The African American Genealogical Society
of Northern California, Inc. (AAGSNC) sponsored a phenomenal seminar
entitled “Uncovering African American Roots,” February 12, 2000 at the
Oakland YMCA. Over 200 participants attended the event. Those
individuals that failed to come out and brave the rainy weather missed
a rare opportunity to learn about African American genealogy. AAGSNC’s
speaker was Tony Burroughs, an internationally known genealogist,
author, teacher, and lecturer. Not only does he teach a family history
course in Chicago State University’s adult education program, but he
has authored a chapter in the
African-American Genealogical Sourcebook, received the
Distinguished Service Award
from the National Genealogical Society, appeared as the African
American genealogy expert in the public television series
Ancestors, and conducted the African American Genealogy workshop at
the National Archives – Great Lakes Region.
In addition, Burroughs is a graduate of the National Institute
of Genealogical Research in Washington, D.C. and the Institute of
Genealogy and History at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. He
has been practicing genealogy for over twenty years and was inspired
to trace his ancestry after attending a lecture by Alex Haley, the
author of Roots. He has traced two family lines back seven generations and has
extensive research experience in libraries, archives, historical
societies and county courthouses.
Although his presentation was scheduled
from 1:00 p.m. - 4:00 p.m., Burroughs spoke until 6:00 p.m.
His topics were Beginning Resources for Tracing the Family
Tree, Slave Genealogy, and Creating Order Out of Chaos.
Burroughs graciously stayed longer than his scheduled time.
This speaks well of Burroughs' dedication to African American
genealogy and his willingness to share his experience and knowledge.
Many researchers hung on his every word and did not leave early. These
actions show hunger for information and the difficulty in obtaining it
the African American genealogists.
Burroughs began his presentation by suggesting new genealogists
compile a list of living relatives and interview and tape-record the
oldest first. The stories of these individuals must be told while they
can still tell them. He explained that interviews should be repeatedly
conducted, as elders with lifetime memories are unable to convey
everything they know in a single session. In addition, the researcher
should ask about family archives. These are collections of old
letters, Bibles, post cards, newspaper clippings, scrapbooks, and
funeral announcements. Examining these with a relative will help bring
back memories from the past. He suggested that documents in family
archives be located, organized, analyzed, and preserved.
his impressive beginning, Burroughs spoke on Slave Genealogy. Many
African Americans want to identify the slave owner(s) that held family
member(s) in bondage before the end of the Civil War. Finding slave
owners is an extremely difficult task and for many African Americans
an impossible one. Burroughs cautioned that before tackling this job,
it is important to follow the steps required of all good genealogists
and trace family members back to the 1870 census. For the descendants
of enslaved African Americans, the 1870 census is important, as it is
the first census in which all were enumerated. Identifying a slave
holding family may be impossible, if preliminary research has not been
meticulously conducted. Unfortunately, for some African Americans
finding ancestors in the 1870 census is difficult, as individuals and
even entire families may have missed being enumerated or may have
assumed new surnames. Only after ancestors are found in the 1870
census is the researcher ready to explore the period of slavery and
because not every African American was enslaved, the assumption of
slavery for an individual must be proved before the search for a slave
owner is begun.
last topic covered by Burroughs was organization of collected
information. He urged beginning researchers to utilize an organization
system from the start. For those with many collected documents and no
system of organization, he asked: “How can you expect to find an
ancestor in the many archives that you search, if you can not locate
records you already possess?" As part of an organization strategy,
Burroughs advised the researcher to write an autobiography and then
biographies for all ancestors. As additional information is acquired,
the researcher can update biographical facts. The presentation of
information as an autobiography and as biographies will help reveal
relationships not noticed before and be of interest to descendants,
allowing them to understand and cherish the completed research.
Burroughs concluded this memorable seminar with a question and answer
session. The day's program was such a success that the African
American Genealogical Society of Northern California, Inc. plans to
host a similar event next year.