YSU AFRICANA STUDIES PROGRAM Speaker: Family history often found in home
Information kept in family Bibles can provide valuable genealogical information.
YOUNGSTOWN -- If you're interested in tracing your family history, a good place to begin is somewhere nearby: your home.
That was a main theme of Roland Barksdale-Hall's lecture, "The Black Family: Tracing Your Ancestry," sponsored by Youngstown State University's Africana Studies Program. Barksdale-Hall spoke Thursday at YSU's Kilcawley Center.
Barksdale-Hall, an author, family historian and co-founder of the Afro-American Historical and Geneological Society, provided several resources and tips to those who want to learn more about their ancestors and how to get started.
The best way to begin, Barksdale-Hall said, is in the present by gaining as much information as possible from those closest to you.
"Research always starts with oneself and works backward," he said.
Barksdale-Hall told the audience that a person's residence often contains old photographs, newspaper clippings, church and funeral home programs, pieces of jewelry and other valuable items. The type of clothing a person is wearing in a picture can provide clues to the time the photo was taken, and jewelry can be important because it can identify the type of club or other social gathering a family member belonged to, he explained.
Another important artifact, he continued, is a family Bible. Many people kept letters, records, postcards and other correspondence inside their Bibles; that information can lead to additional avenues to pursue, he noted.
Those wishing to learn more about their genealogy also can glean information from their family's genetics. Barksdale-Hall said his mother died in 1982 of breast cancer and from there he learned more about various risk factors in his family.
Other resources available include school records, cemeteries, public libraries, historical societies and the U.S. Census Bureau, Barksdale-Hall said. After 1870, census counts were more accurate because people who had been slaves were counted, he noted.
After slavery ended, two-parent families became more common, contrary to the myth that slavery destroyed the family unit, he noted.
Barksdale-Hall said he learned that several of his relatives lived in Georgia. He was able to find some ancestors by visiting a cemetery, many of which were segregated, he added.
Sometimes, unusual family characteristics can point a person in the right direction. Barksdale-Hall said he found a newspaper article about his great-grandfather, a former slave who lived to be 109 and was thought to have been the oldest person in Pennsylvania at the time.
After World War I and throughout the 1920s, many blacks traveled by train as they migrated from the South to northern states in search of better jobs, Barksdale-Hall pointed out. Tracing a particular train route can indicate the area someone may have ended up in, he said.
Barksdale-Hall gave several tips about how to interview family members who may hold useful information. They include talking to one person at a time, planning an outline, asking open-ended questions and avoiding becoming controversial or contradicting the person.
"Try to get them to tell a story. Ask one question at a time," he advised.
A goal for many people interested in tracing their ancestry is to be able to host a family reunion, he said. A highlight for Barksdale-Hall, he added, was seeing various family members come together.