The `Roots' revolution

January 27, 2002|By Angela Walton-Raji

THE NATION was transformed 25 years ago. For the first time, most of the nation stopped. For eight consecutive nights, regular activity ceased and millions took a look at the most taboo of subjects in American history - slavery - with the airing of the television miniseries Roots.

From that episodic event, the story of an American family took hold in the hearts and minds of a nation, and 25 years later its impact is still felt. The telling of the story of a humble family from the West African village of Juffure more than 240 years ago began a new era of discussion, self-reflection, family study, ethnic identity and American culture. The nation was transfixed, held its breath and changed.

It was 1977, and the first year that I interviewed my grandmother, Ellen Bass Walton. She was the daughter of slaves and had answered my questions before. But this time she was willing to share more of her background. She had also watched Roots and had a new understanding of some of the old questions: "What were the old days like, Grandma, and did they talk about slavery?"

I recorded the names of her siblings and her parents, both of whom were slaves. I assembled my notes to form the first of many family trees. I made incredible discoveries about my family history that took me through the Civil War, including the discovery of nine Civil War soldiers. Additional research took me into Indian territory, the Choctaw Nation and, on another line, back to Virginia.

That year brought changes also for other people. A woman in Virginia had the same conversation with her mother, taking herself from knowing nothing of the family history to becoming curator of the historic plantation where her ancestors lived and died as slaves. As a result, thousands of people made the pilgrimage in August to the plantation for the national family reunion, now documented in the pivotal work by Dorothy Spruill Redford, Somerset Homecoming.

A grandmother in Baltimore, Agnes Callum, began research that took her family history to 1683, to St. Mary's County. She has produced more than 20 books on Maryland's black history. She has served on the board of Sotterley Plantation, where her ancestors toiled as slaves. She has single-handedly raised several million dollars to restore the slave cabin and preserve the history of the site where her ancestors lived. She has served on the board with a descendant of the slaveholder who owned her ancestors.

In Washington, a group organized to help other black families who wished to document their family histories. It has since expanded to become a national organization with 21 chapters - the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society (AAHGS). In its 25th year, it is one of the strongest organizations devoted to black history.

A new lifestyle emerged in 1977. Black people began to embrace Africa as their continent of origin. More African names were given to children at birth. Naming ceremonies and the embracement of other cultural symbols emerged. And as black Americans began to see Africa with a new sense of pride and dignity, people outside of the black community did the same toward their own culture.

Black studies appeared on the university curriculum. So did Latin American, Native American and Asian-American studies. As black pride surged, so did an increased interest in ethnic pride among European people. Cities suddenly created new "traditions" of annual cultural festivals reflecting the diversity of their own populations.

Yes, the country changed after the airing of Roots.

Long gone are the "dark days" of the Daughters of the American Revolution, when the organization refused to allow Marian Anderson to sing at Constitution Hall. The DAR now welcomes black members and has produced its own publication on African-American and Native American patriots of the American Revolution.

America changed. A human face was put on slavery. While descendants of slaves embraced their ancestors, descendants of slave owners have also explored the peculiar institution with new vigor.

Literature changed.

The salacious books on slavery from the 1950s and 1960s, such as Mandingo, have been replaced by other journeys in family history that are modeled after Alex Haley's search. There are books on identity and self-discovery, from works by Shirlee Taylor Haizlip such as The Sweeter the Juice to the current bestseller Cane River by Lalita Tademy. These books would not have been published before 1977. Nor would guidebooks such as Black Roots, Black Indian Genealogy and Slave Ancestral Research have found an audience.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, once known for its own racial restrictions and official statements about people of color, has not only stricken its old racial codes but last year released one of the most important tools for African-American genealogists - a CD-ROM of the records of the Freedman Savings & Trust. It was 11 years in the making. The records of hundreds of thousands of former slaves were transcribed and put onto an interactive database and made available to people researching the history of slaves.

Yes, the country has changed since 1977. Many issues still remain, of course, and must be repaired to make society a better place. But I see some dramatic changes in my life and the life around me.

Angela Walton-Raji, an avid genealogist, is the director of graduate school recruitment at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She continues to research her family history.

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