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National Commentary

How Today’s Descendants Are Tracing Their Family Roots

By Leonard E. Colvin
Chief Reporter
New Journal and Guide

In 1619, the first “20 and odd” Black Africans arrived at Fort Comfort in what is today Hampton, Virginia.

William Tucker, the first Black child recorded to be born in the English colonies, was the son ofAnthony and Isabella whose descendants today in Hampton and elsewhere are able to trace their family genealogy to that first branch of their family tree.

There are other families where descendants of other Africans who arrived later as slaves or migrants to this country over the past 400 years find tracing their family tree to be more complicated.

Ancestral seeds of African Americans were planted in

the soil of the Americas before many prominent white Americans whose families migrated from Europe.

Many Blacks trace their family roots using records of

birth, death, national census, family business, and property records, yearbooks, fraternal and church records.

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But for many others, tracing the family ancestry is like

searching for the root of a long and tangled vine.

The theme of the 2021 Black History Month observance is “The Black Family: Representation, Identity, and Diversity.”

The African American family knows no single location, since family reunions and genetic-ancestry searches testify to the spread of family members across states, nations, and continents.

Imported like cars are today, millions of men and women of African descent were slaves who provided the labor which built the economic foundation of this country.

Men and women from varied African tribes were paired, with the color of their skin being the only thing they had in common. They produced children who were torn from them and sold as chattel property, like prized cows.

As children, many lost their connection to their biological parents.

They toiled on plantations where they were sent, built grand projects such as the White House, roads, and bridges; or they served as servants in the homes of the white gentry.

Today we have varied tools to trace these ancestors to define our family trees, even those who were enslaved and whose existence was identified only by a “given” first name, gender, height, weight, or a distinguishing mark on their body.

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Modern technology has allowed us to research these not easily read bits of information in accounting ledgers, old state, and city tax records, notary republics, ship manifests, and estate auction records.

Other clues can be found in digital records or found sitting in dusty rooms of courthouses, state, federal and local archives or real estate offices.

They sometimes can be found in the attics of older relatives’ homes.

The birth and social records of children of mixed-race parents were given a bit more respectability in a slaveowner’s business, his record books, bible entry, and even registration logs which were used to monitor the movements and work situations of the enslaved.

Alex Haley’s epic novel “Roots” was an evolutionary tale of varied Black clans from the days of slavery which appeared in a celebrated TV series in the late 70s.

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A growing industry of corporate, public funded, and independent professional genealogical search engines exist today to help Black families and individuals trace their ancestry in America since 1619.

Among the most prominent are Ancestry.com, My Heritage, the United States Archives, One Great

Family, and the World Vital Records.

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The various branches of the U.S. military have information dating back to the first wars which can be used by researchers.

The church of the Latter-Day Saints (LDS) — the Mormon Church–indexed the records of four million freed Blacks with volunteer labor. The project is connected with records of the post-Civil War Freedmen’s Bureau. It collected records of marriages, education, land distribution, and other life events completely searchable and available to the public.

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The first time Blacks in America were counted was for the 1870 Census and information about their family tree was harvested. The 1910, 1920, and subsequent national Censuses are essential and useful to such research.

Universities and colleges, such as UVA and Boston University, offer archaeological studies programs and classes.

People tracing their genealogical and basic family history are assessing state library archives and the holdings of these and other university and public libraries.

For residents of Norfolk and Hampton Roads, in general, the Norfolk Public Library’s (NPL) Sergeant Memorial Collection (SMC) at the Slover Library is a viable resource.

When Norfolk established the collection in 1927, it only had a small assortment of books and historical papers collected by William H. Sergeant, the first

librarian to be hired by the City of Norfolk, in 1897.

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One can create a research account to access the resources in collaboration with Ancestry.Com.

Deemed one of the largest collection of books and periodicals aboutVirginia, it has maps and photographs, high school yearbooks, and city directories for the Hampton Roads region.

There are nearly 200 years of Norfolk newspaper microfilms available upon request. SMC’s genealogy collection encompasses Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland, and other nearby states, with books, microfilm,

and CDs to assist in family research.

Due to the COVID restriction, Troy Valos is now the lone Special Collections Librarian at Slover. For those not tech-savvy, by calling Valos he will use the various

resources at his disposal to assist researchers.

Valos was also the instructor of the NPL’sAfrican American Genealogy classes, the first taking place in 2008.

The motivation of such a project was part of the NPL’s Black History Month programming and expansion of its cultural offerings.

Valos said he ran classes for the beginners launching their first effort or those who wanted to add to their genealogical sleuthing toolbox.

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Valos said that initially, a researcher must determine ancestral tree based on the most immediate and accessible relatives of their parents.

One can go back at least four or five generations, if the family line is stable and there are available birth and death records, family albums, reunion rolls, yearbooks, news articles, and military service records. Family recollections from the memories of elders and their friends are also valuable.

If one hits a wall then available Bible entries, high school, college yearbooks, church records, applications to civic, fraternal, and other groups, and old newspaper clippings are useful.

From the 1870s until the late 1960s Norfolk and other cities published directories which listed the names, addresses and occupations of residents and businesses.

Though these entries were not as in depth as today’s internet searches, still, phone book entries from the 1920s onward list the name and address of a shrinking number of city residents.

Norfolk, from the 1870s until the late 1960s, had a city directory listing names, addresses, and business ties of most records.

County and city tax records are useful also. So are poll tax records that were used to oppress the number of Black voters. They were also listed yearly in the Norfolk Journal and Guide which is another research tool.

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Military records of Black men from the Civil War until

today can be easily accessible via the National Archives in Washington, D.C..

After the Nat Turner rebellion in South Hampton County, there was increased scrutiny of Blacks, especially freed ones. Freed Blacks had to leave the state.

People of mixed race or free mulattos in Norfolk had to register with the city yearly to be counted and to determine their location and work.

If they encountered the sheriff or militia at night as they traveled from work, their registration papers meant they were not detained.

Norfolk was prominent for exporting slaves to other southern states or on ships to New Orleans.

Every slave sale with the name of the buyer and seller was recorded in Norfolk and once on ships, the slaves were listed on its manifest.

Once the ship landed in port, the manifest was recorded at the port with the receiver of a slave. Many of the records exist in New Orleans, but due to a fire, none exist in Norfolk.

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There are no known records of the slaves who were forced to walk “two by two” overland in human trains called “coffles” to parts of Virginia and nearby states. This complicates the tracing of Black family ancestry, but using the DNA provides eases the problem.

Basic high school and college biology classes offer studies of the DNA acid, present in nearly all living organisms offering genetic information. Pairing DNA data can indicate a possible family relationship. The higher the percentage of DNA. that you have in common with another

person, the closer is your likely relationship.

There are various public and private providers of such free services or prices at varying prices.

If Africa is the birthplace of human beings, then all the variants have some DNA of the thousands of tribal bloodlines of the continent.

But geographic migration has caused variations in the DNA association and physical make up, including skin tone and skin color.

They are then attached to political and nationalistic families. So, a white man may have 90 percent White Scotch Irish genetic makeup with a 10 percent Africa DNA trace.

A dark-skinned African American may have a DNA link to a West African country and one of the many tribal links. But there may be a 10 percent trace of DNA factored to a white German, for example.

The Sergeant Memorial Collection remains closed to the public, but staff will continue to take patron requests by phone or email on Tuesdays -Saturdays, from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. Call (757) 431-7429 or

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email localhistory@norfolk.gov.

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