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Surging Interest in African American Genealogy

Here Are Resources in Kansas City to Get Started

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Above image credit: The Midwest Afro-American Genealogical Interest Coalition holds monthly meetings and members go on yearly road trips of historical significance. Here is the group at the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka. (Contributed | Midwest Afro-American Genealogical Interest Coalition)

A family reunion in 2008 first sparked Wayne Reed’s interest in genealogy.

But it was a move in 2013 to Kansas City that gave Reed the resources that fired his resolve to learn more. Reed’s efforts since have produced a family tree with one branch reaching back to 1824.

African American genealogy, Reed said, is not easy – literally and emotionally.

“You have to be persistent, patient and systematic – and don’t quit,” he said.

“You might see things that will make you angry but you have to be able to deal with those positively. You don’t want to allow it to affect you negatively. Understand that even though all those things occurred, someone in your family survived and you are living testament to them.

“You can take strength from that.”

The popular PBS series “Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr.” has, no doubt, stimulated interest in African American genealogy nationwide. And, for those seeking genealogy help here, the Kansas City area is fortunate to have numerous organizations dedicated to preserving, sharing and celebrating African American family histories.

Getting Started

African American genealogy begins just like any other search for ancestors, said Shelley Murphy of the St. Louis-based  Midwest African American Genealogy Institute.

A person should begin with what they know, then they need to think about what they don’t know, and then ask themselves who would know, said Murphy, who is a descendant project researcher at the University of Virginia.

From the very start, Murphy said, it is imperative to be organized to reduce frustration and redundant research efforts.

Shelley Murphy has been involved in genealogy for 30 years.
Shelley Murphy has been involved in genealogy for 30 years. She said in most cases African American research will take longer. At times, she said, it will be sad and emotional, and then empowering at other times. (Sanjay Suchak | University of Virginia)

One of the most popular genealogy tools is the U.S. Census. But, for many African Americans, the census is only useful going back to 1870 – the first year formerly enslaved persons were named.

There are resources that might help prior to 1870, such as slave schedules, said Monica Davis, research services coordinator at the Watkins Museum of History in Lawrence.

But, Davis warned, the information will be minimal, often listing just gender and age.

 “Because African American were enslaved, they were property,” Murphy said. “They are not going to have records during that time.”

Documents such as birth, marriage or death records might not exist at all. Instead, Murphy suggested, it might be helpful to research the slave holder’s business records for information.

Records created after the Civil War often can provide information of enslaved ancestors prior to 1865. These documents could include as wills, college or church records, or pension affidavits.

“I was lucky on one of the research requests I had several years ago in finding legal records where a woman had petitioned to change her name. Her mother was an enslaved ancestor,” Davis said.

Murphy said another resource is the Freedmen’s Bureau records. The bureau was established by Congress in 1865 to provide food, housing, medical aid, and other assistance. Many of those seeking assistance were former enslaved persons.

Among the resources available at the Midwest Genealogy Center in Independence are plantation records.
Among the resources available at the Midwest Genealogy Center in Independence are plantation records. (Contributed | Midwest Genealogy Center)

“The best thing about these records are the Civil War ends and this is where they step free,” Murphy said. “This is my name. This is my wife. These are my children.”

Murphy said she once saw a 1866 ration record of someone who was 100 years old.

“That person would have been a slave their whole life,” Murphy said. “It says they were born before the American Revolution. They could have been the first person to come from Africa. Think about that. It’s heartbreaking in one sense, but again it tells so much.”

Davis said she is a big fan of digitized newspapers. 

“It’s amazing the information you can get from one obituary,” she said. 

And, Davis added, it is important to know that many government entities will not sell their records to genealogy research databases. A person conducting research needs to find out how the records are handled in the state they are searching, she said.

Reed began his genealogy work in Kansas City in a bookstore. While looking through the bookshelves an employee gave him some advice: Go to the Midwest Genealogy Center in Independence.

“When I got out there, it was like – wow,” Reed said. “It is amazing the amount of resources they have out there.”

Resources in Reach

The pieces of African American family history are plentiful in the Kansas City area – and growing.

For example, the Midwest Genealogy Center has numerous books of plantation records and access to numerous databases of information.

“I try to not let people get discouraged because there are always other routes,” said the center’s manager Cheryl Lang.

