Lead Story West Edition

Conference helps black researchers trace their family history

LOS ANGELES – Dorothylou Sands’ epic journey into genealogy began with a mystery.

In 1985, the former Dorsey High School record keeper uncovered a family secret that her mother literally had taken to the grave – Sands’ mother had been adopted and some of the people Sands thought were relatives were not family at all.

The startling discovery led to other obvious questions about her mother’s biological family: Who were her descendants and were any of them still alive? Where did they live? How far back could she trace her family history?

“It’s like a never-ending jigsaw puzzle,” Sands said.

Local genealogist Dorothylou Sands’ discusses a poster display of her family’s history during a “Discover Your Roots” conference in L.A. (Photo by Matthew Stumphy)
Local genealogist Dorothylou Sands’ discusses a poster display of her family’s history during a “Discover Your Roots” conference in L.A. (Photo by Mike Hammari)

Like Sands, many African Americans are fascinated about their family heritage. Which is why more than 100 amateur and professional sleuths turned out for the 14th annual “Discover Your Roots” conference last weekend to learn more about their history – and themselves.

The one-day conference – co-sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the California African American Genealogy Society and the San Diego African American Genealogy Research Group – featured historians, family history researchers, genealogists and other experts recruited to lead workshops in how to trace your family tree.

Workshop topics such as “Exploring Your DNA Results,” “Getting a Successful Start to Family History,” “Finding Slave Ancestors before 1865” and “African American Internet Resources” were all designed to give African Americans the tools and knowledge needed to research their family histories and uncover more of their heritage, organizers said.

Keynote speaker Paula Williams Madison told attendees about her family’s journey to uncover the ancestral roots of her Chinese Jamaican mother, Nell Vera Lowe, and her Chinese grandfather. Born in Jamaica and raised in Harlem, Madison said unraveling the mystery of her ancestry helped her make sense of her life.

“We are all immigrants, we come from all over and most of us have lost bits of our story along the way,” said Madison, a retired NBC Universal executive.

“For African Americans, slavery in the United States interrupted and destroyed family histories,” she added. “Part of my goal is to help black people understand that slavery is a blip, a horrible blip, but a blip in the history of who they are.”

Conference organizer Alma Bailey, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, helped launch the conference as a partnership between the church and several African American genealogy groups.

“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been involved with genealogy since day one,” Bailey said. “We found that there was very little to assist the very unique researching needs of African Americans.”

The church decided to partner with the local African American genealogical societies to addresses the specific needs of African Americans, she said.

The conference also was created as a way for people to access the church’s “Freedman’s Bank Records,” widely considered to be the largest repository of lineage-linked African-American records in existence.

Keynote speaker Paula Williams Madison chats with attendees during a “Discover Your Roots” conference in L.A. “Part of my goal is to help black people understand that slavery is a blip – a horrible blip, but a blip – in the history of who they are,” Madison told attendees. (Photo by Matthew Stumphy)
Keynote speaker Paula Williams Madison chats with attendees during a “Discover Your Roots” conference in L.A. “Part of my goal is to help black people understand that slavery is a blip – a horrible blip, but a blip – in the history of who they are,” Madison told attendees. (Photo by Matthew Stumphy)

“Discover Your Roots” focuses on African American genealogy because researching black family history is uniquely challenging, Bailey said. Historical and census records on African Americans were not always kept due to slavery and forced migration, she said, making it difficult for researchers to get accurate information about their ancestors.

Today, however, more extensive genealogical records are available, including those from the Freedman’s Bureau Project, which indexes the records of over four million black Americans and others who earned benefits and services from the federal government after the Civil War.

The church acquired the federal records from the national archives and put them on microfilm. They are currently viewable on Familysearch.org.

Family Search International’s marketing director, Thom Reed, said the value of indexing those records and making them searchable can’t be overstated.

“It’s like the Holy Grail for African Americans doing research,” he said. “Now, [researchers] are more likely to be able to make that connection that they haven’t been able to make before.”

As for Sands, her curiosity paid off.  Four years ago, she found her mother’s biological family in Detroit.

“My mother’s sister had a daughter that was still living. She’s a few years older than I am [and] she he has a daughter in her early 60s,” Sands said. “She was so excited to finally meet – and so was I.”