Retired Marine Leander Holston had uncovered some interesting facts about his family. Using the genealogy website MyHeritage to build a family tree, he’d created an extensive database of relatives going back three generations on his father’s side. He learned about uncles he’d never met and discovered that the surname passed down to him by his father was only carried by a few of the men in his family.

But when it came to researching his mother’s roots, Holston wasn’t having as much success. Drawing on census records, he identified his maternal grandmother, whose maiden name was Dixie Pearson. Though a man named John or Henry Pearson appeared to be her father, their birth dates weren’t quite lining up. He was born in the 1870s; Holston had expected his great-grandfather to be born a few decades earlier, closer to the 1850s. Despite his best efforts, he was stumped.

Then, during a trip to Washington, D.C. for his wife’s birthday in August 2023, Holston visited the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), where he stumbled upon the Robert Frederick Smith Explore Your Family History Center. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, visitors can sign up for free, in-person group genealogy sessions hosted by the center’s staff and volunteers. Hourlong, one-on-one virtual sessions are also available, so when Holston returned home to Pineville, North Carolina, he decided to turn to the NMAAHC genealogy team for advice from afar.

Visitor and staff at a NMAAHC genealogy session
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, visitors can sign up for free, in-person group genealogy sessions hosted by the center’s staff and volunteers. NMAAHC

Genealogy reference assistant Lisa Crawley hosted Holston’s online session. She offered a different interpretation of the census records, suggesting Dixie’s presumed father was actually her brother. Holston attributes the confusion to the fact that the men seemingly shared the same name.

Techniques shared by Crawley showed Holston how to glean information more accurately from the data he finds. “That was a skill that I was lacking when I was trying to [conduct research] on my own without any help,” Holston adds. “The knowledge of how to actually go in and dig down … and follow a record through … was extremely beneficial to me.”

Genealogy researchers use military records, birth and death certificates, marriage licenses, wills, legal and court documents, and census records to help piece together the past. The resources referenced by NMAAHC’s team don’t currently include newspaper archives, which contain obituaries, but that “process is moving forward,” Crawley says.

Amateur genealogists don’t need much information to start the search. Normally, people begin with the name, birth date, and city or county of residence of a relative born before 1950, the most recent year with available census data. (For privacy reasons, the U.S. Census Bureau only releases census data 72 years after its collection.) In many instances, the initial search will yield multiple results, particularly for more common names. Having additional information, such as the names of fellow household members, especially parents or guardians and siblings, can help verify a person’s identity.

Family History Research for Your Family Reunion

Though some NMAAHC visitors show up for research appointments with practically no knowledge of their ancestors, Crawley says it’s not uncommon for people to have already started tracing their roots before they schedule a session. They simply want help verifying what they were able to find independently. Other attendees “want to discover generations in their family they have no knowledge of,” says Crawley.

Holston plans to continue researching both sides of his family. He’s been a MyHeritage member for about five years and after meeting with Crawley, he started using Ancestry Library Edition and FamilySearch, a free database run by the Mormon Church. His cousin also works on their family tree using Ancestry, a subscription-based alternative to the company’s library edition.

According to a 2022 Pew Research Center survey on racial identity, 36 percent of Black adults in the United States had used two or more methods to research their family history. The majority of individuals interviewed—76 percent—relied in part on oral histories shared by relatives. These anecdotes, such as a grandparent’s old war story, can help in the research process. Knowing a relative joined the military could lead to a search of draft registries and Department of Defense records, which offer details not commonly recorded by the census, like height and weight.

Many Black Americans simply assume they are descendants of the Africans who survived the Middle Passage, a harrowing journey across the Atlantic Ocean that claimed the lives of an estimated two million people. While 57 percent of individuals surveyed by Pew said their ancestors were enslaved, another 34 percent said they weren’t sure.

With no knowledge of a forebear who willingly immigrated to North America, I assumed that one of my ancestors was abducted from Africa and enslaved. The oral history I’d heard from elders on my mother’s side primarily mentioned sharecropping, but my mother also told me that her grandmother recalled sleeping at the foot of a white woman’s bed as a child. No one seemed to know that woman’s identity or her relationship to my great-grandmother, but a virtual session with NMAAHC may have gotten me one step closer to an answer, potentially identifying the family that once enslaved my maternal ancestors.

“Homework is assigned quite frequently and typically consists of guests obtaining a vital record, [like] a death certificate or marriage certificate for an ancestor.”

