Thomas Jordan began with the death of his aunt Mildred, the last member of his father’s generation. With her went a houseful of family mementos, clues to his family past. Jordan felt “a void,” he says, that eventually sent him to Ancestry.com, to libraries, to cemeteries, and to courthouses across several states seeking his relatives, living and dead.
Jordan became hooked on genealogy. Over the years he’s discovered more and more cousins, including Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, who helped organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott. “I’d seen her before, unbeknownst to me, in the documentary Eyes on the Prize,” says the Mt. Washington resident, who grew up in Bond Hill. “She played this gigantic part in one of the most pivotal moments in Civil Rights history.”
On the maternal side, Jordan even managed to sleuth out the slave owner whose son, he thinks, he is descended from. He’s walked the land his great-grandparents owned in Crawford County, Georgia, and saw where they worked and where they worshipped.
Joyce Coleman began piecing together her genealogy from a young age, from overheard names in a family where the past was seldom discussed. She developed a passion for history and learning the stories of those who went before. She’s volunteered at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center’s John Parker Library before the building’s first brick was laid, and helped others construct their family trees.
Coleman has traced her own roots back before the 1830s, but it was when she researched her husband’s family that she made a discovery close to home: an aunt he never knew. They drove to Maysville, Kentucky, to meet her. “The woman asked, How’s my brother?” she says. That’s when they realized she didn’t know that Coleman’s father-in-law was dead. “I’ve been trying to find my brother, and I can’t find him,” she said. Then she lifted up this candy dish and pulled out a piece of paper. On it she had written the names of Coleman’s husband and his father, sister, and brother. “She said, I’ve been trying to find them, and you brought my nephew.”
That sense of missing pieces in a vast, personal puzzle sends millions of us to genealogical websites FamilySearch and Ancestry.com, part of a multimillion-dollar industry popularized by shows like Henry Louis Gates’s Finding Your Roots. Armchair genealogists also flock to DNA “heritage” tests promising insights into one’s ethnic and geographic origins.
There’s something innately human in seeking our roots. While it’s seldom as easy as seen on TV, for African American genealogists like Jordan and Coleman, reconstructing that family tree is far more difficult given U.S. society’s blind spots and glaring omissions. But there are new records waiting to see light. And the gaps themselves have something to say about how inequity and racism thread through history into the present day.
As we look hard at our culture and ourselves, a new generation of Black genealogists weighs in on how Black lives—past, present, future, and forever—matter.
Genealogy has helped Jordan put his ancestors into historical context, he says, and that context can change how you see the present. Consider the controversy over athletes taking a knee during the national anthem, he says. Jordan, an ordained minister and 33-year veteran of WCPO-TV, says that those who see the act as disrespecting the flag overlook a historical reality. African American servicemen—both he and his wife are related to many—returned from fighting tyranny overseas to fight the same old racism and violence at home. This was an America where Black servicemen were lynched for wearing their uniforms.
But Jordan isn’t angry. He believes that genealogy has the power to heal people and communities, to restore their pride of place in history. That’s why he visits schools to teach young people that every family member is important and every relative famous in some way.
So genealogy isn’t just about the past. It links us in the living, breathing present. And as we look hard at our culture and ourselves, a new generation of Black genealogists weighs in on how Black lives—past, present, future, and forever—matter.
Thom Reed is African American and, like all FamilySearch employees, Mormon. The company is an arm of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS). You can’t do genealogy research without using records made available by the church because, driven by doctrine that calls them to baptize the dead and “seal” families in eternity, Mormons have amassed and digitized the world’s largest collection of genealogical records. Stored in their fabled Granite Mountain Records Vault in Utah, which is drilled into a mountain behind nuclear-blast-proof doors, they have information containing some 2 billion names.
Reed, who is deputy chief genealogical officer at FamilySearch, Zooms with me from Salt Lake City’s renowned Family History Library, whose imposing monolith looms in his background (although he still rocks a 513 area code from an earlier career phase with Procter & Gamble). At FamilySearch, Reed was project manager for the epic Freedmen’s Bureau Project, which transcribed records of 4 million freed Blacks from 1865, following Emancipation.
The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center was one node in this vast, crowd-sourced project, a partnership among the National Archives, LDS, the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, and others. More than 25,000 volunteers transcribed and indexed the names of 1.8 million men, women, and children, making them easily searchable online. “That means we didn’t find them all,” says Reed. “So there are more records still out there. About 40 million of us are descended from those 4 million emancipated people at the end of the Civil War. What people don’t always immediately grasp is that there tends to be a lack of records in certain areas. But also that there are records out there that people don’t traditionally think about,” including those held by slave-owning family descendants who are reluctant to share them.
Genealogy newcomers often think when they research African American relatives that they need to go straight to the period of slavery, he says, when in fact there usually are vital records—birth, marriage, death, military, and more—available in the years since. There are also records created by Black families, churches, and other institutions that set down the generations for posterity.
