Mormon Channel Blog

Researching African American Genealogy

August 11, 2015

Andrea Hardeman is a sociologist and LDS convert living in Utah. Here, she shares her struggles and triumphs with us as she navigates researching her African American family roots.

I remember being in kindergarten and wishing I had an older brother. Growing up I used to pretend that Leonardo DiCaprio on the TV show Growing Pains was my older brother. A few years later I was looking at a picture on the wall of my parents holding an infant. I asked if I was in the picture. When my mom said no, I asked if it was my little brother. Again the answer was no. She went on to explain that I had an older brother who died as an infant. I’ve felt my older brother’s absence for as long as I can remember. He guided me to the Church. I wanted to figure out where he was and if he would still be my brother after this life.

Our loved ones live on. We can be connected to them. I don’t know about you, but I yearn for connection, for roots. Family history gives me that connection. It’s more than simply finding a name to take to the temple and checking off a box. I’m African American, so records can be few and far between. That’s part of the aftermath of slavery. We weren’t “real” people, just property; our lives and stories were not recorded, and they faded with the dusts of time.

So how does family history help me connect when the census and other records reach their limitations? I start working on descendancy research and look for sub-branches on my family tree and see how far I can go with the available resources.

I’m a sociologist by training and a qualitative researcher, so gathering stories is a passion of mine. Family names are brought to life as I learn about the experiences of my relatives both living and deceased. It’s exciting to discover that my love of cooking runs in the family for generations and through several branches of my family tree. I’m creating a collection of recipes to capture this love and talent and will include family photos and excerpts with each recipe. I want to know my relatives’ favorite memory as it relates to the particular recipe they submitted.

While I was teaching Multicultural America at BYU, it occurred to me that I should overlay historical events with my family tree during our segment on slavery and the Reconstruction Period. It was an aha moment for me once I put my family in a historical context. I’ve always loved history but feel a deeper bond to the events and to my family. The Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson took place during my great-grandparents’ lifetime. They lived during a time when our nation declared that segregation and “separate but equal” was OK even though slavery was legally abolished. I interviewed my paternal grandma a few years back about her experiences growing up with segregation and learned of her strength and conviction in her innate self-worth despite what little value the law of the land said that she had. Her perspective empowered me.

My cousin (once or twice removed) Joi inspired me to start interviewing the generations of women in my family to understand the roles faith and spirituality have played in their lives (if they are believers). During my interview with her, she shared how she went to church by herself as a little girl and has always felt connected to God. I didn’t find God until I was in college, and the juxtaposition of our journeys of faith sparked a thirst to hear stories from the other women in my family. The end product of my story gathering will be an online shareable book created with one of the many online software programs available.

My mom, brother, and I love playing card games. It’s been a while since I’ve given them a “just because” gift, so I’m going to make each of us a set of customizable playing cards that incorporates family history on the back of the cards. I also love music and often create “soundtracks for my life” to capture moments and periods of my life. Music can be family history too. This work can seem endless, and there is only a finite amount of hours in each day, but you eat an elephant one bite at a time. I have a list of family history projects I want to start. I’ll start with them one at a time.

I’m grateful to live in a day and age where there are so many tools you can use to approach family history from a creative standpoint (for example, KidsHeritage, Inc., MixBook). The majority of the family history work I do doesn’t take place on the computer. It involves talking with people and finding creative ways to bring family history to life in a medium that is enjoyable and fun (for example, writing a poem or mapping a storyboard for a children’s book). I want to create things that I think are cool. If I like them, I’ll actually use them and refer to them. And if I like them, I’m sure someone else will too.

If you are interested in new findings surrounding African American family history, check out a recent episode of the Mormon Channel’s genealogy radio program, Extreme Genes