Kansas City also is home of the Black Archives of Mid-America, where there are thousands of photographs, yearbooks, business records and oral histories, as well as the records of the Lincoln Cemetery, which for decades was one of only three Jackson County burial grounds established specifically for Black families.

The archives are always looking for original documents, said Executive Director Carmaletta Williams.

The archives once received a significant donation from a man in New Jersey. The man got the documents when his neighbor passed away and the family no longer wanted the items.

“There are all kinds of records. There are ration books with ration tickets in it. There are neighborhood documents. Funeral service programs. Those are historical.” Williams said.

The Kansas City Museum is developing programs using “a restorative model” with a goal of capturing “the counter narratives” that are often not told.

Oralee McKinzy is a member of the educational team developing the programs at the museum. She said it is important to include African American family histories.

“It’s not rewriting a story, it’s filling in the blanks of the stories that were told,” she said of the museum project. “We have to have those conversations. It is what it is. It has been overlooked. These lives, these people mattered.”

Reed said he found a lot of help by joining the local Midwest Afro-American Genealogical Interest Coalition, which started in 1984.

The organization, which Reed now serves as vice president, meets monthly – including virtual meetings during the pandemic. The group also has taken field trips to important locations of African American history.

“It’s just an amazing group of enthusiastic people who do their family history,” Reed said.

And if someone faces a particular roadblock in their research, Reed said, “it seems without fail someone will know something” to help.

Facing the Pain

As Reed found out, there can be pain in researching African American genealogy.

But Williams said it is important to face those incredibly difficult histories.

“We have to know the whole truth or we can’t heal,” Williams said.

“They didn’t let the horror or fear of what would happen to them because they were Black keep them encased within themselves. They reached out, they did things, they grew things, they helped each other. 

“When we look at Black history one of the phrases that always pops up is ‘Lift as we climb.’ Black people didn’t stay enslaved. They didn’t let their minds stay enslaved,” Williams said. “We have to acknowledge all these horrific things took place, but we also have to tell those stories so we know what each one of those persons were doing with their lives, their names.

“Those are the things we have to celebrate.”

“I like to tell people once you go down this path, be prepared for the famous and the infamous – the good and the bad,” Reed said. “Hey, it’s part of our history.”

Reed recalled the tale of an ancestor who lived in Louisiana in 1878. This relative was running for county judge. On election day there was violence. Reed found out there was a “kill order” on his ancestor.

“They had to flee for their lives,” said Ree, who searched for his ancestors’ names in the 1880 Census. “I couldn’t find their names – so that explains why.”

Prepare for Surprises

And then there is the story of David Jackson, who actually began his interest in genealogy in 1980 when he was 11 years old. As a kid, he spent time at the National Archives trying to research his family history.

David Jackson
David Jackson discovered something in his genealogy search: His ancestor, Arthur Jackson, was African American and an enslaved person. Jackson has since written a book about his experience. (Contributed | David Jackson)

He found ancestor Arthur Jackson, but could never find anything about him before 1900. The census marked his race as Black. 

Jackson was confused and upon inquiring was told things like Arthur spent a lot of time outside as a landscape gardener. Or, he was told, perhaps the census taker wrote down what they thought was Arthur’s race based only on appearance.

David Jackson put away that part of the family history for 40 years.

Then he got an email from a long-lost cousin who was researching Arthur’s second wife, Ida. The cousin was related to Arthur’s first wife.

This opened up another effort by Jackson that eventually revealed that Arthur was indeed Black and enslaved on a Missouri plantation.

Sadly, Jackson discovered that Arthur’s mother and a couple of his siblings were put up as collateral for loans in 1854 and 1855 in Virginia. This was before Arthur was born, and before a move to Missouri.

Jackson has since written a book called “Born a Slave: Rediscovering Arthur Jackson’s African American Heritage.”

Future Generations

Williams of the Black Archives has a favorite phrase: “We consider history to be today.”

The Midwest Genealogy Center has “Tell Me A Story” kits that can be checked out for four weeks to record family stories.

“I always try to say that it’s not just about a birth date, a marriage date, it’s about the people,” said Lang. “You might say, ‘But all my grandparents are dead’. Yes, but you grew up with those grandparents. What memories do you have to keep them living.”

Reed said this is where organization is really key.

“It’s still a challenge to engage across generations to pass on information,” he said. “Document and save your research and try to engage the generation behind you.”

 “You have to so you can hand it over.”

Flatland contributor Debra Skodack is a Kansas City-area freelance writer.

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