During my meeting with Crawley, I discovered that my great-grandmother, Nancy Sharperson, was born a Stark, a surname I’d never heard before. Nancy’s parents, Henry and Susan Stark, were likely born into slavery in South Carolina, according to census records. Born around 1833, Henry would have been in his early 30s when the Civil War ended in 1865. The 1880 census lists Henry as a laborer. Susan’s recorded occupation is “keeping house.”

The next step in the search was tracking down South Carolina enslavers with the surname Stark. “Not all enslaved people carried the last name of their last slaveowner, but some did,” Crawley says.

Crawley accessed a slave schedule compiled by landowner Thomas Taylor Stark in the mid-1800s. It listed three boys near the age of my great-great-grandfather Henry. But the people enslaved by Thomas are not named in the document. Only gender, age and vertical markings counting them as individuals appear.

“I cannot guarantee that your family’s last slaveowner was [Thomas],” Crawley told me, “but it could be.” I wondered whether this lined up with the recollections of Nancy, who was born in 1873. Is it possible that Henry was still sharecropping for the Starks in 1880, while his young daughter rested at Mrs. Stark’s feet? The census doesn’t tell me that.

Following my virtual session, Crawley provided a list of next steps that included researching slaveholders in Orangeburg, South Carolina, where my grandmother grew up. NMAAHC researchers often recommend visitors refer to relevant state and local records for more information on their relatives. These archives may hold documents that aren’t yet digitized.

“Homework is assigned quite frequently and typically consists of guests obtaining a vital record, [like] a death certificate or marriage certificate for an ancestor,” says Crawley. These documents sometimes identify the parents of a deceased relative—information that isn’t always listed on census forms or might be present but difficult to interpret. Patrons are free to schedule multiple appointments with the center to follow up on leads.

Sometimes the names on census forms are illegible or spelled differently from one year to the next. That’s not the only cause for confusion. Both of my parents were named after elders in their family: My mom, Nancy, is named after her grandmother, while my father, Daniel, has the same name as an uncle. As Holston found when trying to distinguish between his grandmother’s brother and her father, shared names can make identifying familial ties a challenge.

A page from the 1880 census. The names of Henry and Susan Stark, as well as their children, are circled in green.
A page from the 1880 census. The names of Henry and Susan Stark, as well as their children, are circled in green. Ancestry

Another impediment is the fact that records prior to 1870, when Black Americans were counted as citizens on the census for the first time, are generally limited to anonymized slave schedules. Missing 1890 census data also creates an obstacle; a 1921 fire destroyed most of those records.

Ancestry tracing often leads to dead ends, uncertainty and more questions, especially when it comes to identifying the enslaved. Many African Americans can only follow their roots so far before hitting what Crawley refers to as the “brick wall”: the point where they “no longer see their ancestors on census and other public records prior to 1870.” That was the case for me, as I was left wondering whether my ancestor Henry is one of those unnamed young men on Thomas’ slave schedule.

“Breaking the brick wall means finding a 19th-century-born African American on a property record or other document recorded as an enslaved person,” says Crawley, who was able to identify her great-great-grandfather, Joseph Cralle, through such records.

“[Joseph] was owned by two slaveowners—a father and son—over the course of his life, and he took their last name, Cralle [or] Crawley,” she explains. Initially, Crawley’s only knowledge of Joseph was a record kept by the Freedmen’s Bureau, the Reconstruction-era government agency that assisted the newly emancipated. Then she found an 1833 inventory compiled after the death of his first enslaver, Samuel Cralle Sr. During the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, she also discovered a second inventory, taken around the time of Samuel Cralle Jr.’s death in 1857 or 1858, that listed Joseph as “Negro Man Joe $750.”

Since the family research center began offering hourlong sessions in 2017, staff have broken through seven brick walls, finding the names of enslaved Black Americans, including Holston’s ancestors, on schedules and other documents. Nineteenth-century landowner Stephen Pearson once enslaved Holston’s maternal family members, and the Pearson surname was passed down to his grandmother.

Holston also learned that his father, who was born a Holstick, changed his surname to Holston after moving in with a cousin who’d adopted that name. Though Holston doesn’t know the reason for this decision, he speculates that the men wanted to distance themselves from what they assumed was an enslaver’s name. Some of his relatives have embraced yet another variation of the surname: Hostick. Holston hasn’t yet found an explanation for the discrepancies in spelling.

