Breaking down the ‘brick wall’ of African American genealogy

The study concluded that an African American born between 1960 and 1965 has, on average, 314 African ancestors and 51 European ancestors. For Noah Rosenberg, senior author of the study and a biology professor at Stanford University, the most surprising finding was that the average African American born in that period most likely has more African ancestors present in the early 1700s rather than in the late 1700s, the peak of the transatlantic slave trade. 

“It’s very likely that an African American’s ancestors trace back through the 1800s and had many ancestors who were transported in the late 1700s,” Rosenberg said. “However, that person likely also has many ancestors who were already present in the colonies or the early United States [who] trace a few generations back early in the 1700s.”

Mooney’s interest in genealogy sparked through the curiosity she held about her own family history. Growing up in New Mexico, her maternal grandmother  resided on a reservation as a member of The Navajo Nation, while her maternal grandfather’s genealogical history traced back to Jewish ancestors who were exiled from medieval Spain and migrated to New Mexico in the 1600s, according to USC Today. 

While her maternal ancestral lineage can be traced all the way back to the 1500s, Mooney knows very little about the roots of her African American father. 

“As far as my dad, he has some relatives who are from Jamaica, and then the people who are from here basically lived somewhere along the Texas-Oklahoma border,” Mooney said, “And that’s like all we know — we were there and that’s it.”

“As someone who’s the host of a [genealogy] TV show, we make it look easy,” said Kenyatta D. Berry, longtime genealogist and host of PBS’ “Genealogy Roadshow.” In the show, Berry, with the help of other genealogists and historians, travels across the U.S. to help individuals uncover the truth about their family history — one that is often linked to a historical figure or event. “All you see when watching the show is [me] showing the documents. You don’t see me at the microfilm reader or doing that other stuff. You just see me flashing documents and telling their stories.” 

Not conveyed in the 10 to 20-minute segments of the show is the tireless work Berry and her colleagues do to break down the 1870 “brick wall” and unveil as much about an individual’s history as possible. They’ve found success using the Freedmen’s Bureau records — a collection of handwritten records ranging from letters, marriage and hospital records, and census lists to details of food rations. While these records were once only available in Washington D.C., they have now been digitized and placed in the Freedmen’s Bureau Search Portal, making it much more accessible to the public. 

There are also Freedman’s Bank records. Described by Berry as a “mini genealogy snapshot,” these records hold the signatures of individuals, most of whom served in the U.S. Colored Troops and opened bank accounts. The depositors would often include the names of relatives in their documents, making it a beneficial tool for uncovering one’s ancestry. 

However, labor contracts — contracts exchanged between the enslaved or formerly enslaved and their slave owners — have been a major guiding force in Berry’s work. A labor contract is what ultimately helped her in her own genealogy journey, aiding her in the discovery of her fourth great-grandfather, Lewis Carter. 

“I was able to see [that] Dr. John W. Taylor employed Lewis Carter … And now these labor contracts are saying, ‘Hey, Dr. Taylor, you have to pay Lewis Carter a certain amount.’ And for his labor contract, it was half of the crops of the farm,” Berry said. “Those labor contracts could say, ‘I’m giving you clothes, room and board, and a dollar amount.’ It just really depends. So for the researcher, the labor contracts are critical to identify where your ancestor was post-Civil War.”

In 2018, Berry published “The Family Tree Toolkit: A Comprehensive Guide to Uncovering Your Ancestry and Researching Genealogy,” a book that details her own genealogy experience and breaks down all the necessary steps, tools and information needed to discover more about your genealogy. 

In helping people discover their family history on the “Genealogy Roadshow,” Berry highlights that each story is unique in the routes taken to discover information. In beginning to conduct research for each person, Berry starts by asking three basic questions:

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