williams, author and African and Native American researcher.

Search the most current compilation of Freedmen’s Bureau records

Four ways to discover your ancestors.

Melvin Collier, an African American genealogist and author.

This 152-year-old collection of government records—spread across multiple states—is now proving to be a treasure trove for African American researchers. On June 20, 2016, this otherwise difficult to use collection of records was made freely and easily searchable online thanks to the volunteer-driven Freedmen’s Bureau Project and a partnership of FamilySearch International, the National Archives and Records Administration, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, and the California African American Museum. More than 25,000 volunteers tirelessly transcribed the voluminous handwritten entries to create an online index of nearly 1.8 million digital records.

Lonnie Bunch’s paternal grandparents died just before he turned five years old. His only memory was of his grandmother taking out cookie tins to make crescents and stars. As a little kid, he thought these tins were wonderful.

Nicka Smith, a professional photographer, speaker, and documentarian.

As an adult, Bunch became the founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which cosponsored the Freedmen’s Bureau Project. He decided to test the records to see if he could find any ancestors. He discovered a labor contract for the family’s earliest known relative, Candis Bunch. The front of the contract listed her wages for cleaning house and picking cotton. On the other side, the contract listed her purchase of the cotton seed and the rental of a horse. The last notation was a 22-cent purchase—to buy cookie tins.

Finding the document about his great-great-grandmother and her cookie tins brought Bunch to tears. Addressing the audience at the Freedmen’s Bureau Project celebration held on December 6, 2016, Bunch said, “I realize that what [the records] allow thousands of people like me to do is to find themselves—to be connected with a past that they had lost.” For Bunch, this experience of discovering his ancestor became very personal in ways he never expected.

Humans have an innate need to know their ancestors’ stories that form the backdrop of their own lives. For many African Americans, finding ancestral lines through slavery comes with unique—but not insurmountable—obstacles. Traditional records before 1870 for enslaved African Americans are difficult to find, but alternatives are becoming more accessible. And as they do become accessible, more and more African Americans are making long-awaited breakthroughs in their family history research.

Accessing online records like those from the Freedmen's Bureau is one way many African Americans can connect with their deceased kin. And although there are challenges, the black community’s ancestral search uses other tried-and-true genealogical techniques, says Nicka Smith, a professional photographer, speaker, and documentarian with more than 17 years of experience as a genealogist.

Here are four ways many African Americans are beginning to connect with their roots.

How to Discover Your African American Roots

1. Start with what you know

“People sometimes don’t realize what they know already about locations, grandparents’ names, and affiliated family members. That is starting with more than nothing—more than, say, an adoptee who doesn’t know these things,” Smith said.

Write out your memories. Make phone calls. Visit relatives—especially older ones. Ask questions. Listen carefully to stories about your family’s past. Take notes. Make recordings if you can, saving the voices as well as reminiscences of older relatives. Seek family friends and associates who can add information and more perspective. Keep a notebook detailing all you hear—who said what and how they knew. Later research may verify or clarify what you have heard, but the family narrative provides the framework and gives warmth to the people of your family’s past. These stories form the beginnings of a fascinating quest.

2. Gather family documents

Smith said after the “let’s-talk-it-over” stage, search at home for documents such as obituaries, photos, scrapbooks, family Bibles, and birth, marriage, and death records.

The interest of retired NFL Super Bowl champion Burgess Owens in his African American heritage began 30 years ago through a conversation with his paternal grandmother. Years later, after his father’s death, he discovered a document among his father’s papers that his grandmother had likely left. It told of Owens’s great-great-grandfather, who was carried in the belly of a slave ship to South Carolina when he was eight years old. Two years later, the child-slave was orphaned. In time, he escaped to Dallas, Texas, where he married, was widowed, and remarried, raising 18 children altogether.

“I discovered he was a pillar of his community,” said Owens of his great-great-grandfather. “He purchased 101 acres of land and paid it off in two years. He started a church and a school that educated children to the seventh grade. He was a proud patriot, a merchant, and fiercely independent.”

When he read about his great-grandfather, Owens realized that the description of his characteristics was also a description of the characteristics of Owens’s father. “I have some of those [character traits], and I believe that he is where they came from,” Owens said fondly.

The discovery was thrilling on many levels. “What most excited me as an American was to hear how my American heritage began. The spirit of my great-great-grandfather is indicative of the American spirit. It is the story of Americans from everywhere. Once we get here, we get caught up in the American dream, and we are glad to be here and not where we came from.”

Owens feels his expanded knowledge of his African American heritage gives him a unique perspective. “For me, the story’s significance is that it tells a little different narrative than some people are giving of my race when we came here. That has always been inspirational to me. Once we find our past, we find people who succeeded, and we have those connections [to give us hope].”

3. Search records online

A prevailing myth among African Americans is that there are no records for blacks—especially online. This is not the case for many African Americans trying to find their great-grandparents.

“Some find difficulty before 1870—especially African Americans before the 13th Amendment—but don’t overlook census records for ‘Free People of Color.’ They exist on the 1850 and 1860 censuses,” Nicka Smith noted. In addition, some states had statewide censuses between federal censuses.