Coleman, of Paddock Hills, also cautions against trying go too far back too quickly. It’s important to do the work, she says. Resources like Ancestry.com and DNA tests have their place, “but it’s important to dig deeper. When you come to the Freedom Center, you get a different version of ancestry than what you can get at home. You might get a DNA test that tells you you’re 50 percent Italian, 10 percent German, and 2 percent African. But you don’t know the names of these people. You don’t know anything about them.”
DNA heritage testing remains unregulated, often offering wildly different results depending on the company used. It can be useful when you’ve hit a dead end in family research, but it’s particularly questionable for African Americans given that the vast majority of DNA held in databases comes from white Europeans and overlooks the historically transient nature of human populations. It won’t bring your ancestors into clear focus the way old-school research will. “The first thing you need to do is find the oldest persons in your family and sit down, talk to them, and ask them questions,” says Coleman. “Ask them for names. Ask them if they have a bible or any kind of a written record of your family.”
Another great source is old newspaper archives, particularly a city’s African American newspaper, like The Cincinnati Herald. “If Sally Jones died, the newspaper said she died on June 1, period,” says Coleman. “But who is Sally Jones? You don’t know because of the one-line blurb that we would find in the white newspapers. But we had the Cleveland Call & Post and The Chicago Defender [Black-owned newspapers that would write full obituaries], and the Pullman porters on the passenger trains were the newspaper boys of that time. They would take the papers to the South, and that’s how many people learned about their relatives in the North who had died.”
White-owned newspapers, interested in selling subscriptions to Black readers, eventually began to include so-called African American Society Columns. Genealogy and local history reference librarian Stephen Headley has been indexing these and making them available on the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County website. “Society Columns” doesn’t do justice to the richness of information they contain. “They talk about weddings and deaths and will include obituaries,” he says. “They even mention births, sometimes giving the weight of the baby. You can really get a good sense of at least a segment of Cincinnati’s African American population during that time.” The Cincinnati Commercial Gazette/Tribune ran one such column by Charles W. Bell, a prominent Black citizen and teacher of penmanship who also edited a Black newspaper locally. Another appeared in The Cincinnati Times-Star authored by Susie Johnson Higgins, a teacher at Gaines High School, the city’s segregated public school for Black students in the late 1800s.
Headley is all too familiar with the challenges facing the African American genealogist. “It doesn’t get easier even well after Emancipation,” he says. “During the 1920s and ’30s, over the Great Migration of African Americans to Cincinnati, they’re mostly coming from the South, and those states have very poor records, or at least they’re not accessible yet.” Cincinnati newspaper society columns are also valuable because they cover a 20-year gap in government recordkeeping left when the 1890 census schedules were destroyed in a fire in 1921, he says.
In his genealogical journeys, Jordan has often struck gold in another source. “I guess my forte, my niche, is dissecting obituaries and funeral programs,” he jokes. When a cousin gave him the funeral program of his Aunt Eddie, a teacher in Georgia, unfamiliar names jumped out among those he already knew. The mysterious names prompted him to write to Southern churches his family had been active in, asking for any leads. A cousin wrote back. Her mother was still alive and remembered the names of his great-great-grandparents.
“The African American funeral program is kind of unique in how it evolved,” Jordan says. They’re rich in detail where official records and mainstream newspapers fell short. They hail from the tradition of Black-owned funeral homes, which amassed uncommon wealth and influence that they often parlayed into support for Civil Rights advancement.
In 2019, Coleman and Jordan gave a presentation at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County about the city’s Black funeral homes. Their PowerPoint presentation is a veritable who’s who of the influential Black businessmen and -women who prospered in the West End prior to that neighborhood’s evisceration by I-75 construction, which pushed many to the suburbs.
Tending for and burying the dead was one of the most lucrative professions available to Black entrepreneurs in the post–Civil War era, when embalming really took off. Black funerary professionals quickly specialized in providing elaborate home affairs that afforded dignity in death to those who had been denied it in life.
Among the Cincinnati families who went into the business, there was James E. Simpson Jr. of Jones & Simpson Funeral Home, who stuck a campaign bumper sticker on his hearse and became the first African American to win a city commission election in Covington and was integral in desegregating Northern Kentucky theaters. Inez Renfro of the Renfro Funeral Services family became one of the most powerful Black women in Cincinnati, bolstered by the Republican Party. Doris Rankin-Sells, of Rankin Brothers, was the first African American woman to be awarded a Wendy’s franchise. She served on boards from the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce to the Greater Cincinnati Foundation. And Mary Norris Andrews, who owned M.M. Andrews Funeral Chapel in Avondale, published The Cincinnati Independent, the city’s only Black-owned paper during the 1940s and a springboard for young African American writers, typesetters, and printers.
But these businesses are disappearing. With the popularity of cremation and younger generations leaving the business, they’re being gobbled up by chains. And when that happens, generations of funeral programs can easily be lost in the shuffle.
FamilySearch recently completed a pilot project in Virginia to collect, digitize, and share generations of funeral programs. Reed says he hopes to replicate that project across the U.S., but the clock is ticking.
