A summer camp in Annapolis encourages kids to use resources such as the Internet, public records and their relatives to find branches of their family tree.

Going back to their roots

August 24, 2005|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

At Roots Camp in Annapolis, it's cool to bring the names of your great-grandparents and the year they were born.

Lamont Thomas Wilson Jr., 11, found branches on his family tree during the weeklong camp, which ended Monday. In his newly minted family history book, he pointed out the name of his great-great-grandmother. Her name was Maggie Sharps and she died in 1990.

In this innovative indoor summer camp, 10 children had a chance to travel in time, often using Web sites and census data to chart the journey.

They learned about primary sources, pedigrees and ancestry charts, and were taught how to use vital records of birth, death and marriage.

In the course of her research, Briona M. Peters, 10, said she learned from newspaper accounts more about a living relative, her grandmother Yevola Peters, a longtime community activist. Chynna Pratt, 10, on the other hand, found a relative had died recently.

"I didn't know my grandfather was dead," Chynna said. "He died July of this year."

Genealogy is a hot topic among adults and is heating up among children. This camp, held in the community room of the Woodside Gardens subsidized housing complex, is staffed by the nonprofit Kunte Kinte-Alex Haley Foundation.

In the course of five morning sessions, the campers became acquainted with the range of techniques for identifying relatives on their family trees, including military, Social Security and immigration records. This is the camp's third summer.

"The goal is a map of all their people," said Leonard Blackshear, the foundation president. "We encourage them to go home and talk to all their relatives, say, `Grandma, tell me so and so.'

"Roots provide an anchor in a world moving so fast," Blackshear said.

Roots is also the title of the best-selling novel written by the Haley about his slave ancestor Kunte Kinte, which the foundation seeks to keep fresh on people's minds.

As Blackshear spoke, excitement reigned in the room, as girls and boys vied to be the first to guess the correct definition of manumission (freeing or being freed from slavery).

But slavery is where African-American genealogy usually hits what is known as the "brick wall," said Judy Cabral, the project director who led the camp classes.

Not until after the Civil War, in 1870, did the U.S. Census start to name every black American enumerated.

Before that, during the decades of slavery, only free blacks were named and counted, while slaves were left officially nameless and counted as only three-fifths of a person.

As a result, Cabral said, those who have slave ancestors are often unable to find them in the records. Campers may not fully grasp the magnitude of the loss yet, but they learn ways of working around it, such as counting back in relatives' lifetimes from the 1870 census.

Dana Nutter, 13, said she traced her lineage to 1790, creating the longest unbroken family line in the camp. An ancestor born in 1895, Gilbert Nutter, fought in World War I, she found.

From the 1850 census, Dana learned that she is descended from a free black oysterman on the Eastern Shore, whose mother was named Mattie Nutter, then 60 years old.

Since she was named and a head of household, Mattie Nutter almost certainly was a free black.

"This is a process you can continue for the rest of your lives," Cabral told the children in closing.

She also said that every family has a "gatekeeper," or a recordkeeper, an invaluable resource for young detectives tracing their roots.

"There's always one, an old Aunt Martha, an oral historian," Cabral said.

Malinda L. Nutter, a mother of four daughters, came to see Dana, her youngest, and other family members at the camp's celebration. There she seemed to fit the picture of a proud gatekeeper herself, with one daughter, one nephew and two granddaughters in the camp class.

"Every day, Dana's talking away, asking us questions," Nutter said. "I enjoyed it myself."

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