Access online repositories such as FamilySearch.org, Ancestry.com, and others. Begin with United States censuses, which were collected every decade since 1790. Start with the latest ones, and work backward because more recent censuses provide more information than earlier ones.

Don’t overlook newspapers—they are heavily underutilized, she added. They provide accounts of happenings in the community—visitors, weddings, obituaries, and social events, as well as local news. Anything about the time and place is in the newspapers.

Online family trees can be very beneficial as well. FamilySearch FamilyTree, WikiTree, geneanet.com, MyHeritage.com, Ancestry.com, findmypast.com, and others have huge, growing family trees that have been added by millions of people worldwide. You have common branches in your broader family tree. What is unknown to you might be documented family knowledge to your relatives elsewhere in the world. It pays to explore online family trees and their sources and contributors for possible new clues and connections.

Sherri Camp, president of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, developed and piloted a five-session curriculum on African American genealogy for students, faculty, and staff at Prairie View A&M University, a historically black university outside of Houston, Texas.

“Most African Americans believe that since slavery divided and destroyed families, theirs must be destroyed too. But what they are really saying is they are afraid to face the slavery in their own family and the pain and terror that their families had to face,” she said.

African American genealogy is not that different than any other genealogy research. Online research has blossomed in the last decade. More people are doing research, and more volunteers are helping in local communities. The genealogy “Golden Rule” is to begin with yourself and work your way backward in time. Find death records. Several types of records are often created when a person dies. Records come from newspaper obituaries, funeral homes, cemeteries, and churches. In addition, there are vital records (births, marriages, and deaths) that cities and states create regarding people in their communities.

Camp says these records are a gold mine for finding relatives, and many of the records are now online through various services. To focus on the ones that are free, Camp suggests the Social Security Death Index, FindAGrave.com, FamilySearch.org, and USGenWeb.com.

“The Social Security Death Index documents the death of a person and their last recorded location. This database can be found on various online services. FamilySearch has it for free,” Camp said.

FamilySearch Wiki has online research guides for countries around the world and every state in the United States. “You can learn anything you need to know about anywhere in the world on this website,” says Camp. “In addition, there are quick links to free and paid online resources by category. This resource includes vital records. But that’s not all. FamilySearch also has over 120 years of free research information available that is being digitized and uploaded to their website on a daily basis. If you don't find what you are looking for one day, it may be there at another time. So keep checking back.”

Camp acknowledges that slave research is a complex process. She says the two most important things you need to know to trace your enslaved family members are who their slave owners were and where they were enslaved. This information leads to researching the slave owner's family. Without this information, it is difficult to research your slave ancestry. “When you find that the slave owner is your family, it becomes more important to find out how you are related and where you might find other possible members of your family,” she added.

4. Take a DNA test

DNA test results show African Americans the places their ancestors lived in Africa. “Knowing that takes you from knowing nothing to knowing something. It has a strong effect on people to discover specific regions in Africa where DNA is in evidence. That is so profound. People get tears when they see that,” said Melvin Collier, an African American genealogist and author.

Collier has visited his homeland. He shared a video online of his tender meeting with African relatives discovered through DNA in his keynote address at RootsTech 2017. Ancestry’s DNA test revealed that he was 92 percent African from Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Madagascar. Nearly every day, he checks for new matches. One day he discovered a match to an 81-year-old Ghanaian woman named Nana Faba Idun. This discovery drew him and three cousins to their ancestral homeland, where they met her and her family. It was “an unforgettable, life-changing experience,” Collier remembers. He recommends that others discover their roots and visit their motherlands.

“DNA helps overcome genealogical mysteries and confirm ancestry. Combined with research, it is like a great marriage. You can document lineage on paper—which is well and good—but when DNA matches those findings, it is even better. Lots of people jump into DNA testing and hope it will roll out their family tree. Do research first, and start building your family tree,” Collier advises. As DNA matches people, they will want to know how they are related. With the assistance of documented research, they can discover exactly who their common ancestor is.

For many, DNA links may remain a hazy awareness since the original names of Africans brought to America were seldom recorded, but the scenario is improving.

Collier says several times a week now he reads exciting Facebook and blog posts of newfound African DNA matches in Ghana and Nigeria. He is observing that it is becoming more and more common as more Africans take the DNA test—especially Africans living in America.

Oral histories from Africa can also provide hints for paper research, and DNA can prove those relationships. Dr. Jeffrey Ogbar, associate dean for the humanities and professor of history at the University of Connecticut, told Collier about an oral history from his family elders. It included Ogbar’s ancestor named Luke Edwards, who told his family his original African name, Ogba Ogumba.

A few years later, research and autosomal DNA testing produced a preponderance of evidence that Collier was also a descendent of Ogba Ogumba. Visiting Ghana, Collier discovered that “Ogumba” was not Ghanaian, but a name among the Igbos of Nigeria.

Before and after scenes of the emancipation of slaves with U.S. President Abraham Lincoln.

Sherri Camp, president of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society.