Adopted, Angie Clement knew nothing about her birth family.
But through a workshop called “Who Am I: Genealogy in the Classroom,” the Oberlin High School junior has discovered 26 extended relatives she previously didn’t know existed.
Volunteers from the Oberlin African American Genealogy and History Group have helped students in Kurt Russell’s African-American history class do hands-on family research, tracing relatives back as far as the 1800s.
“This makes me happy,” Clement said, shuffling through a handful of pedigree charts. “This is crazy because I never knew anything about my family until this project — like what they did, where they live, and where they are from. I didn’t expect to find this many people.”
Sophomore Sam Thompson found a great-grandfather who never became a naturalized United States citizen.
He’s enjoyed unearthing his past, but has found the process to be challenging.
“When you’re going back through all the records, you have to make sure that every single detail matches up,” he said. “It gets more difficult the further back you go because records tend to deteriorate in accuracy.”
OAAGHG president Annessa Wyman said she hopes working with the students will spark an interest of genealogy in the next generation.
“It’s important they know their ancestors simply because this is what makes us,” she said. “Whether you go back and find good, bad, or something in between, it’s still what has made us today. We would not be here or who we are if it weren’t for whatever experiences these people had.”
The best way to begin digging into old records is by using Ancestry.com, Familysearch.org, and Newspapers.com, said Wyman.
From there, students have found World War I and II draft cards, death certificates and obituaries, censuses, and burial information.
Typically, if students find one person buried in a cemetery, other family members will be found there as well, Wyman said. She also suggests students take a peek around the neighborhood.
“Back in those days, transportation was limited,” she said. “We didn’t spread as far out as we do nowadays. You want to look around your name on a census sheet. Chances are, you’ll find a brother or a cousin a few houses down.”
While helpful, censuses can become a big stumbling block in research.
In the past, the record was taken by hand. Often, people gave bogus information to be funny or to protect their identity, Wyman said.
Having too little information is also a barrier. People with common names are harder to track down if students don’t know where they lived.
“You can find a Henry Jones in every state and in multiple cities. How do you know this is your Henry Jones?” Wyman said.
In her own research, she’s traveled back as far as 1813 to learn about her fourth-great-grandmother. Tracing family trees has gotten much easier with the increase in technology, but Wyman said she is still digging her way backward.
“African-American genealogy is really tough,” she said. “You can still do it, but it’s not as easy because we are not on any census records until 1870 after emancipation anyways. It’s hard to even find the parents of people you see on the 1870 census because often their parents have passed away or they’ve been sold. There’s so much separation and tearing apart it’s a much different type of genealogy.”
Interested in beginning a family tree of your own? You’re invited to OAAGHG walk-in sessions from 2-4 p.m. on Wednesdays and 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Thursdays at the Oberlin Public Library Ohio Room and from 1-3 p.m. on the second and fourth Saturdays at The Bridge, 82 South Main St.
Laurie Hamame can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @HamameNews on Twitter.