Digging Up The Past

There Are Many Routes To Finding Your Family's Roots. Just Start Close To Home And Go From There.

Cover Story

February 06, 2005|By Helen B. Jones | Helen B. Jones,SUN STAFF

It took the arrival of the newest member of Donna Tyler Hollie's family to start her wondering about the oldest member -- the oldest member on her family tree, that is.

Damon McAllister Tyler was born in 1979, the son of Hollie's brother, Brent McAllister Tyler. Hollie's father and grandfather also had the McAllister name. Where, she wondered, had the much-passed-along name McAllister come from? And what about the surname Tyler? With whom had that originated?

She knew it might not be easy, but she was ready to start digging up her family's roots.

Researching where you came from can be tough. But it also can be tremendously rewarding. For African-Americans, there are unique challenges, but they are not necessarily insurmountable.

With how-to books, support groups, genealogical societies and a seemingly endless amount of online information at your disposal, there's no time like the present to start tracing your roots.

Hollie, who lives in Northwest Baltimore, began by interviewing older members of her family -- her father and an uncle, first.

Getting an oral history from kin is exactly the right way to start, says Tony Burroughs, an adjunct professor of genealogy at Chicago State University, author of Black Roots: A Beginner's Guide to Tracing the African American Family Tree (Simon & Schuster, 2001) and a highly regarded lecturer on genealogical topics who has visited Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Library several times.

"Most people have no idea how to get started," he says. "You can very quickly start to deal with huge numbers of people. You go one generation, one person at a time. It's manageable if you do it that way. Deal with one small part at a time."

After getting oral histories from close relatives, start gathering documents that have been saved by your family, Burroughs says. Bibles, funeral programs, old letters. Then move on to vital records such as birth, marriage and death certificates and then to federal census records.

Alva Griffith, a Bolton Hill resident who describes herself as a genealogy buff and family historian, suggests that you collect as much information from family as possible before moving on to government records. Get dates of births, marriages and deaths, and find out where those events took place, she says.

"Don't skip generations," she adds. "Go from the known to the unknown." And "document, document, document. Keep good records."

Donna Hollie's search took her to Orange and Fauquier counties in Virginia, where she found relatives to interview, as well as death certificates and church and land records relating to her family.

She gathered so much information that she had enough to publish a book of more than 200 pages. The Blackwell, Chapman, Tyler, Washington Family History, compiled with help from her brother, contains photos, recipes and copies of teacher licenses, report cards, a letter from 1879, diplomas, business cards and more.

Her earliest relative? A man named Henley Chapman, whom she traced, using church and census records, to 1788. She found very detailed information on the Tyler family but the origin of the name eluded her. Early in her search, she thought it might have come from John Tyler, the 10th president of the United States. He was a slaveholder, she says, and he was from Virginia. But she never found any presidential connection. "I don't know where the name Tyler came from," she says.

As for the McAllister name, she's pretty sure she knows where it came from. Her great-great-grandmother worked for a family with the surname of McAllister. The story goes that this woman told the great-great- grandmother that if she named her son McAllister, she would help the family financially. And so, Hollie's great-grandfather was named McAllister Nicholas.

The slavery issue

"Slavery makes it harder to research blacks' history," Burroughs says. "It will present challenges, but don't get hung up on it. You'll get a lot of information before you get back to slavery. Do a proper foundation first."

Of course, many slaveholders kept detailed records of their slaves. University Publications of America, a large publisher of research materials, has more than 1,000 reels of microfilm containing Southern plantation records.

Keep in mind, though, that not all slaves lived on plantations or even in the South. "We need to know our history first" to be successful at tracing our roots, says Burroughs.

In addition to the challenges that slavery presents, blacks researching their family history will have to contend with the legacy of segregation. "You have to understand segregation," Burroughs says. "Records were segregated. ... Every aspect of history affects genealogy."

If you're searching records and only see "white" or a "W" by the columns of names, keep checking till you see a designation for blacks.

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