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African-American Genealogy

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African-American Genealogy

For the majority of Americans, conducting a genealogical study of their family roots is a well defined task. After all, America is a nation of immigrants, and whenever immigrants came to America, they left behind a trail of documents. Useful documents in a genealogical search include, for example, port of departure records, ship sailing records, ship manifests, port of entry records, and the like. Once in America, the ancestors began to show up in census records, and there would usually be church records, marriage and divorce records, birth and death records, social security records, military service records, naturalization records, deeds to land, tax records, and burial records generated during the normal course of their lives. There may even be records of their lives in their countries of origin.

On the other hand, tracing African American roots is problematic. Slave ancestors were considered property, usually given first names and taking on the family name of their owner, which was subject to change whenever they were sold. Later, when slaves became free, some kept the family name of the last owner, or of an earlier owner, and others took the names of people they admired such as Lincoln, Washington or Jefferson. Some chose new family names unrelated to former owners, such as Freeman, Brown, Black, and White.  Records were kept of the numbers of slaves of a particular age and gender along with other property held by a particular owner, and these records did not include the first names of the slaves. Families were routinely broken up, and sold off, at the convenience of owners. There were no marriage records, no deeds to land because slaves owned no land, no names cited in census records, and no tax records. There were records of slave ship arrivals, and numbers of slaves of a particular age and gender for sale, but information about the African tribal or geographic origin of each slave was usually lost after the first generation in the New World.

When Alex Haley's book Roots: The Saga of an American Family (5) was first published in an unabridged hardcover edition by Doubleday in 1976, it was an amazing achievement. The book described how Haley traced his family back to the original male slave ancestor, and further, to the tribe and place in Africa where his slave ancestor had originated. The book won a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1977.

The techniques that Alex Haley used to begin his genealogical search were familiar enough; start with the living family members, and learn whatever you can from them. Interview the elders, ask lots of questions to probe for things they may remember, and search for any documents that family members may possess. He learned from his grandmother about an ancestor known as 'the African' who had been brought to this country on a ship to a place she pronounced 'Naplis.'  He was bought by a 'Massa John Waller' who had a plantation in a place called 'Spotsylvania County, Virginia.' The slave had been given the name 'Toby,' but when other slaves called him that, he would declare that his name was 'Kin-tay.' Later, when the slave had a daughter named 'Kizzy,' he would teach her things he remembered about Africa. A guitar was 'ko,' and a river was 'Kamby Bolongo.' He told her the manner in which he had been captured. He had been out in the forest not far from his village, chopping wood to make a drum, when he was surprised by four men, overwhelmed, and kidnapped into slavery. For generations, each parent would tell their children the same stories and words of Africa that were passed on from the original slave ancestor.

Alex Haley had some very good clues to follow up on thanks to the strength of character of his slave ancestor Kin-tay, and the fact that the words and tales of Africa were passed on for so many generations. The rest of the story of connecting his slave ancestor with Africa was good old fashioned detective work. An African linguist associated the African words spoken by the slave ancestor with the Mandinka language. The term 'bolongo' means, in Mandinka, a flowing water such as a river, and 'Kamby Bolongo' could mean the Gambia River, where the Mandingo tribe lives. The term 'ko' could be a Mandingo stringed instrument called a 'kora.'

To complete the link between Africa and America, Haley needed to find the ship that brought his slave ancestor to 'Naplis,' which he determined was Annapolis, Maryland. For weeks he searched English maritime records, poring over thousands of old files packed in many cartons, looking for a slave ship bound from The Gambia to Annapolis. He was sure that many of these cartons had never been opened after having been sealed and put into storage many years earlier. After seven weeks, he came upon a ship named Lord Ligonier, which had sailed from the Gambia River on July 5, 1767 with her destination Annapolis. She had 140 slaves in her hold. Later, in the Library of Congress, he found reference to Lord Ligonier clearing Annapolis customs on September 29, 1767. Records showed that the ship had 98 'Negroes' on board, representing a loss of 42 slaves on the voyage.

What Alex Haley accomplished was impressive. His search involved difficult and sometimes tedious detective work, required a considerable amount of travel, a sizeable budget, and African words and stories passed on as an oral history from generation to generation over a period of two hundred years. It is perhaps not surprising that the publication of his book did not lead to a host of other, similar stories of African Americans finding their roots in the same fashion.

Fortunately, genealogical search resources and methods have improved since 1976. Census records are now key word searchable (30), making it a lot easier to trace freed slaves and their families in the years following the Civil War. Additionally, ancestry.com (29) recently added key word searchable digital slave registers from Barbados for the year 1834, when slavery was officially abolished in the British Empire. The records include the name of the owner; residence parish; and the name, gender, age, and nationality of the slave. There are 99,349 slave records, and 5,206 slave owners in the database. The records were required to be submitted by each colony after the implementation of the Abolition of Slave Trade Act in 1807, which made the trade of slaves from Africa to the British colonies illegal. When additional records of other British colonies are digitized and added to the online database (estimated completion January, 2008), it is expected that there will be a total of more than 3 million slave records in the database.

A comprehensive Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade database, called the Voyages Database, is now available at an open access web site (32), containing information on nearly  35,000 transatlantic slave trading voyages that occurred between 1514 and 1866. It is the largest uniform, consolidated database of its kind in the world. The database is estimated to include about 80% of the slaving voyages that ever sailed. An example of findings from the database - Professor Ira Berlin of the University of Maryland noted that "It confirms the overall volume of the slave trade, but tells us many new things of who went where and when. So that, for example, we now know that slaves from the Nigerian interior largely populated the Chesapeake region. Low-country South Carolina, on the other hand, was peopled by Africans from Angola and then from Sengambia." (33)

Additional online resources related to African American genealogical searches can be found on Cyndi's List (31) and Christine's Genealogy Website (47).

