WASHINGTON– For African Americans, the quest to trace one's origins is fraught with mystery and dead-ends. But with time and a willingness to dig, it's totally feasible – and often rewarding.
"Now that I know or have an idea about my family and genetic past, it gives me a broader sense of self," says James Morgan III, who has been tracing his lineage for the past six years. "To be able to view myself more – not as a one-dimensional person, just American – but as a citizen of the world, of space and time, is something that I think everyone deserves."
Morgan, a New Jersey native, began researching his ancestry in college. But his interest in topic began much earlier.
"I had an experience when I was in second grade that always stuck with me. I needed some family history and didn't have any that I knew of," he explains, recalling a family tree-related assignment. "I'm doing this primarily for my unborn children, grandchildren, and great-grand children. I didn't want them to feel like they didn't come from anything."
To date, Morgan has gone as far back as 10 generations on his mother's side and nine generations on his father's, gathering and digitizing as many photos, names, places, and stories as he finds.
Diving into his bloodlines, Morgan has discovered family members who fought in the Revolutionary War, the 19th-century equivalent of an interracial marriage, a great great-uncle who worked for Al Capone, and a slave-owning Black doctor.
Through his research, he has met descendants of the family that owned his ancestors, as well as the European descendants he's related to through marriage. He's even learned that Afrocentric psychology scholar Na'im Akbar, and Rosa Parks are his not-so-distant cousins.
But for African Americans, genealogy only goes so far. Thanks to the mainstreaming of DNA testing, more African Americans can dig to the roots of their family trees. African Ancestry, the only black-owned genetic ancestry company in the country, garnered acclaim for tracing the African genes of Oprah Winfrey, Dick Gregory, Dorothy Height, and a host of other prominent African Americans.
"Like most African Americans, you always have the question of where we're from. And what better way to find out than genetically," says Antoine Quichocho of Colorado. He had been inspired by Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s PBS series, "Finding Your Roots," which used the company's services. "A majority of people I talk to are hesitant because of the cost, and honestly I was too. But I'd say, save up if you have to."
Like most DNA testing companies, African Ancestry can assess how much of a DNA sample has African, Asian, Native American, and/or European origins. Unlike other DNA testing companies, African Ancestry has spent more than a decade compiling the world's largest database of indigenous African DNA samples. The company compares clients' DNA to database samples, and determines which country's samples the DNA matches most closely.
"Our mission is to transform the way people view themselves and Africa," says African Ancestry CEO, Gina Paige. "Knowing the group of people you share your history with plays a huge role in family legacy. Right now, Black Americans are the only people in the United States that can't point to their exact origin."
Quichocho believes that this is a very important aspect of genetic lineage, as some African nations offer citizenship, land, and/or rights to displaced African descendants. But more importantly, testing his DNA answered questions for him and his family.
"(I knew) absolutely nothing. I had started doing some Ancestry.com kind of services but I never completed it. Beyond that, we just (had) family stories," he says. "There's only so much you can get from oral stories because it's limited to someone else's memory and perception, and how that story was passed down to them. It's like a historical game of telephone, and you're trying to figure out what part of it is true."
On the other hand, Paige, who comes from a family of genealogists, thinks a combination of genetic and genealogical research is useful.
"Depending on your goals, continue with the paper trail. Once it ends, you can use African Ancestry to bridge the gap," Paige says. "There's value in both. I don't think you necessarily have to do one and not the other."
Oral history is a good way to find a family's paper trail – in fact, much of what is known about the African-American experience is a result of the preservation of first-hand accounts. For this reason, African American oral history projects of varying sizes have proliferated in nearly every state.
The National Visionary Leadership Project (NVLP) is one such organization. The project, founded in 2001 by Camille Cosby and Renee Poussaint, seeks to record, preserve, and share the stories of African Americans elders who have transcended barriers in their communities and/or in society at-large. The resulting records are housed at the Library of Congress for posterity.
Florida native Victoria Kirby participated in the project by recording the experience of Vada Butcher, the first female dean of the Howard University School of Fine Arts. A piano prodigy, Butcher's legacy also includes pioneering the study of ethnomusicology, in general, and as a niche program at Howard. Although Kirby believes Butcher's immediate family and friends know about her accomplishments, that knowledge might have remained in that small circle if not for the record they created.
"There isn't a whole lot of information about her available on the Internet, I think largely because she ended her career before the age of the Internet," Kirby says. "If she were doing the things that she did 50 years ago, now, she'd be up there with the Michael Eric Dysons and Cornell Wests. She's probably talked about her experiences with others, but no one ever recorded it."
For those interested in starting this process in their own lives, Kirby, Paige, and Morgan agree that talking to the eldest person or people is the first step. Paige also recommends getting children involved, as elders are often more comfortable sharing stories with the young people in their family.
Kirby adds, "I wouldn't wait too much longer. If you're interested you should just do it now. The older your family members get, the less likely they're going to remember important details about your family history, and once they pass away the opportunity is gone."
Technology has also done wonders in allowing families to dig better, and faster. Many state and local archives, some Library of Congress resources, and other historical collections can now be accessed online. And with the ubiquity of social media, it's easier to find and contact distant family members to confirm and pool existing knowledge.
Other helpful resources include local and state historical archives and collections, the 1890 Census (which was the first to count Black Americans), the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, Inc., the National Archives' African American Heritage Collection, the Library of Congress, and in limited cases, the Moorland-Springarn Research Center at Howard University.
"I'm not unique. My story, having all these relatives, is not unique," Morgan shares. "It's just, if you don't take the time out to look, you will never find it."