Alonzo Felder began researching his family history 10 years ago, after the death of his mother. He was looking for what he calls “a sense of place in the universe,” a way to find out who he was by discovering where he came from.
That led him to a Methodist cemetery in Gainesville, Fla., where seven generations of his family were buried. It was there he connected with cousins in the area, who told him about his great-great-grandfather, murdered by a white man in a 1904 dispute over a fence boundary. Which led him into further researching a family of blacks who had been freed men and women since the 1830s.
Eventually, after seeing “the glazed looks some folks would give me as I talked about my ancestral discoveries,” Felder, a 60-year old IT user analyst at Duke University, decided to set up a foundation that would help other people discover and celebrate their roots. But unlike other genealogical organizations, the My Roots Foundation – www.myrootsfoundation.com – not only helps people discover more about their family histories, but also about how to celebrate them.
The foundation “gives you the tools to help with the research,” says Felder, “but more importantly our focus is on the display, the exhibition. Creating websites about the family, creating posters, family charts, DVDs and CDs that allow you to have an archive of your family history. It is more than just a record of who begat who, it is focused on you being able to show honor to your forefathers.”
Felder’s foundation, which is geared toward all ethnic and racial groupings, but with an emphasis on African-Americans, is just the latest example of the rage for family knowledge.
“People have been interested in genealogy for a long time,” says Gina Paige of africanancestry.com, an organization that helps blacks find their African roots through DNA testing. “Knowing where you are in the room is an important psychological component of knowing who you are, and we look to the past to answer that question.”
Adds Felder, “We are a society that is increasingly isolated as individuals. We have technology that was purported to draw us together, but that’s not happening. What’s happening is we are moving away from our parents, our families, we’re spread all over the place and there is a sense of there’s something missing in terms of my place in the world, and genealogy research actually helps.”
There’s also this. Several studies have shown that knowing a family’s history promotes emotional well-being. A 2010 study performed by scholars at Emory University and UNC-Chapel Hill found, for example, that “pre-adolescent children who know more about their family history display higher levels of emotional well-being … and also higher levels of identity achievement.”
Some of us enjoy putting puzzles together, and that’s what this is really like.
Alonzo Felder, who set up the My Roots Foundation
This has special resonance in the black community because, says Cassandra Davis, a board member of the My Roots Foundation and a research associate in the Education Policy Initiative at UNC-Chapel Hill, “research says if you label an individual a thug or a gangster, you will act it out. But if students know who they are, and their potential, the research is clear – if a student is able to see their family doing positive things, then they are able to achieve themselves. And then I have a vested interest in wanting to find out more about myself.”
Finding African-American roots isn’t always an easy process, however. “We weren’t recorded as a people in a census until 1870,” says Paige, “and that’s when we hit a brick wall. “And then it being illegal for us to learn how to read and write [as slaves], so we had to rely on oral records for many years, and our families kept getting torn apart and moved around; that has contributed to the difficulty of obtaining information.”
Prior to the 1870 census, “blacks were property, so you had to look at slave schedules, and sometimes slaves were just listed by first name, male and female, and their age,” adds Felder. “If you could find birth or death certificates – more likely death certificates – you could then find parent information. The records of the Freedmen’s Bureau [established in 1865 to help freed blacks and poor whites after the Civil War] is also a resource; freed African-Americans opened bank accounts and bought property, and the bureau had those records.”
Felder also notes that the search, no matter who you are, “is very addictive, and time consuming. It’s hard to put down, but it’s not difficult. Some of us enjoy putting puzzles together, and that’s what this is really like.”
Davis claims Felder’s site is particularly important because it’s different from the genealogy sites that are just focused on immigration. “In the complexity where race is involved,” she says, “he’s going full steam ahead in saying, ‘We’re gonna talk about race.’ He’s saying whether you have a little bit of knowledge or not, the ultimate goal is you feel uplifted about something in your family.”
And in fact, that feeling crosses all racial and ethnic boundaries. It’s reflected in Felder’s comment about how he felt “when I realized how much self-esteem, confidence and inspiration I gained just from knowing who my people were, where they came from, and what they accomplished in order for me to be here.”
Want to find your roots?
Tips from Alonzo Felder and Gina Paige:
▪ Start with what you know. Draw a chart that starts with your mom, dad, grandparents, etc. Map it out with names and dates.
▪ Look for a legal trail, documents like marriage licenses and death certificates, that validate what you know.
▪ Interview family members, use oral histories, Bibles, documents, obituaries. These will lead you in all sorts of directions.
▪ Use the numerous genealogical resources on the web, try to find census records, a phone directory, any public records of your ancestors.
▪ If you are African-American and want to trace your history back to Africa, take one lineage – one grandparent, for example – and see if you can find a DNA match, with the help of a site like africanancestry.com.