African American News and Genealogy

This site was developed to provide you with news that relates to African American Genealogy, History and News. Please feel free to forward this link to others. I hope you enjoy this site and good luck with your research! Cheers, Kenyatta D. Berry Managing Director

Friday, July 08, 2005

Climbingthe family tree Organization helps with info hunt

July 7, 2005 It should have been simple. Paula Royster just needed a copy of her ill grandmother's birth certificate to get her transferred from a health-care facility in Texas to one in California. The search had her digging through attics, family Bibles and historical records in Texas, Virginia and Ohio, where she found family land once crossed by Harriet Tubman's Underground Railroad. Eleven years later, she still hasn't found that birth certificate. But she did find a new passion for black genealogy. The search was tough, but Royster didn't want other researchers as passionate as she was to face the same brick walls. So she founded the Center for African American Genealogical Research Inc. This nonprofit organization, based in the Fredericksburg area, provides a free resource for black genealogical research. Royster, who also works as an administrator in Fairfax, has held genealogy workshops at her home in Spotsylvania and at the local library. Finding a permanent location for the center has been a challenge. The few facts Royster learned about her family background were fascinating. But finding them was mentally and financially exhausting. Copies of vital records and database fees weren't cheap. And after paying for access, she learned that few records existed for blacks before the end of the Civil War and slavery in 1865. In her grandmother's case, she figured that since she was born with a midwife, an official birth certificate either didn't exist or her grandmother wasn't born in Texas. She wasn't sure. She hit one stumbling block after another, but she had too many questions to stop. So she went further by talking to older relatives and walking through cemeteries, where rotting tombstones were the only proof of family members who official records say didn't exist. "For most African-Americans, a lot of our history is lost because it wasn't written down," she said. "Most of our history is oral, so we need to record what we know so that it can be available." It took a while, but Royster was able to trace her roots all the way back to Thornton James Alexander, her great-great-great-grandfather who was born a slave in Culpeper County in 1745. Her research showed he was freed in 1826, and bought nearly 800 acres of land in Ohio. Part of that land, Royster said, was used by Harriet Tubman to build the Underground Railroad, a secret route that slaves traveled on their way to freedom in Canada. Helping history hunters CAAGRI aims to provide a location for researchers to conduct in-depth black genealogical research, get computer training and participate in mentoring programs for at-risk youth. It hopes to also use genealogy to organize special projects that include preserving slave cemeteries and pairing young people with senior citizens to document their families' histories. The center is not only for black people, but the services do have an emphasis on black history. All information gathered from research will be recorded in a database and made available to locals and genealogists across the country interested in black history--for free. "The way we work is purely volunteer-based," Royster said. "The only way we will help someone with their search is if they help someone else. That's how we keep it free. In return, they have access to information that would otherwise cost more than $200 a year." Those charges come from fee-based Web sites that have Census records and official documents that date back as far as the 17th century. But the high costs may yield low results for black genealogists due to a number of challenges, Royster said. Prior to the Civil War, slaves were considered property. Their personal information--such as birthplaces, parents' names, and dates of marriages and deaths--were not always recorded. In 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves, but that freedom was not recorded until the next census came out in 1870. Freed slaves often chose a new name, which makes it harder to track down records, Royster said. And since most slaves were not allowed to read or write, few could spell their own names, allowing census takers to write whatever spelling they thought fit. Also, more than 400,000 blacks were free before the Civil War and may or may not have been accounted for in official records. The organization helps amateur researchers keep those things in mind, Royster said. Other area residents involved with CAAGRI include James Spady, a history and American Studies adjunct at the University of Mary Washington; Ruth Coder Fitzgerald, author of a book on black history in the Fredericksburg area; and John Hennessey, chief historian at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park.Location, location, location? Royster has done research with clients from her home and held workshops at the local library because CAAGRI can't find office space in the area. They have the equipment and the servers, but do not have a physical address--which is needed to get government funding and to set up computer stations. "We're in a Catch-22 in that we don't have funding to get the program started because we don't have a facility," Royster said. "We are looking for someone to donate space to us until we get funding to move to larger space." CAAGRI held its first workshop two weeks ago at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library in downtown Fredericksburg, where a few locals came to learn how to find family and community history. City Councilman Matt Kelly attended the workshop. He has been the liaison between Royster and area developers to help find the group a suitable location in Fredericksburg. Kelly, a Civil War re-enactor and history buff, said that although space in the city is at a premium, CAAGRI would be a good fit for the area due to its history and the coming of the U.S. National Slavery Museum. "When you take history in a personalized way, it has more meaning," he said. "It helps you to understand what has gone on, where you are now and where you are going. To lose [CAAGRI] would be a loss to the community." If something doesn't happen soon, CAAGRI will have to move to another region, Royster said. But Royster said the area is ideal because of its significant links to black history. Many people don't realize the role local blacks played during the Civil War, Royster said, or that Spotsylvania County was the home of Kunta Kinte, a slave made famous by Alex Haley's book "Roots."Moving forward The lack of a location hasn't stopped CAAGRI's progress. Another local genealogy workshop is scheduled for August. CAAGRI was invited to participate in the National Black Family Reunion in Washington this September, and a genealogy conference is being planned for 2006. The biggest step, Royster said, is making the public aware of CAAGRI and its services. Eugenia Blackshear of Stafford County attended the latest workshop and learned about her paternal grandfather who lived in New York. She noticed that he and all of his brothers were barbers and that the profession continued down the family line. "It's fascinating," she said. "It takes a lot of patience and determination to do the research, but I think it's something that is needed and something that everyone should know." ON THE NET: To reach PORTSIA SMITH: 540/374-5419


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