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6 Tips For Researching Your African American Ancestry

For African Americans and people from Africa and the African diaspora, the 2020 census is already raising questions.
For African Americans and people from Africa and the African diaspora, the 2020 census is already raising questions.

Growing up in the 1960s, Carolyn Kidd Royal experienced racist incidents that, combined with the way African American history was taught in schools, affected her sense of identity for the worse. 

“In that mid-’60s timeframe ... you weren’t happy that your skin was brown, that your hair was a little different; and overall, we did not have a sense of pride in our race and in our individual selves. At least, I didn’t,” she said.

But, as the civil rights movement gave way to the Black Power movement, shifts in culture made a difference. Specifically, the 1969 James Brown classic “Say It Loud.”

Carolyn Kidd Royal has used DNA tests and historical records to find information on her family's genealogy.
Credit Alexis Moore | St. Louis Public Radio
Carolyn Kidd Royal has used DNA tests and historical records to find information on her family's genealogy.

“I saw myself look so much different in the mirror,” Royal said. “I was proud to be a black person.”

For Royal and others, it can be hard to formulate a sense of identity, especially when you are marginalized in the country where you were born. It can become especially hard when a search of your own family history goes hand in hand with navigating the realities of slavery.

Daniel Lilienkamp, the reference specialist in history and genealogy at St. Louis County Library, helps people research their ancestral roots. He said that African Americans are one of the hardest groups to do genealogy for.

Related: Census 2020: Local Africans, African-Americans consider how to respond to questions about origins

“There’s a belief that every enslaved person’s name was written down at least once, but the question is where,” Lilienkamp said. “That can be challenging to track down where those are. You have to know the name of the slave owner, and then you have to research them. In many cases, an African American researcher will end up knowing more about the slave-owning family than that family’s descendants know.”

Tuesday on St. Louis on the Air, we heard from St. Louisans who have become deeply embedded in the process of researching their family’s genealogy, including Bernice Hartfield and Sarah Cato of the Association of African American Researchers of St. Louis, and Jim Vincent of the St. Louis African American History and Genealogy Society.

Here are some suggestions they have for people interested in researching their own genealogy:

  1. Start with your oldest relative. “Let them guide the conversation,” Cato said. “Keep in mind, they don’t have to talk to you. Be polite, courteous and respectful. If you know that Aunt Mable likes a little Johnnie Walker Red, you might take a little with you as a gift.” She also recommends you bring a tape recorder, pen and paper, and a phone to the meeting.
  2. Spelling isn’t always consistent. “If you can say it phonetically, it can be spelled in all those different ways,” Cato said.
  3. Question your assumptions. “My assumption was that my ancestor was enslaved, and that these good white people from Virginia were helping him to escape enslavement by putting him on the back of the wagon and bringing him to Illinois,” Cato said. “Wrong answer. He was free, his mother and father were free, he had never been enslaved, and he was more a part of the family that he came with.”
  4. Be prepared to dig through old records. While a lot of genealogical research can now be done online, sometimes you will need to search for physical copies. Hartfield advises people to take a flashlight, gloves, and even a mask to dig through dusty files in courtroom basements.
  5. Join a group. Whether it’s the Association of African American Researchers of St. Louis, the St. Louis African American History and Genealogy Society or another organization, having the support of others will give you access to decades of research experience. (The St. Louis African American History and Genealogy Society typically meets from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. on the third Saturday of the month at the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park.)
  6. Be patient. Researching family history is a long journey, and is more of a hobby than a one-time activity. Vincent said not to expect to find out much at first, but be persistent.

Like Vincent, Cato and Hartfield, Royal recognizes that her genealogical search will take time. She still has a ways to go with her research, but what she has discovered so far has helped her form her own sense of identity. And with the advent and accessibility of DNA testing, Royal discovered that she has ancestral ties in West and Central Africa. So, she decided to make a pilgrimage to Ghana. 
“I just wanted to get closer and closer to my heritage, my original heritage, so that I feel a connection,” she said.

Royal also hopes to go to Cameroon within the near future. 

“And I know when I go to Cameroon ... I’ll walk around and see people looking just like me … I will see me everywhere I go,” she said. “I think that’s what all this research is going to do: It’s going to give me that ultimate connection. When I finally hit the African in all of my genealogy, I’m just going to be dancing all over the place.”

Hear more about Royal's story, as well as that of Vincent, Hartfield and Cato, in this episode of St. Louis on the Air:

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Tonina Saputo. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.
Alexis Moore was St. Louis Public Radio's production intern with St. Louis on the Air during the summer of 2019. Alexis completed her undergraduate education at Arizona State University, emphasizing in History and Film/Media Production. While there, she served as a writing tutor within Barrett, The Honors College and studied abroad at the University of Ghana.