The African American Genealogical Society of Northern California, Inc. (AAGSNC) sponsored a phenomenal seminar entitled “Uncovering African American Roots,” February 12, 2000 at the Oakland YMCA. Over 200 participants attended the event. Those individuals that failed to come out and brave the rainy weather missed a rare opportunity to learn about African American genealogy. AAGSNC’s speaker was Tony Burroughs, an internationally known genealogist, author, teacher, and lecturer. Not only does he teach a family history course in Chicago State University’s adult education program, but he has authored a chapter in the African-American Genealogical Sourcebook, received the Distinguished Service Award from the National Genealogical Society, appeared as the African American genealogy expert in the public television series Ancestors, and conducted the African American Genealogy workshop at the National Archives – Great Lakes Region. In addition, Burroughs is a graduate of the National Institute of Genealogical Research in Washington, D.C. and the Institute of Genealogy and History at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. He has been practicing genealogy for over twenty years and was inspired to trace his ancestry after attending a lecture by Alex Haley, the author of Roots. He has traced two family lines back seven generations and has extensive research experience in libraries, archives, historical societies and county courthouses.
Although his presentation was scheduled from 1:00 p.m. - 4:00 p.m., Burroughs spoke until 6:00 p.m. His topics were Beginning Resources for Tracing the Family Tree, Slave Genealogy, and Creating Order Out of Chaos. Burroughs graciously stayed longer than his scheduled time. This speaks well of Burroughs' dedication to African American genealogy and his willingness to share his experience and knowledge. Many researchers hung on his every word and did not leave early. These actions show hunger for information and the difficulty in obtaining it the African American genealogists.
Burroughs began his presentation by suggesting new genealogists compile a list of living relatives and interview and tape-record the oldest first. The stories of these individuals must be told while they can still tell them. He explained that interviews should be repeatedly conducted, as elders with lifetime memories are unable to convey everything they know in a single session. In addition, the researcher should ask about family archives. These are collections of old letters, Bibles, post cards, newspaper clippings, scrapbooks, and funeral announcements. Examining these with a relative will help bring back memories from the past. He suggested that documents in family archives be located, organized, analyzed, and preserved.
After his impressive beginning, Burroughs spoke on Slave Genealogy. Many African Americans want to identify the slave owner(s) that held family member(s) in bondage before the end of the Civil War. Finding slave owners is an extremely difficult task and for many African Americans an impossible one. Burroughs cautioned that before tackling this job, it is important to follow the steps required of all good genealogists and trace family members back to the 1870 census. For the descendants of enslaved African Americans, the 1870 census is important, as it is the first census in which all were enumerated. Identifying a slave holding family may be impossible, if preliminary research has not been meticulously conducted. Unfortunately, for some African Americans finding ancestors in the 1870 census is difficult, as individuals and even entire families may have missed being enumerated or may have assumed new surnames. Only after ancestors are found in the 1870 census is the researcher ready to explore the period of slavery and because not every African American was enslaved, the assumption of slavery for an individual must be proved before the search for a slave owner is begun.
The last topic covered by Burroughs was organization of collected information. He urged beginning researchers to utilize an organization system from the start. For those with many collected documents and no system of organization, he asked: “How can you expect to find an ancestor in the many archives that you search, if you can not locate records you already possess?" As part of an organization strategy, Burroughs advised the researcher to write an autobiography and then biographies for all ancestors. As additional information is acquired, the researcher can update biographical facts. The presentation of information as an autobiography and as biographies will help reveal relationships not noticed before and be of interest to descendants, allowing them to understand and cherish the completed research.
Burroughs concluded this memorable seminar with a question and answer session. The day's program was such a success that the African American Genealogical Society of Northern California, Inc. plans to host a similar event next year.