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Other Voices

Category: Columnist

Other Voices
by Robert L. Harris

From The Yellow Springs News,  Yellow Springs, Ohio 45387 - Sunday, February 13, 2000
Reprinted with the permission of the author.

As Yellow Springs and much of America celebrates Black History Month, I'm reminded of how important it is that we don't lose our perspective of history and our individual places in the scheme of humanity. Nothing promotes the feelings of "place" and self-esteem as genealogy which has provided an anchor for me in the ever-changing ebb-and-flow of life. During the thirty-some odd years that I've lived in this community much had changed, yet as an individual my roots within the family-of-man have remained unaltered. My life-environment and community's demographics have may shifted... new technologies, older acquaintances, more conservatives; but the roots of my family and my sense of "place and belonging" have remained unchanged. I contend my personal brush with genealogy and history have helped me to become a wiser and more fulfilled individual.

There is an urgency within every thinking person to know where they came from; to wonder who their ancestors were, and what gave rise to things as they are. It is this wonder which in-part makes us "human" and separates us from all other known species on earth as we know and understand them. As far back as human history goes, and among all known tribes, cultures, and civilizations there has been an urge to record who, what, where, when, and how. Whether this legacy was oral or written, it exists. African American genealogy is a part of this human urge. And just as there is the drive to know those singular persons who preceded us, there is the want to know about those others who were derived from common ancestors: aunts, uncles, and cousins. In reality this forms the basis of humankind socialization and civilization. Thus we have two complementary human knowledge searches: genealogy, which begins with us as individuals and traces our blood lines into antiquity; and ancestry, which begins in antiquity and traces blood lines forward to where we are today.

Genealogy is America's fastest-growing hobby. Its converts and advocates have literally doubled every year during the last decade and the growth trend is not letting up. The latest local entry in this expansion is The African American Genealogy Group of the Miami Valley, a Yellow-Springs-based organization which began with a handful of people here last July and now number more than one hundred fifty, located in Yellow Springs, Xenia, Wilberforce, Springfield, Dayton, Trotwood, Piqua, and far beyond. If one includes "absentee membership" and supporters made possible by the Internet, out influence is literally global. The American slave system placed a peculiar burden on African Americans yet the growth of the hobby has been even more spectacular among us. Among African Americans it is estimated that more than one percent of our thirty-six million are engaged in some form of searching for family roots and ancestors. This equals three hundred sixty thousand, which is probably a conservative number.

The Internet and computers have had revolutionary impacts on genealogy. Storage, search, and retrieval of data have never been more efficient or easier. Records can be obtained almost instantaneously and an entire software industry has emerged to service genealogists. The Internet has connected people together from around the world, and given rise to networks which enable economies-of-scale, analogous to mass-production of many consumer products. Enabled by the Internet, surname groups have arisen numbering in the thousands, many containing thousands of members. Just as libraries have been changed by the Internet, all those who use them have been affected, among the most have been African American genealogists.

So what is peculiar to our research? As African Americans we have a history of oral tradition. Stories of our ancestors and heritage were traditionally passed down from one generation to another by word of mouth. Much of this has its roots in slavery where in most slave states it was illegal to teach slaves to read and write. Even free blacks who could read and write suppressed these skills for fear of antagonizing the dominant white population, who for the most part was also illiterate. The requirement for "evidence and documentation" in genealogy have made African American research much more focused on translating verbal leads to some written record. Another peculiarity is slaves were considered property, therefore much of the traditional record-keeping with regard to them exist in property records, deeds, wills, tax records, journals, and personal property writings of whites who kept such records not for their historical value, but for business purposes. For example, it was not until the 1870 federal census that first and last names of for non-whites were recorded. Finally, slave research takes on a disproportionate amount of time and effort for most African Americans.

The African American Genealogy Group of the Miami Valley permits African Americans and other minorities of color to "specialize" in their ancestral quest by sharing information and resources; a condition that cannot be found when working in isolation. New ideas regarding strategies, tactics, and planning can best be developed among others with like goals and problems. A goal of the organization is also to promote the writing of family histories and "main streaming" Black History.

African American genealogy has the potential to make all of American history more truthful and relevant to a larger part of the American population. In studying this sector of genealogy one quickly discovers that our current pop-culture version of American history is largely both inaccurate and incomplete. Perhaps this should come as no surprise to many. It might explain the fascination of the general public with the current Jefferson-Hemings relationship, and the phenomenon 1997 TV mini-series "Roots" that was watched by more than one-third of the entire American population, breaking all then-existing records for viewing in the history of television. Most historians point to the latter event as the "trigger" for America's general interest in genealogy which has since grown unabated.

I conclude by saying genealogy is every reader's legacy to posterity. No other endeavor will give as much personal pleasure, and contribute to future generations knowledge at the same time. On a more personal level, we African Americans have a special history and claims which are unique and inspiring; and with genealogy we can challenge much of the ignorance about American history as it now stands.

Mr. Harris is a retired Air Force Engineer and founder of the African American Genealogy Group of the Miami Valley. He is a member of the African American Genealogical Society of Northern California.

Copyright ©2000 by Robert L. Harris.   Reprints require approval by the author.


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