he decided that it was time to take on another role and become the family griot. Williams discovered that his mother’s side of the family came from Georgia and eventually took a drive to the South. “I was able to locate my great-great [grandparents’] marriage certificate,” says the 43-year-old. “Once I made a move in the direction of my ancestors, [my family members] would make a move toward me. I had to be the catalyst.”
Williams says that he spent roughly six hours a day poring over marriage and Census records as well as data from the Department of Vital Statistics. His research illuminated the scope of what Williams knew about his family’s origin. “I found out where my family came from and the occupations that they were engaged in,” Williams adds. “This information put everything in another perspective and I started to feel unshackled by the residue of slavery. As an only child, I’ve been able to put my family history together.”
A year after the trip to Georgia, Williams continued digging up information by going online to Ancestry.com to look up Census records from 1930. Later, Williams took another step and used the services of AfricanAncestry.com (see “Tracing Your Ancestry,” Techwatch, August 2005); the company traced his DNA to the Ga tribe in Ghana. On his father’s side, Williams discovered that his genetic roots were from Italy. “I’m not done [yet],” Williams offers, “it’s a lifelong journey.”
The African American collection on the Ancestry.com Website highlights critical junctures in our history. For example, a user can look through military records from the Civil War as well as slave narratives and records from the Freedmen’s Bureau or the Freedman’s Bank. “Many people assume that all their ancestors were slaves,” says Smolenyak. “We can tell from Census numbers that about 10% percent of African Americans were free before the Civil War. That doesn’t sound like a huge number, but if you do the math, by the time you get back to the 1860s, there is a decent chance that one of your ancestors might have been free.” Even the descendants of slaves can search online past what genealogists often refer to as “the Wall of 1870”–the first Census in which freed slaves were listed by their actual names. The collection also includes passenger lists from various entry ports (into the United States) and immigration records dating back to about 1820.
BLACK ENTERPRISE’s own news editor, Nicole Marie Richardson, was able to use the archived passenger lists to pinpoint her grandmother’s emigration route from Dutch St. Maarten to America in 1924. “I was able to find out the day she first arrived here, where she lived, and what her occupation was listed as,” says Richardson. By entering the family information she already had onto the Website, Richardson discovered several other relatives who had made the journey with her grandmother. “In one of the cases,” says Richardson, “the records identified a family member I was not aware of. It [even] told me that he was