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Tracing family tree is tough for many African Americans due to lack of information, country's history

Viola Baskerville
Posted at 5:13 AM, Feb 24, 2021

For African Americans, tracing family history can be a long, emotional journey filled with roadblocks. Our country's history of slavery and segregation makes it more challenging for African Americans to find information about their ancestors.

"African American research is the most challenging research areas because the lack of many paper trails and to be able to find persons that you're looking for... you need name, dates, and places," said Larry Lee, the founder and former president of the Black Family Genealogy and History Society of Phoenix.

Lee started the non-profit after beginning his own search for his family roots. He took a few details that he had and went to a Family History Center in Mesa. The facilities located across the country are run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and they have access to all kinds of genealogical records.

"My mother, God rest her soul, was able to sit with me, and while I'm going through microfilm readers just rolling over and over, looking at microfilm and microfiche and helping her to go back and recreate some information that she was trying to tell me. Where they live, where she went to school, other names of households near them. It helped me to be able to know I was on the right track," Lee said.

Different life circumstances brought Linda Morris and Lee Peavy to the Valley. It would be years before the two would find each other. Lee, who was adopted, found Linda while searching for his biological family.

"It was just amazing... I couldn't believe it. Yeah, and we're learning more and more every day," Peavy said.

They both have been extensively researching their family trees. Lee uncovered more than 3,000 family connections while Linda has more than 2,600 in her family tree.

African Americans are not only using at-home DNA kits to learn more about their identity, but they are also turning to federal census data. It wasn't until 1870, the first census after the end of slavery, where African Americans were listed by full name. Rosalind Matthews said she turned to military pension records from the Civil War for help.

"We are learning so much about what our ancestors thought because they had to have affidavits where they lived, whom they may have been enslaved by. Some of the struggles from the questions that they asked. Remember marriages for African Americans were not documented on a document so, in those pension records, they will talk about who they were married to, who their children are," Matthews said.

As you dig deeper into your family history, there is a chance you could uncover some family secrets, but Matthews says it is all about taking it in stride.

"I've come to have a strength, where I am just so proud of our ancestors, and what they have gone through and what we are learning through their stories and I think it's up for us to tell their stories as truthful as we can," Matthews said.