African American Genealogy: Knowing Your Roots to Discover Yourself

African American Genealogy: Knowing Your Roots to Discover Yourself



By Diane Sheffield and Robin Nowell

We don’t choose our family or heritage but, we can make the choice to know and learn who we are. Genealogy is the science of documenting your family ancestry. Researching your family history will take time; you will experience many emotions and discover much, such as learning about the Generations of your family.

My maternal grandmother, who was 101 when she passed, shared so much family history with me as a child, youth and young adult. I would listen to her, ask questions, but I did not document this very important information during our many conversations. I thought that I would remember all that she shared, but that wasn’t so. I didn’t think to write down any of the information. What I do remember is helping me with my genealogy, which I will be passing on to my family. Diane and I remember the stories that our grandparents shared with us—stories we thought we would remember and did not write down, but wished we had. There were things we should have asked or wanted to ask but did not know how. Don’t hesitate to listen to the elders who share the stories, ask questions, and remember to write the information that you receive.

There has been an increased interest among African Americans, to do Genealogy and trace their family heritage, since Alex Haley’s book, Roots was published in 1976 and the television miniseries in 1977. The descendants of slavery, experience significant challenges with genealogy. These challenges were caused by the fragmentation of families and no access to records. But today technology has played a big, important role in increasing and helping to simplify the genealogy process of families with slave ancestry.

Because of my deep emotions about African American Genealogy being passed down to the next generations, I began to plan and organize an African American Genealogy Conference in Rochester. I asked my friend, Robin Nowell, if she would be interested in co-organizing the event and she didn’t hesitate. The rest is history. We are now organizing our 4th Annual African American Genealogy Conference on June 5 and 6, and it has expanded to being a Regional Conference.

As Dr. David (Sankofa) Anderson states, “Each African American family is a page in American history.” Robin and I know this. We also know that it is up to African Americans to discover the missing pieces, to know and understand their history, discover who they are, and pass it on to the next generation.

Let’s claim our page in history and set forth on a journey like no other. As Diane stated, “Genealogy is the study or investigation of ancestry and family histories.” Let’s allow this study to lead us to people, places, and events that shaped the lives of people that ultimately shaped us. This study takes time; the research can go on for years and you will experience almost every emotion there is while on this journey. There are road blocks, dead ends, and wrong paths; but keep at it. No matter whom your family is the reward will be great!