When I was born in 1951, I had a great grandmother who was living. She was 101 years old. I remember her well even though I was too young to talk to her. She died when I was three. With her demise, I still had my grandparents, three of whom survived well into my twenties. And then, there were my parents, both of whom I lost within the last few years. My mother lived with me during the last two years of her life. We filled many hours talking about her past and making family connections. Unfortunately, like most people of her generation, she hadn’t talked to her parents much, which left big gaps in what she could tell me.
In spite of those gaps, I learned how powerful family stories can be. They are often repeated from generation to generation, each time embellished with personal details. My mother’s stories led me to historical events and relatives I never knew existed, including the back story on my great grandmother, whom I learned was enslaved. Along the way, I discovered a veritable army of people who each made their individual contribution to me being me.
This short tutorial is designed to help you open the door to an adventure that can engage and excite you for a lifetime.
Getting Started with Family History
You have to begin your search by viewing it as a long term journey that needs a roadmap. That means starting with a good software program that helps organize and store the information you find. The most popular software includes Legacy, Roots Magic, and Family Tree Maker.
Once you open your software, you will begin your family tree with yourself and then proceed to systematically collect as many family names and memories as you can from everyone who is older than you. ALWAYS write down your sources so you can go back to them later if you need to.
Armed with this information, your next turn is to the internet. In the past, family research required physical visits to archives, libraries, and courthouses. Today, the internet has made family research easier for the amateur person to explore. Just remember that you need to substantiate your research.
You will need to get copies of certain key documents such as birth, marriage, and death certificates; social security, military, and land/property records. There are various places where you will find these. GOOGLE “vital records” for the state you are searching to find out how to place your order.
It is nice to be able to visualize people, places, and things with photographic images. Just remember that, before the 1800s, photography was not universally available. Even then, it was expensive and out-of-reach for most people. Whatever photos and documents you find, there are many programs available to catalog and save your images. I use free Picasa software that saves files in .jpg format, which is easy to transmit and share with others.
DNA testing is a modern marvel that makes it possible to “prove beyond doubt” whom you are related to and where your family originated. The tests are commercially available from a variety of sources, costing from $100-300 per person. This tool is especially useful for African Americans for whom record keeping during slavery was so incomplete.
Sharing Your Results
Once you have generated a basic amount of data (along with proof), you will undoubtedly want to share what you have with other family members and save your findings for future generations. You can publish your findings by creating a website or producing a physical book to share and leave behind.
My personal opinion is that EVERYONE should research their family history. Knowing about your past is empowering. It is a tool that teaches young people family values that will serve them every day of their lives. And, it is also the only way I know to achieve immortality :)
For further study, go to the OBA blog where you will find articles with more detail on different aspects of genealogical research.
The link below is an "African American Genealogy 101" PowerPoint presentation written by OBA founder Sharon Leslie Morgan: