Several weeks ago I received an email from an acquaintance of mine, a man I will describe only as a prominent African American personality. Let’s call him Alex. He emailed to say he had read my book, The Stranger in My Genes, and he wanted to discuss something with me. Privately.
My book, published by NEHGS, tells the story of a DNA test I took to help a cousin with his genealogical research. The results were shocking. They revealed that my father was not my father. Since it was released in September of 2016, I have heard from dozens of people – friends and strangers – who have had similar experiences. I assumed Alex was only the latest. Continue reading Strong emotions→
Recently, as I was browsing Google, I noticed their doodle for the day. It was honoring Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman, who was born 26 January 1892. She was the first woman of African American and Native American descent to receive her pilot’s license, and she was also the first person of African American and Native American descent to receive an international pilot’s license. Continue reading A pair of firsts→
The documentary “Birth of a Movement” – which premiered on 30 January at the Somerville Theatre outside Boston, and airs nationally on PBS on Monday 6 February during African-American History Month – explores D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) through a modern lens. What caught my attention about the film is the documentary’s protagonist, famed civil rights activist William Monroe Trotter (1872–1934). Trotter lived nearly his entire life in Boston and founded the Boston Guardian, an independent African-American newspaper. He also established the Niagara Movement, in 1915, with fellow Massachusetts native W.E.B. DuBois, and participated in numerous other causes for civil rights until his death in 1934. Continue reading Remembering William Monroe Trotter→
I frequently contribute to a column on The Root online magazine, where I respond with Henry Louis Gates Jr. to genealogical questions from the readers. Often the questions involve trying to trace families back to the slavery period, which is a daunting and difficult task. Not only are records hard to come by, but the work can be an emotional rollercoaster.
It is mixed with the delight of finding an ancestor listed by name in a probate record, quickly followed by the realization that they are there because they were property. It can be hard to face the realities of the past when seeing children listed with monetary values next to their names, but also rewarding to know you have pieced a family together with the record. Continue reading Accounting for the care of slaves→
[Author’s note: This blog post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 19 August 2015.]
My grandfather died almost 25 years ago, and sometime before that he gave me a box of “family papers.” The box itself is rather striking: a metal strong box, easily portable, with my great-great-grandfather John Steward’s name stenciled on top in fading paint. Inside the box are not just family papers, but intriguing (and, of course, unidentified) daguerreotypes and examples of other early photographic processes, along with materials treating the family of my great-grandmother, Margaret Atherton (Beeckman) Steward (1861–1951). Continue reading ICYMI: Family papers→
A very exciting and important project, one creating a searchable database for 1.5 million Freedmen’s Bureau records, is near completion. The database will allow family researchers to locate records of their ancestors at the click of a button and will surely revolutionize the way African-Americans conduct family research. The best part is, you can help!
The Freedmen’s Bureau, officially known as the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, was created near the end of the Civil War to help those needing assistance following the war, namely newly-emancipated slaves and white refugees, as well as to manage and resettle lands abandoned by former owners. Continue reading Giving voice to the silenced→
From tracing free people of color in New England to identifying former slaves in the deep south, NEHGS can help you tell your family story. We have a number of guides and tools in our library and available through our education department and online databases that can help you jump start researching your African American roots all over the United States, not just New England. Continue reading Tracing your African roots at NEHGS→
Rock and roll icon Eric Clapton once described Robert Johnson as “the most important blues musician who ever lived.” Despite the fact that Johnson influenced musicians decades after his death, his life is shrouded in mystery. Johnson is believed to have been born on 8 May 1911 in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, to Julia (Major) Dodds and Noah Johnson. Julia was married to a prosperous landowner named Charles Dodds at the time of her son’s birth. Charles Dodds had been forced to leave Hazelhurst following a dispute with white land owners.
By 1913, two-year-old Robert Johnson was sent to Memphis to live with Charles Dodds, where he is known to have attended school in 1916 before rejoining his mother in the Mississippi Delta area around 1919. Continue reading Devil at the crossroads→
A couple of weeks ago I was working on an article for The Root, the online magazine, about locating World War I service records for a reader’s Mississippi ancestors. Knowing that the original service records are not digitized, but instead are housed at the National Archives in St. Louis, Missouri, I searched the Digital Archives of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History for any online collections that might assist the reader. My search was ultimately successful in that the MDAH has uploaded veterans’ service cards for World War I, but I also stumbled across a curious collection that I thought might interest our Vita Brevis readers: Educable Children Records (Mississippi), 1850–1894; 1906–1965. Continue reading Educable children→
One of the envelopes in my box of family papers turns out to contain material on my great-grandfather Campbell Steward (1852–1936) as a boy, as well as a letter written to his married daughter in Europe shortly before his death. Another item caught my eye: a vivid yellow envelope addressed to “Mr. Campbell Steward” in New York City, with a letter inside mailed from Goshen, New York, and dated 12 January 1871. Continue reading A letter from home→