Family Ties

African Americans use scientific advances to trace their roots

The African American DNA Roots Project is a molecular anthropology study designed to match African American lineages with those in West Africa, a region from which many slaves were taken. (Photo courtesy of M. Zokoswki)

Where do you come from? It's a simple question for many Americans. They rattle off a county in Ireland or a swath of Russia and claim the place as their ancestral home. But for many African Americans, a sense of identity doesn't come that easily.

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"African Americans are the only ones who cannot point to a country of origin," says Gina Paige, president of African Ancestry, Inc., a company in Washington, D.C. that offers DNA lineage tests. "Italian Americans don’t refer to themselves as European Americans. We are the only group that have to claim an entire continent."

Over the last 20 some years, in part fueled by Alex Haley's book Roots and the subsequent miniseries, more African Americans have tried to uncover clues about their past. A growing number of books and articles outline the fundamentals of genealogical research. State and national African American genealogical societies, many of which offer classes and host conferences for novice and advanced researchers, have aided the search. Electronic access to records has also helped.

Last month, on Martin Luther King Day, the state of Virginia began the process of indexing and digitizing the records of the Freedmen's Bureau, a group started in 1865 during the Civil War to help provide economic and social relief to freedmen and refugees. The bureau's records, which date from 1865 to 1872, include documents such as marriage certificates, labor contracts and healthcare and clothing receipts. The National Archives made the digitizing effort possible when they put the entire paper collection on microfilm, a job that took nearly five years and resulted in more than 1,000 rolls of film.

People searching for family clues can also comb through slave narratives, plantation and military records, census information and other government documents; but these collections only look back so far. The U.S. Census started counting slaves as late as 1870, and many documents around this time list people not by name but by gender and description. "For decades, perhaps centuries, African Americans were completely disregarded. We were no more than property,” says Betty Kearse of Dover, Massachusetts, who has been researching her own family heritage. "It's up to us to find the names in spite of the fact that many records of our ancestors don’t even include names."

In addition to sifting through microfilm and books, people can now look within themselves—at their DNA—to understand more about their heritage dating back before the 1800s. By locating variations in genetic markers and matching them with indigenous populations throughout the world, scientists can group people into different haplotypes, which can shed light on their ancestors' geographic locations and migration patterns. The tests focus on the Y chromosome, which men share with their father, grandfather, and so on, going back for generations, and also on mitochondrial DNA, which is an exact link to the maternal line.

"Genes tell the true story," says Bruce Jackson, a professor of biotechnology at the University of Massachusetts. Jackson, along with Bert Ely of the University of South Carolina, founded the African American DNA Roots Project, a molecular anthropology study designed to match African American lineages with those in West Africa, a region from which many slaves were taken.

Jackson's interest in genetics began as a child listening to stories about his father's family in Connecticut and his mother's in Virginia. His father's stories all started with "an African kid in 1768,” says Jackson. No one knew the boy's name or where he came from.

Jackson's mother’s heritage culminated in a rumor. "The story was that the matriarch was a white woman, which meant she would have had to have a child with a black man," he says, an occurrence that is historically known to be more rare than children between women slaves and their white owners.

With a master's degree in genetics and a doctorate in biochemistry, Jackson began combining what he knew from the lab with his own family's history. He tested the mitochondrial DNA from his mother's line and found that the rumor was actually true. The sample was of Irish descent, which led him to suspect that his matriarch was an indentured servant in the United States. Going back even further, the DNA matched a haplotype originating from modern-day Russia. After doing some research, he learned that Russian Vikings were prevalent in both Ireland and Scotland.


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