Exploring African American Roots in Cleveland, Ohio

Additional Resource

More than 400 people from the eastern United States gathered in Cleveland, Ohio, recently for an all-day African American Family History Symposium located at a meetinghouse of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

 

Nationally known African genealogist Deborah Abbott, PhD, was the keynote speaker at the event. She quoted Alex Haley in his book “Roots.” “In all of us there is a hunger, marrow-deep, to know our heritage—to know who we are and where we have come from. Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning. No matter what our attainments in life, there is still a vacuum, an emptiness, and the most disquieting loneliness.”

Following her comments, attendees chose among a series of classes taught by Dr. Abbott and other well-known genealogists, including Ari Wilkins of the Dallas Public Library; Sunny Morton of Family Tree Magazine and the Genealogy Gems Podcast; and James L. Ison, recently retired from FamilySearch, the world’s leading not-for-profit genealogy organization.

Some classes pertained to tracing African-American ancestors using plantation records, Freedmen’s Bureau records, the Underground Railroad and a researcher’s inspiring story about discovering and visiting the actual home in which her ancestors were enslaved.

Eighteen months of planning and preparation went into the symposium by the event’s host, the Cleveland Ohio Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Event partners were the African-American Genealogical Society, Cleveland Ohio (www.aagsclev.org) and the Oberlin African-American Genealogy and History Group (www.oaaghg.com).

John Baker Jr. of Tennessee, the afternoon keynote speaker, wrote the book “The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation.” It is the result of more than 30 years of research and has been called “the most accessible and exciting work of African American history since Roots.” He shared how he reconstructed the lives of hundreds of enslaved people—including his ancestors—who lived on the country’s largest tobacco plantation. Attendees who had spent the day learning of the challenges facing African American genealogy saw firsthand how he wove together evidence from oral histories, DNA tests, courthouse and plantation records and more. They shared his wonder at the photos and documents he discovered about people whose lives had been little-known, even to their own descendants.

Muriel Robinson of Wickliffe, Ohio, attended the symposium after seeing a flier at her church. A few years ago, she began tracing her genealogy with the help of a friend but got stuck around the time of slavery, when her ancestors literally disappeared from most records.

“I came because I wanted to see what they could tell me about African American history as it related to my family history,” she stated. “I have always been curious about how much slavery was in our family. I learned more about the extent of slavery—all the way back to the 1500s—and the effect it had on people’s lives. I learned about the Civil Rights era and Martin Luther King, but I was never really taught about slavery.”

She shared a compelling story about slaves who were purchased via a mortgage loan, only to have the slaveholders default on payments. “The bank literally repossessed the slaves,” Robinson said. “I went home and told my teenage son. He gave me this look and said, ‘How do you repossess a human being?’” This story also reinforced to Robinson the tragic truth that enslaved families were frequently sold away from each other, and many never saw each other again.

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