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Why Your Ancestry Search Should Start With Your Family Stories

History starts at home.

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Family, ancestry, aarp, sisters
Chioma Ebinama
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Every family has a favorite story worn from the wear of being told and retold. The neighbors have heard it. The folks at church have heard it. When you bring someone around who is new and uninitiated, they have to hear it, too. Sometimes it’s a source of pride, sometimes it’s funny and makes everybody laugh and sometimes it’s been remixed a bit from what actually happened. It circulates through the generations, a near-mythological creation about some kind of survival, miracle or phenomenon. Those stories are family gems and they’re the perfect starting point when you’re tracing your ancestry, says attorney and professional genealogist Kenyatta Berry.

“Family stories are the foundation of your journey to uncover your past because most of our history has been passed down orally. Some of it may not be true because we all think we have some Native American person in our family history: the high cheekbones, the braids, the whole thing,” she chuckles, “but getting that information is really important.”

On PBS’Genealogy Roadshow, Berry is part of a team of experts who travel the country helping participants verify their connections to historical events and people — the Salem Witch Trials, old Hollywood royalty, the first African-Americans to graduate from college. The process, both on the show and in everyday life, is emotional and investigative, and Berry has pooled her knowledge and passion for the work into The Family Tree Toolkit: A Comprehensive Guide to Uncovering Your Ancestry and Researching Genealogy.

To drill down on some initial but critical facts, she suggests creating what she calls a “biographical sketch.” Write down as much as you know about your parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. Our culture can be hush-hush and guarded about giving up intimate details that can be necessary when you’re trying to get to the truth. Ask questions anyway. Interview living family members to fill in the gaps of what you know for sure and what you’re not certain about, what may be rumors and what’s absolutely accurate.

African-Americans experienced four major migrations, beginning with their forced transportation to America, then from the upper South to the deep South, both as part of the domestic slave trade. The third migration happened during Reconstruction, which a lot of people don't talk about, says Berry. “That's the migration of ‘I'm trying to find my people. If my child or husband or brother was sold, I may go find them.’” The fourth migration from the South to the North is the most well-known and you should ask your elder family members questions about any other places your ancestors may have lived besides the ones you already know.

A lot of our history is tied to the church, Berry says, so ask questions about that. What church did your family attend? If they migrated from another part of the country, where did they worship before they moved? How involved were they in the church? Those files can be a goldmine of information or, at the very least, introduce new names and locations to explore in your search. The same goes for military records.

“There were a lot of people who were part of the U.S. Colored Troops. I'm actually doing research now for someone whose ancestor might have been a buffalo soldier. There's just so many different ways in which we participated in American history, so you want to get those things that people don't talk about a lot — the migration, the places they lived, military service, churches they attended and how involved they were and, of course, those family stories.”

When Berry researched her own history, she discovered that resilience ran through her bloodline and, like so many of us, it’s naturally and inherently part of who she is. “I found my fifth-great-grandmother and imagine what she went through, but know that she survived so I could be here. As a Black woman, I get to understand where my strength, my resilience, my culture and my nature come from,” she said.

“When people start doing genealogy, a lot of times it's about names, dates and places. You get on, you click the leaf, you just want to attach a record. But you’re telling your ancestors' stories from the perspective of their descendant and treating them as human,” a right she says Black people were denied during the horrors of American enslavement.

When Black women learn the stories of our ancestors, it reinforces our strength and it adds just another reason for us to be in love with who we are. “Genealogy has made me even prouder to be a Black woman because I understand where my strength comes from,” says Berry. “When things get me down or somebody's getting on my nerves, I think about what my ancestors went through and how, whatever situation I'm in, it’s not as difficult as theirs. Then I can get through it.”