GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — During the Atlantic slave trade, Black people were taken from their homelands and brought to the Caribbean, South America and the United States for free labor. In the centuries that followed, many enslaved people lost their native languages, traditions and family lines. The loss of history has made it difficult for some to trace their familial lines.
“As a Black person, not only are you researching, but you have to re-search,” said Cynthia Bailey, a member of the Western Michigan Genealogical Society.
Bailey said she started recording her family’s history a few years ago after a cousin who kept family records died.
She recommended first turning to living family members to get all the information you can. Bailey says you should start drawing your family tree with yourself and immediate family and then continue with grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc.
Bailey says from there, the local library can be your best friend. She said some of the most helpful information can be found in obituaries and census data. Libraries also keep records on past occupations, which can help African American families learn more about their deceased relatives’ lives, she said.
“Let’s say you had a person that was a mechanic or a realtor, banker. They might be in a record down here,” Bailey said, as she opened a large red book at the Grand Rapids Public Library.
Bailey said the great migration, a time when Black people in the U.S. moved north in large numbers for jobs and opportunities, means most Black people will have to look at records in other states, too.
She said if people are able to trace their ancestors back to slavery, they will likely run into challenges.
“When you get to the slave records, that’s your brick wall. Now you’ re looking for your history through the white slave owners but your history, that’s where it ends,” Bailey said. “We weren’t people. We were cattle.”
Bailey says though you may never get all the answers to your family history, knowing where you come from can give you a better idea of where you’re going.
“It’s fun,” said Bailey of genealogy. “You have buried treasure somewhere. You might find something good, you might find something bad but you’ll find something.”