Digging around the family tree

Journalism students peer into cameras as they learn advanced photo techniques during a recent VOICE mentoring session at Northern High. Peering into genealogy is the same – each new piece of information is like a snapshot of the past.

Journalism students peer into cameras as they learn advanced photo techniques during a recent VOICE mentoring session at Northern High. Peering into genealogy is the same – each new piece of information is like a snapshot of the past. (Staff photo by David Fitts)

I enjoy spending time with family.

Just getting together with the entire clan and “kicking it.”

My father, son and I recently visited my 87-year-old grandmother and my aunts in Carrboro and it brought back memories for us.

With busy lives, we don’t get to do it as often as we’d like.

There we were — four generations under the same roof reminiscing about “the good ol’ days” when all the grandparents and great aunts and uncles were still around.

It was like a game as we named them: grandad Tom and grandma Josephine, great granddaddy Jefferson and great grandma Alberta.

But once we got to great great granddad George, the sharecropper after the Civil War, and his wife, we started drawing blanks.

No one seems to know who came before that.

This was not the first time we played this “game.” My sister and I have both been on this mystery ancestor hunt for a while and continue hitting brick walls.

Tracing genealogy can be tricky for any American, but especially for African-Americans. With last year’s release of the 1940 U.S. Census archives, I made a serious attempt to trace my ancestry.

I was having trouble even getting started and talked to a local expert on the issue.

Richard Ellington is the newsletter editor of the Durham-Orange Genealogical Society. Although the nonprofit researches family history in Durham and Orange Counties, he provided me with useful tips in my search that could help anybody.

Ellington put me on a path of tools that the average person can use to find their ancestor’s place in a community’s history.

For starters, people can check with online organizations like ancestry.com and familysearch.org, both of which have been indexing names for a while. Most earlier census information has already been organized and can also be helpful.

However, the release of the 1940 census information may be more important because many people surveyed in it are still alive today – like my grandmother—that can answer questions.

“Census releases should be used as tools in searches and not the sole source,” Ellington told me. He said people should use all the tools readily available to them, like people and public libraries, when researching genealogy.

Visiting the library reference desk is a big help.

Most libraries, Durham County included, have state record rooms that hold copies of vital records, like birth and death certificates. Some libraries even have local history rooms that might contain a family member’s name.

On a recent visit to the Durham County Library, I found it is full of genealogical resources – many online. There are tips on how to begin individual research, recording information and the best records to use. For African-Americans, they suggest checking additional records like slave papers and schedules, private plantation records and cohabitation records.

The library recently rolled out its Ancestry Library Edition, soon to be a featured online resource, which provides access to more than 3,000 databases including censuses and the Social Security Death Index, a database of U.S. death records.

In addition, local county courthouses are also helpful in searching records but some counties now keep these materials off site from the court.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is a professor and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of the online news publication The Root for which he often writes about African-American history.

He recently started answering questions about tracing roots. In searching for family members that might have lived before Emancipation, one should also look at households that a slave may have potentially been given to. As an example, if the ancestor was given to a preacher as property, searching the censuses for minister households could help.

From 1790 -1860, American census records listed slaves by name of owner, age and sex only. After 1850, the Census began recording the names of other people living in a particular household along with the head of household.

Another tip from Ellington that comes in handy is to search other families in a community besides your own. Often folks moved in groups since travel was difficult and in the 19th century, most people married the person next door.

Lastly, remember, clerks that kept records back in the day usually wrote a name as they heard it.

Checking different spellings of names can be a big help. Often, double letters in names would drop a letter or the entire name would be shortened.

Digging into family genealogy isn’t easy – it’s downright time consuming. But taking it a step at a time, like talking to older family members, and using local resources that are readily available, eventually you might get a glimpse of the past.

It’s like a snapshot of your history.