Another major advance since 1976 is the availability of DNA analysis. The use of genetic tools to trace African American roots was popularized recently on PBS television, and by the PBS Home Video DVD African American Lives, hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. of Harvard University (28). In the DVD movie, Gates traces the ancestry of eight prominent African Americans: neurosurgeon Ben Carson, actress Whoopi Goldberg, Bishop T.D. Jakes, astronaut Mae Jemison, musician/producer Quincy Jones, sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, comedian/actor Chris Tucker and TV pioneer/philanthropist Oprah Winfrey.

Several kinds of DNA analyses are available. It is possible to trace the male and female lines of ancestry, for example, to determine the earliest male and female ancestors in the family tree. To visualize this, note below the family tree of Margaret Beth Nolan of Tasmania, Australia which Beth has published on the internet (34). Tracing Beth's male ancestral line, we find Clifford J. Nolan, her father, then William H. Nolan, her paternal grandfather, and Patrick Nolan, her paternal great grandfather. Each of these men passed on to all of their sons the Y chromosome (27), and if Beth has a full brother, he too will have the same Y chromosome originally passed on by Patrick Nolan.



Similarly, let's trace the female line on Beth's family tree. First there is Winifred Honey, her mother; next is Mary C. Morgan, her maternal grandmother; next is Sarah Chipman, her maternal great grandmother; next is Mary A. Stanfield, her maternal great great grandmother; next is Maria Kimberley, her maternal great great great grandmother; and finally, Mary Cavanaugh, her maternal great great great great grandmother.

To understand how the female line can be traced genetically, we have to consider the structure of the cells of our body. Each cell contains a nucleus, within which is the cell's DNA. Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes, which contain the genetic material passed on to us by our parents. For example, one of these pairs of chromosomes contains the Y chromosome that all males possess.

Also in the cell are a number of small objects called mitochondria (26). These objects are considered the energy centers of the cells, and they are critical to the proper functioning of the cells. Interestingly, the mitochondria contain their own DNA, distinct from the DNA of the cell's nucleus.  Mitochondria are passed on by mothers to all of their offspring, but not by fathers. Sperm cells contain mitochondria, too, but they are confined to the sperm's tail which falls off after the egg cell is fertilized.

An image of a rat brain dendrite containing six mitochondria is shown in the figure.



Rat brain dendrite illustrating 6 mitochondria.

Courtesy of Dr. M. Brightman and L. Chang. NINDS, NIH (38)



In summary, to trace the male line genetically requires an analysis of the Y chromosome, possessed only by males. To trace the female line genetically requires an analysis of the mitochondrial DNA. To trace Beth's male and female lines genetically we'd start with a sample from her (from a swab wiped on the inside of her cheek) to probe her mitochondrial DNA, and a sample from her brother (or father) to investigate their Y chromosome.

Another type of DNA analysis is called Admixture Testing. This type of testing analyzes a selection of specific regions of DNA within the 23 pairs of chromosomes in the cell nucleus, compares them against a database and estimates what proportions of the genetic ancestry may originate from different population groups. The results are often given as percentages of ancestry from Sub-Saharan African, European, Native American, and East Asian people. Oprah Winfrey's admixture test results, for example, were 89% Sub-Saharan African, 8% Native American, and 3% East Asian. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s admixture test results were 50% Sub-Saharan African and 50% European (61).

There are a number of commercial organizations that offer African American DNA analysis services, and a few research projects that one can participate in (35), (36), (62). The ability to precisely trace ancestry back to tribal and indigenous groups will require a large database of DNA results from each of these groups, a major project that may be somewhat incomplete today. However, determining male and female lines and admixture test results can provide interesting and sometimes surprising results, as evidenced in the PBS Home Video DVD African American Lives, hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. of Harvard University (28). Oprah Winfrey was surprised to learn (from a mitochondrial DNA test of her female line) that she is probably not descended from the Zulu tribe as she had thought; instead, it appears that her tribal ancestry is more likely linked to the Kpelle people of Liberia and Guinea, the Bamileke people of Cameroon, and the Nkoya people of Zambia (37). The Zulu's migrated to South Africa in the 16th century, and few if any Zulu's were ever taken away in slave ships during the Atlantic Slave Trade.

Actor Chris Tucker's Y chromosome test linked him to the Mbundu tribe of central Angola. He has since visited a village there and was received enthusiastically by the Mbundu people with a homecoming celebration.

The UK Motherland Project, described in the BBC feature-length documentary 'Motherland: A Genetic Journey,' analyzed the DNA of 229 individuals, all of whom had four African-Caribbean grandparents (82). Overall, it was found that 13% of the ancestors of today's Black Britons of Caribbean descent are of European origin. Analysis of the male and female lines, however, showed quite different results. On the male line, using Y chromosome information passed from father to son over many generations, it was found that 27% of British African-Caribbeans trace back to a European male ancestor. In sharp contrast, on the female line using mitochondrial DNA analysis, only 2% of this population traced back to a European female ancestor.  One participant found that her ancestry lies in the tiny island of Bioko, Equatorial Guinea. Another found that he was related to the Kanuri people of Niger. Further details of the study are given on the UK Science Museum site (83).


Last updated:  June 13, 2009      2007, 2008 Neil A. Frankel Contact: webmaster