Tracing ancestry is not easy for African Americans
BY BILL O’BOYLE
WILKES-BARRE —What’s in a name?
Everything, that’s what.
Just ask Kwaku King Adjei-Frimpong.
We’ll call him King because that’s the name he uses. King, 29, is the volunteer coordinator at the Commission on Economic Opportunity, a job he’s had since November, 2011. He’s a Southern California kid, having grown up in Fullerton and attending UCLA.
This is about names and knowing who we are and where we come from.
Most of us, including King and I, know our ancestral history or can easily research it. We can trace family records and census records and go back as far as we want to discover who we are, where we came from and what great deeds our ancestors accomplished.
Not so for most African Americans.
King knows his family came from Ghana in West Africa. He has been to Ghana to visit his aunts, uncles and cousins. He knows much about his genealogy and someday, he said, he’ll delve further into his ancestral past.
Tony Burroughs, founder and CEO of the Center for Black Genealogy in Chicago and a former professor at Chicago State University, believes everybody should have the opportunity to know their personal history/genealogy.
Burroughs said knowing one’s own personal family history builds a bigger sense of pride.
“No doubt about it,” he said. “Often times, people don’t know what their ancestors have been through. Understanding their struggles gives you pride. You are standing on their shoulders. But you would never know about any of it if you didn’t go on that journey.”
Burroughs said the journey for African Americans is more difficult than for any other ethnicity. Even if people were able to trace their roots back to the shores of America, the journey becomes far more difficult for African Americans.
He said a lot of African Americans want to know where they came from in Africa, what their family names were and what their ancestors did through history.
He knows the challenges in doing that — he has managed to trace his own family tree back to the pre-Civil War era. He hopes to find all his family members who arrived at America’s shores; after that, the journey will get even more difficult.
“There were slave ship logs that treated Africans as cargo, not as passengers,” he said.
However, Burroughs said there were slave sales in America and there are records of those sales. Additionally, there were slave revolts on some ships and there are some names from those revolts. There are court records in Louisiana that indicate African ethnicity and locations where Africans originated in Africa. There are also runaway slave notices in newspapers that indicate African ethnicity and African origins.
Burroughs said tracing one’s genealogy can be easy, inexpensive and fun for any African American and they can go a long way before they hit any serious challenges of advanced genealogy.
“Even though I have not found my African origins, I have a dozen file cabinets full of information, have traced my family over 240 years, and have over 1,500 people in my database,” he said. “There is tremendous value in that and I have uncovered an illustrious family history that my family is proud of.”
Burroughs said slave trading was one of the greatest crimes against humanity in history.
“Their names were stripped from them, their language was stripped from them, their history was stripped from them. And all this was done to exploit them — to literally dehumanize them,” he said.
Burroughs said he and others are helping people trace their family history.
“Genealogy is a journey,” Burroughs said. “It’s not as simple as paying a fee and finding out all this information. Genealogy starts with ourselves and goes back one generation at a time. Remember, those Africans were stolen out of Africa and brought to America some 300 to 400 years ago.”
It will take a lot of work over a long period of time.
Burroughs said anyone looking to trace their genealogy should begin by talking to relatives, reviewing all documents available, looking through pictures and attics for clues.
Back in 1995, I had the pleasure of meeting Alex Haley, author of “Roots,” the book that told the troubling story of slavery in the U.S. Haley traced his ancestors all the way back to The Gambia in Africa and a young man named Kunta Kinte.
Haley told me ABC-TV decided to film some scenes in The Gambia and when word of it got to the villages from where Kunta Kinte came, the leadership of those villages asked Haley to go there to tell the story. For generations, these villagers had heard stories of young warriors who left their villages and went into the jungle to hunt and gather supplies but never returned. For generations, they never knew what happened to those young men and women.
Haley provided that information. He was fortunate to be able to learn where he came from.
Everyone should be able to do the same.
Reach Bill O’Boyle at
570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.
This article was previously published on Times Leader