Tracing your family roots is harder if you’re African-American. These women want to help. | Michigan Radio
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Tracing your family roots is harder if you’re African-American. These women want to help.

Dec 18, 2019

When you decide to dig into your family's roots, the typical approach is to track down your ancestors' birth and death certificates. Maybe you head to a county office or a local church to dig up marriage records. But that's not always an option for African-Americans whose roots date back to American slavery, when family ties meant nothing to slave owners and families were routinely ripped apart. 

Cheryl Garnett and Omer Jean Winborn are trying to make it easier for African Americans in their community to discover their family roots through a combination of genetic genealogy and old-fashioned boots-on-the-ground research. The women are the co-founders of the Washtenaw County African American Genealogy Society. 

Both have been doing genealogical research on their own families for decades. After a 40-year friendship, Garnett and Winborn discovered they were actually related to one another.

“And it was so phenomenal that we had to share what we learned with other African-American people. And that’s our life’s work right now—to go around and show people how to do this,” Winborn said.

The first census in which African Americans were listed by name was in 1870, five years after the conclusion of the Civil War. If someone is trying to trace their family history before then, Winborn said, there are many “puzzle pieces” you need to put together before you have a full picture of your family tree. Without census records or marriage and death certificates, it's a significantly more challenging puzzle to solve. 

“You have to take it apart,” Winborn explained. “And you have to look at everybody individually. You can’t just blanket say that everybody was enslaved.”

New mail-order DNA analysis kits have been instrumental in helping Winborn and Garnett connect families. But they aren't enough on their own, said Winborn. "The DNA gives you the hint, but once you can find the papers, the documentation,” then you can find the stories of the families.

Garnett said that knowing her family history has been a way to better understand herself. Learning about her ancestors has given her a sense of connection that might not have been possible if she hadn't done the research and tracked down those stories.

“I have such a love of my ancestors. I am so grateful for who they were, and what they did, and what they accomplished,” Garnett said.

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Catherine Nouhan.