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Local genealogy group helping African Americans fill in the past

Black genealogy getting easier with digitization
Local genealogy group is helping African Americans fill in the past
Local genealogy group helping African Americans fill in the past
Posted at 8:06 PM, Feb 22, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-22 22:42:41-05

DENVER — Uncovering your roots can be challenging for African Americans, but a local group is helping people discover their family history.

Tracing your family tree can lead to roadblocks because few records exist for African Americans before the 1870 census. That was the first year after slavery that African Americans were officially documented by name as people and not property.

"African American family history didn't just start at emancipation. It started long before that," Steve Shepard said.

Shepard is part of the Black Genealogy Search Group of Denver, which meets once a month at The Blair Caldwell Library.

"I was just excited recently to find out that I'm the third cousin of Tiger Woods," he said. "I did find out that it didn't carry over into genealogy. I still play the same game of golf."

Researching your family history can uncover some surprises but also painful revelations.

"I have a Confederate great-great-grandfather. That's just the way it is, you have to accept it," said Edward Walton of Black Genealogy Search Group.

Using census records, national archives and documentation from the Church Of Latter-Day Saints, the group shows others the process of researching their family origins. Those origins are not just Black history, but a central story of the earliest American history.

"I have a great-great-grandfather who was a slave in Independence, Missouri. I was fortunate because his story was written in the Jackson County history books," Shepard said. "He was a very skilled carpenter, and he was leased out by a contractor and built the first and only courthouse between St. Louis and San Francisco."

Slaves were documented in wills, insurance files and bills of sale as property. Details of their lives, or even their names, can be tough to uncover. Walton discovered a document freeing some of his earliest ancestors in Virginia before emancipation.

"So in 1790, he freed his slaves. In that group is my three-times-great-grandfather and grandmother, my twice-great-grandmother and grandfather," he said.

The digitization of records and DNA ancestry is giving African Americans a clearer picture of their family tree than ever before. Last year, released a free online portal of more than 3.5 million records documenting the lives of free Black people between 1846 and 1878.

"It just hasn't been documented until now, and that's why we're so adamant about everyone learning African American history, as well as knowing about the contributions that their own family made to that, that history," Shepard said.

Walton has written books about his family genealogy to pass down the knowledge to his children.

"I think it's important for self-identity, to know exactly where and what your roots are," he said.

To learn more about the Black Genealogy Search Group of Denver, click here.