The Southwest Michigan Black Heritage Society

The Southwest Michigan Black Heritage Society


"The connection to yesterday"

SharonMorganWe are pleased to begin a series of blogs on genealogy by Sharon Leslie Morgan who for more than 30 years has been researching her family history in Lowndes County, AL and Noxubee County, MS. She is a member of several genealogical associations including the National Genealogical Society, the African American Historical and Genealogical Society and local societies in the geographic areas of her research.

African American Genealogy
Part I: The Adventure Begins

This blog series provides information on how to conduct family research - with a special focus on the challenges that apply for African Americans. Our goal is to help you appreciate history and learn how to research your family history. Join us for an adventure that is sure to last a lifetime!

My name is Sharon Leslie Morgan. I am a family historian. For the last three decades, I have been devoted to piecing together the puzzle of my past. It has been a great adventure on a circuitous path that never ceases to inspire, challenge and fulfill me. I often feel that I am guided by my ancestors as I unlock the story of their lives.

In 2007, I established a website to help others do the same - ourblackancestry.com. My mission is to help people "empower their future by honoring their past." My work in family history has also led me to co-author a book about racial reconciliation. Gather at the Table which was published by Beacon Press in 2012 - www.gatheratthetable.net.

It is amazing how much interest in family history has grown in recent years. Statistics say that 73% of the US population is interested in genealogy and over 80 million people are actively searching online. I am glad to see African Americans getting on the bandwagon. When I did a random survey to measure potential interest before putting my website online, I got more than 7,000 immediate hits!

Ninety percent of African Americans are descended from people who were enslaved. Our cultural ties with our homelands in Africa were broken; which means we don't know where we came from. Our family ties were severed; which means we don't know many of the people to whom we are related. Only five percent (approximately 500,000) of people kidnapped from Africa were enslaved in America. That number grew to almost four million people who were officially released from slavery when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. It took a Civil War to enforce it. And, it was not until 1868, when the 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution became law, that we were acknowledged as citizens. Clearly, there is much we need to know, not only about our ancestors but about the times in which they lived. That means a good genealogist also needs to be an historian.

My research has been particularly challenging and yours will be too. Many African Americans can't trace back past 1870. That was the year of the first Federal census that recorded African Americans as people (rather than property), with surnames and families. Before that, we were just ticks on a slave schedule.

This series of blogs will help you appreciate history and learn how to research your family. Hopefully, what I write here will open the door to an adventure that will excite and engage you for a lifetime. The search for my family history has been an incredibly educational, enlightening and evolutionary experience. My findings brought home the admonition I grew up with that "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it." Maybe finding out who we are can help us make the world a better place. I certainly think so.

What is Genealogy?

by Sharon Leslie Morgan

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Some people are confused about the meaning of the word "genealogy." Technically, it means "a personal record of your ancestors - when they were born and where they lived, who their children were and who they married and where you belong in your extended family tree." All of this information is recorded on forms and charts with which you can determine and show where everybody fits in the family picture. Most genealogists are very disciplined about verifying every bit of information they find by locating documents that prove every detail. That is good advice as it is easy to confuse information, especially when so many people share the same names.

For European Americans, there are many records to consult. I know families who can trace themselves back to the kings of Europe and the founding fathers of America. For African Americans, recreating one's family tree is a bigger challenge. There are not as many records that exist to confirm our genealogies. But we all have stories, and those stories, more than anything else, help us discover who we are in our hearts.

In the 1970s interest in genealogy by African Americans was propelled by the publication of Alex Haley's Roots. This book and TV miniseries was profoundly influential in encouraging genealogical exploration by America's former slaves. It was also the first time contemporary European Americans got a glimpse into the realities of slavery. I am told by white friends that it had a major impact on them as well.

One of the reasons Roots and other programs that have been on television lately are so powerful is because they tell the stories of real people - just like you and me. There is something profound about the story of Tom Joyner's uncles who were wrongly executed for murder and how Tom made things right by getting them exonerated posthumously. There was inspiration in the story of Lionel Ritchie's ancestors in Tuskegee, Alabama. As he stood in the midst of a cemetery, he was overcome with emotion and said, "This is about as close to a spiritual awakening as I've ever had in my whole life." Even rapper 50 Cent was transformed after being transported back 200 years into the backwoods of South Carolina.

Whether you call it "genealogy" or "family history," your job is to write things down so that future generations can benefit from what you learn. There is an African proverb that says "you are never dead as long as someone remembers your name." Our ancestors worked too hard and struggled too valiantly for them to be forgotten.

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Sharon Leslie Morgan is the founder of OurBlackAncestry.com, a website devoted to African American family research. She is co-author of Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade (Beacon Press, 2012). These blogs express the views and opinions of the author and should not be attributed to anyone else. Readers can join the Our Black Ancestry community either by subscribing to the website or joining the Facebook page.