Information on Black ancestors can also be found in places where their bodies are enshrined in the earth itself and their names written in stone. Musician, music teacher, newspaperman, writer, and publisher Wendell Phillips Dabney gives the history of Cincinnati’s African American cemeteries in his seminal book, Cincinnati’s Colored Citizens (1926), the pages of which shine with his characteristic wit. Theirs is a history that underscores again how dignity, even in death, remains elusive.
Two key locations remain today: Price Hill’s Union Baptist Cemetery and Madisonville’s United American Cemetery. The latter was created in 1884 when Colored American Cemetery in Avondale was closed. According to Dabney, white citizens’ “delicate nostrils seemingly scented an aroma arising from their defunct colored brethren which gave to the atmosphere a tang not redolent with fragrance. In short, the whites objected to the black burying ground.” After a protracted battle, most of Colored American Cemetery’s burials were moved to the new United American Cemetery.
Retired architect and former Freedom Center genealogy volunteer Chris Hanlin has researched and mapped the extant cemeteries. He lives in Madisonville near United American. Fascinated by its beauty and the lives of those buried there, he learned that it shares a designer with Spring Grove Cemetery, as well as Eden Park, Lincoln Park, and Burnet Woods: the great Prussian landscape architect Adolph Strauch.
Dabney lies in United American. Former slave and Civil War Medal of Honor recipient Powhatan Beaty is buried in Union Baptist, as is Harriet Clay, a former slave and friend of Booker T. Washington. They are resting places for the formerly enslaved, for anti-slavery advocates, and for conductors on the Underground Railroad. But as recently as last year United Baptist Cemetery was vandalized; gravestones were overturned and sprayed with graffiti.
Union Baptist Cemetery is overseen by Union Baptist Church, Cincinnati’s oldest Black church. According to Board of Trustees Chair Angelita Jones, the church recently received a $10,000 grant from the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners and $400,000 through the African American Civil Rights Grant Program, which is administered by the National Park Service, to stabilize and repair the cemetery buildings, monuments, headstones, and fencing. “I know that sounds like a lot of money, but we’re talking about 16 acres and thousands of headstones,” she says. “The grass-cutting and all of the upkeep comes out of the congregation’s and pastor’s pockets.”
With the COVID-19 crisis keeping members from church, funds are tight. Union Baptist Church can’t do it alone, she says, “So we’re going to continue to apply for grants and continue to fund-raise [including through GoFundMe], because these cemeteries have to be sustained.”
Nationally, historically Black cemeteries remain an important genealogical resource. “There are young children, for instance, who were born after one census and died before the next census was taken in a period before there were birth certificates,” Hanlin says. “So the person’s tombstone inscription may be the only record that this person ever existed.”
The real reason to visit them, though, is out of respect. Both Jordan and Reed have sought their ancestors in cemeteries. In his book, Double Jordan, the story of uncovering his paternal ancestry, Jordan writes how, on a dead-end road in Culloden, Georgia, near the headstones of cousins in a segregated cemetery, he came across a section with a single marker that read, SLAVE CEMETERY, We know not who they are but they are loved ones of God and man, and will never be forgotten.
Reed has also walked among the dead, searching for his great-great-great-grandfather. He visited a timber country cemetery in Marengo County, Alabama, hoping to pick up the trail where the records had left him cold. He’s still searching. “I’m right up against that brick wall of enslavement and haven’t made that bridge yet. I say yet because I’m in it for the long haul,” he says, smiling over the video connection from Utah.
The internet may well prove to be the ultimate genealogical tool. Artificial Intelligence will soon support optical character recognition even for difficult-to-decipher handwritten records, says Reed. But the future of the past lies in crowd-sourcing, in a wide network of inquisitive minds. It’s happening right now, a million aha moments on message boards and social media pages, where users share notes, photos, and scans from the front pages of family bibles.
It’s a project that anyone can contribute to. “With this whole racial tension in the U.S. right now,” Reed says, “a lot of my white friends have approached me and asked, What can I do to make things better? Part of it is participating in these projects to make more records accessible for people of African descent.”
FamilySearch has acquired and digitized records from the Caribbean, civil registrations that haven’t been indexed, he says. “So we need volunteers just like the Freedmen’s Bureau Project to jump on board and help us index and make these records searchable for our brothers and sisters in the Caribbean.” And there are efforts around the country to reclaim African American cemeteries. “Get involved in your local community,” says Reed. “Help reclaim a cemetery, and put that information on websites to make it accessible to more people worldwide. That’s what allies who want to help the cause can do.”
Jordan is hoping to pass the genealogy torch to younger generations. From the age of 3, his granddaughter showed an interest, he says, and her face lit up seeing photos he’d discovered of his great-grandparents. More recently, for Black History Month, she did a school project on her family tree.
His granddaughter, now 8, has caught the spark. She recites the names of those who went before. She feels their weight and carries them on.