To learn more about his family’s history, Elmer Gibson combed through hundreds of old documents and deeds, studied a map and visited the plantation where his ancestors were enslaved.
Working on and off for more than a decade, Gibson learned that his great-grandparents and grandfather were slaves on a plantation in what is now Gibsonville, a town in Alamance and Guilford counties.
He suspects that Andrew Gibson, a white plantation owner, was his great-great-grandfather. Gibsonville was named after Andrew Gibson’s son, Joseph, who freed Elmer’s ancestors and left them $1,750 in his will.
“For a lot of African-Americans, tracing their history is painful and they don’t want to know,” said Gibson, 76, a jazz musician who lives in Raleigh. “I was so angry. ... It took me a while to come to grips with (my ancestry).”
It can be tough for many black families to trace their genealogy, partly because slaves were considered property, could not legally marry and were not counted in the U.S. census before 1870.
The State Archives of North Carolina will host a genealogy workshop in Raleigh on Saturday to help African-Americans learn how to trace their family histories. Speakers will present case studies of people who have successfully learned about their ancestors, and they will also talk about how to use old letters, maps and Bibles as resources.
“You have to be a detective,” Gibson said. “There is no quick answer.”
It’s important to understand different kinds of records, said Chris Meekins, head of the imaging unit at the State Archives. He will give a presentation Saturday on research methodology and evaluating documents.
Sarah Koonts, director of archives and records at the State Archives, said organizations such as the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society can be a good tool.
“Community is helpful,” Koonts said. “Who else is out there doing this work?”
Tony Burroughs, founder of the Center for Black Genealogy, said it doesn’t have to be so challenging for African-Americans to learn about their family histories.
“If more people realized how easy and rewarding it was, maybe more people would do it,” he said. “People need to know who they are and where they came from.”
Burroughs said people who want to research their genealogy should write down what they already know, interview living relatives and study documents and artifacts.
“Too often people just go to Google,” he said.
Gibson said he was lucky because there was an abundance of records on his ancestors. Others might not be so fortunate, but he encourages everyone – of every race – to trace their genealogy.
Through his research, he has met relatives he didn’t know existed. The song “Spirit Dance (In Search of Lewis Burton)” is about Gibson’s quest to learn about his grandfather. It’s on his album “The Loner Hexilogy.”
Gibson said learning about his family’s history in slavery was emotional but worth it.
“I am glad that I found out (my ancestry), even the bad parts,” Gibson said. “After the initial shock, I was very glad to know.”
Madison Iszler: 919-836-4952; @madisoniszler
Find out more
To learn more about the ancestry workshop, go to http://bit.ly/29DSrs5.