In 1976 Alex Haley’s book and wildly popular television miniseries “Roots” spurred national interest in African-American family history. James Dent Walker, one of the few African-American researchers at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., in the 1970s, helped Haley with his family research but was criticized by his managers, who believed black genealogy was an exercise in futility. Genealogy is certainly a challenging undertaking for anyone. But due to African Americans’ unique history, it can be exhaustingly difficult.
The St. Louis African American History and Genealogy Society (STL-AAHGS) was formed in 2008 as a chapter of the national organization. We have about 180 members and welcome everyone. People from various ethnic backgrounds attend our monthly meetings. Our specific demographic is people of African descent between the ages of 30 and 60 who are currently living within the St. Louis geographical area and have an interest in African-American history and family history research. Ancestors do not need to have lived in the St. Louis region, however.
We work with many organizations to promote African-American family research. Recently we have agreed to work with the Slavery, History, Memory, and Reconciliation Project at Saint Louis University to research black families who were enslaved by the Jesuits and the university.
Whether you have no knowledge of genealogy or are a seasoned researcher, you are welcome to attend our meeting. We will help you assess your goal and guide you step by step. We try to present a program that can give you information and new skills to use immediately. Our meetings are open to all, but registered STL-AAHGS members have the benefit of having regular access to experienced people who can answer specific questions.
Our next meeting will be on Saturday, September 28, from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Missouri History Museum. This workshop is prompted by the facts of history. Slaves were taxable property and, like any property during that period, slaves were sold, given away, transported, transferred, traded, and even rented out. At the owner’s death the law required an accounting of all of his or her property. The meeting on September 28 will offer hands-on tips and techniques that help hone research skills to locate, analyze, and glean clues from slave owners’ deeds and wills, probate records, and other tools in African-American family research. Attendees can expect step-by-step instruction accessing familysearch.org, a free website with major tools for resource information.
Beginning is easy and exciting, but newbies often expect too much too soon. It is important to be patient and persistent.
Some other tips are:
- Make accurate notes the first time you find useful information (e.g., source of the information, date you found it, location of the source, summary of what question the information answers).
- Maintain good and easily accessible files.
- Create a binder for each family surname. Divide the binder according to family individuals.
- Create a research plan.
- Limit your research to one branch of the family at a time. You may alternate between ancestors.
- Be persistent. Just because you don’t find information on the first attempts does not mean that it doesn’t exist. Take a break from that aspect of your research and come back to it a week, a month, or even years later.
- Never ignore facts. Simply because some information makes you uncomfortable is no reason to reject it (“Oh, he/she would never have done that”). How do you know? What objective evidence do you have that supports your conclusion?
- Search for more than one source to verify what you have found.
- Spelling changes. Older writings, even by educated people, may be filled with different ways of spelling the same word.
- When you join a genealogy society like STL-AAHGS, you’ll have access to collective help and decades of experience.
Generally speaking, studying genealogy unleashes a curiosity about where we come from and to whom we are connected. The trick is how to find the answers by asking the right questions and carefully applying efficient sleuthing skills. Clearly, anyone who steps into African American genealogy is sure to find it intellectually stimulating, psychologically reaffirming, and emotionally exciting.
The next meeting of the St. Louis African American History and Genealogy Society will take place on September 28, 2019, from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Missouri History Museum. This meeting is free and open to the public. For more information, visit stl-aahgs.com.
James Vincent is president of the St. Louis African American History and Genealogy Society.