These case studies testify to the limitations of available historical data. It can tell us when someone lived and died; what they did for a living; how many siblings and children they had; and even, in some cases, whether they were literate. But it often yields as many questions as it does answers.

For Alton Glass, a Los Angeles-based filmmaker and educator whose 2022 genealogy session resulted in one of the brick walls breached by the NMAAHC team, knowing his ancestors were enterprising, skilled laborers is enough. His grandmother was a seamstress, and his great-great-great-grandfather was a farmer who was able to accumulate $800 as a Black man in the 1800s.

“That was pretty impressive, to see him working hard and building something. It was empowering,” says Glass, whose ancestors once labored for a landowner named Presley Thornton Glass. “I could see the progression of my ancestors moving forward. It gives me a sense of appreciation, pride and honor. I have their resilience still living in my DNA.”

Since Glass’ genealogy session, he’s connected with long-lost relatives who learned about him via an article on the museum’s website. Based in Tennessee, they contacted Glass and invited him to a family reunion. Though Glass didn’t hear from his newfound relatives in time for him and his four children to attend the reunion, he’s hopeful they’ll all meet soon. “My goal is to eventually go visit Tennessee and learn about where my [paternal] grandmother was from,” he says.

Holston, a father of six, is also hoping to connect with some family members. He discovered that his father had several brothers he never knew existed. These uncles may have their own children and grandchildren. What might the extended family have in common? Holston, a veteran himself, learned that one of his uncles served in the military during World War II and is buried at Fort Logan National Cemetery in Denver.

One of Holston’s ancestors registered to vote in 1867, just two years after the Civil War ended—a fact that makes him proud. “It’s good to know where we came from, what made us the way we are, what shaped us as a family, as a generation,” Holston says. “What did our ancestors go through to make us what we are right now? [Knowing this is] almost necessary to understand our place in the world.”

Before I scheduled a genealogy session, I’d never heard of Henry or Susan. I was told very little about their daughter Nancy, my maternal great-grandmother, and I still have lots of questions. Along with the assumption that my ancestors were enslaved, I accepted that I’d never really know much about them—but had I ever even asked?

I knew more about my father’s side of the family. We’ve held reunions every year for more than half a century, and my cousins had researched our lineage going back to the 1700s. The Scotts of Kent County, Delaware, were free people before the end of the Civil War. My mother’s side of the family was smaller and located geographically farther from my hometown near Washington, D.C. Other than knowing that I descend from a line of educators (my maternal great-grandfather was a principal who had a school in Orangeburg named after him) and that my maternal grandfather was an electrician, I had little information on these relatives.

As I spoke to my mother about what I’d learned during my NMAAHC genealogy session, she started looking through old photographs given to her by her sister, who died in 2008. Surprisingly, my aunt had passed on photos of all four of my maternal great-grandparents and one image of Susan, the woman I now consider our family matriarch.

Looking at the black-and-white photos of my ancestors standing in front of the house they once owned (apparently lost to us when a cousin failed to pay property taxes) in South Carolina, I wondered more about their lives. Did they ever want to leave the state? How did they obtain land? What type of treatment did they endure? How did they survive Jim Crow? If they ever thought about their descendants, are my sister and I what they imagined?

The writer's maternal grandparents
The writer's maternal grandparents, Hilliard and Nancy Sharperson Courtesy of Tracy Scott Forson
The writer's maternal great-grandmother, Susan Stark
The writer's maternal great-grandmother Susan Stark Courtesy of Tracy Scott Forson

As much as we’re able to learn from the records that remain, there’s much that we’ll never know, such as the names of our ancestors who crossed the Atlantic to North America. Were they Asante from Ghana, Igbo from Nigeria, Mandinka from Gambia or people from another African country?

Glass is interested in tracing his lineage back to Africa. As he and Holston both emphasize, they are here today because their ancestors persevered.

Attending a NMAAHC genealogy session is “eye-opening and revelatory,” Holston says. “It instills pride in you to know that … your ancestors were proud. The things the endured and came out [of] made you.”

Glass says his family search helped him feel connected to his heritage. “I have friends who are from Africa. I have friends who are from El Salvador. They can go back to a particular place with their lineage and history—all the way to the soil,” he says. “I can’t go all the way to the soil in Africa. I can go back two or three generations and know what they did. I can look back and say, ‘Thank you. I don’t know how I would have been able to persevere through those things.’ I’d tell them, ‘It’s because of you that I’m here.’”

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