Unearthing A Lost History

African Americans are uncovering new facets in their personal family narratives by using the Web as another tool to help them take a peek into the past. Genealogy services such as Ancestry.com enable users to begin to create individual family trees online by tracing the paths of their ancestors through a collection of historical records. As a digital complement to the manual legwork that often comes with doing genealogical research, the Website, along with a host of other Internet-based companies, effectively cuts down on time and travel expenses by pulling data from archives and bringing it to users’ home computer screens.

“The real history of the African American people will be built around individual achievements and accomplishments,” says Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. “Creating our family trees will show our young people that in spite of tremendous odds, our ancestors made a way of out of no way; genealogy lets [us] see how they did that.” With roughly 24,000 databases to find matches, Ancestry.com, he says, is a good place to start.

“In the ’70s and ’80s, it would take a few months before you made your [first] big discovery,” says Megan Smolenyak, a genealogist and chief family historian for Ancestry.com. “Now it’s within minutes. The dual revolutions of the Internet and DNA have created this mass democratization. What’s kind of cool is that [people] are doing it just to know the stories of their ancestors, whatever they were.”

Earlier in the year, Ancestry.com had been trying to make the public aware of its newly launched, vast database of African American historical records. Rev. Al Sharpton agreed to have his roots traced in tandem with the launch, which resulted in a genealogical connection between the civil rights activist and the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, a longtime segregationist. Traffic on the Website mushroomed from an average of 7,000 new family trees a day to 46,000. Yet even before the Sharpton — Thurmond connection made national headlines, the Provo, Utah-based company saw its revenues surge from $47 million in 2002 to $151 million in 2006–an increase of roughly 300%, as interest in genealogy grows.

Users can sign on for a three-day free trial period; afterwards, the Website has a subscription-based model with fees ranging from $29.95 for a monthly U.S. Deluxe membership or $155.40 annually, to $34.95 a month for a World Deluxe membership, or $299.40 annually. So far, Ancestry.com, which has been online for nearly a decade, touts more than 750,000 subscribers worldwide.

To start the research process, begin by talking to your oldest living relatives and using the scraps of information that you get, says Jane Ailes, a Virginia-based genealogist with the company Research Consultants. “Then look for the evidence to back up the things that people are telling you. Every family story is different. There are more things going up online but not everything is there.”

In 2000, when Brian Williams, a Brooklyn, New York, native who works as an insurance investigator, realized that the relatives on his mother’s side were passing away,