image

Denton Juneteenth held a genealogy workshop Tuesday, June 18, at the American Legion Senior Center to help African American families begin their genealogy search journey. This event was held in collaboration with FamilySearch, a nonprofit organization run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints offering genealogical records and software.

Two workshop sessions took place, one from 10 a.m. to noon, and the other from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. The first session focused on connecting African Americans to their ancestors, while the second focused on general ancestry.

Participants were shown how to use the FamilySearch software to input their family information. Once all the necessary data is entered, the software can begin searching for records like death certificates and marriage licenses.

Avemaria Griffin, 62, is a part of the Denton Juneteenth Committee and oversaw the workshops. This is her second year serving as part of her church’s community involvement initiative.

“The church that I’m in, they do a lot of genealogy,” Griffin said. “It surely shapes you to know your past matters.”

For many African Americans, finding out their ancestry was a difficult process in the wake of chattel slavery, where many records were either destroyed or not kept, according to the Pew Research Center.

“I wish I could find just two pictures of people from that far back, just would love to see what they look like,” Griffin said. “But our people didn’t have all that — didn’t take that many pictures.”

However, in June 2016, FamilySearch completed the Freedman’s Bureau Project in collaboration with the National Archives and Records Administration and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. The project collected the names and records of almost two million freedmen who lived in the U.S. post Civil War.

“You can now actually find your relatives from the slave times, something you couldn’t do for the longest,” Griffin said. “The hardest part was trying to find your people, but now it’s opened up, and we can do it.”

After losing almost everything she owned in Hurricane Katrina, Griffin stresses the importance of documenting your own life.

“Luckily I did have my own book, otherwise I’d have nothing, absolutely nothing,” Griffin said. “So, I’m like, okay guys, we gotta have a family history cause otherwise, y’all have nothing to show that you were here.”

Linda Jonas, professional genealogist and Cooke County resident, gave the presentation for the first workshop session. Jonas became interested in genealogy at 10 years old after she found out her grandma was not biologically related to her. However, the 1977 television miniseries “Roots” is what had her hooked. Based on the novel by Alex Haley, “Roots” follows Kunta Kinte, a Gambian man sold into slavery and transported to the U.S., as well as the lives of his descendants.

“That show just changed everything,” Jonas said. “It changed millions of people’s lives cause it was just ‘Wow, who am I? Where are my people?’”

Jonas’ presentation dealt with how to trace somebody to the time of slavery and how to find out who the slave owner was using resources like the Freedman’s Bureau, as well as land and probate records.

“For African Americans it’s very difficult [tracing their genealogy], because their family was ripped away from their country, brought here,” Jonas said. “You think, well, but they found a family and got married and all that, except that their children could get sold off, they could get sold off, and so they’re separated again.”

The Great Migration also contributed to families becoming separated, according to the National Archives. In one of the biggest migrations in U.S. history, many Black people moved to northern states to escape racial persecution and Jim Crow Laws.

Jonas also emphasized the importance of recording your own story. 

“When you die, that’s it, all those memories are gone,” Jonas said. “Alex Haley had a quote about when an old person dies, it’s like a library being burnt down.”

Stacie Briggs is the director of the FamilySearch Center in Denton and a Sanger resident. Briggs holds classes like these once a month at the church and wants to get people excited about genealogy and teach how important it is to research family history.

“It’s very meaningful to me when I get to actually see their faces too, and learn the stories about them,” Briggs said. “Family history, it’s where we come from, who we are, it’s a part of us.”