Roots and branches

April 4, 2010 

As a little girl, Patricia Moncure Thomas would sit politely on the sofa, lips closed and mind wandering, as she listened to elders retell the same old story.

In voices edged with sorrow, the elders told of a white store owner tricking her great-grandfather, a man of black and white ancestry, out of his land in 1930s Mississippi.

The story didn’t ring true to Thomas as a child.

“When I grew up, you learned about slavery and ... that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves and all was well. No one talked about the Black Codes, the killings and the lynchings,” Thomas said. “Consequently, listening to that story, I used to think they were making it up.”

Today, Thomas, a 63-year-old Tacoma school principal, knows the tale is true. She found the documents to prove it. It’s just one of the stories of family she’s discovered by poring through records and interviewing relatives the past two decades.

She’s among the countless African-Americans using genealogy to learn all she can about her ancestors. Now, more than ever before, Thomas and other blacks can turn to numerous resources to do that research. Genealogy sites brimming with old census records and other documents are proliferating online, and many sites specialize in serving African-Americans. More birth records, death certificates and other documents are being digitized. And DNA testing is allowing people to obtain a snapshot of their genetic origins.

Like the 1977 TV miniseries “Roots,” TV shows are inspiring people to look for their lineage. NBC’s current “Who Do You Think You Are” and three PBS series by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates have examined the ancestry of celebrities, including such famous black Americans as football Hall of Famer Emmit Smith and TV mogul Oprah Winfrey.

“It’s cool now when I see all these genealogy programs on TV,” said Margie Winters-Harris of Lacey. The 53-year-old substance abuse prevention coordinator remembers the power of author Alex Haley’s “Roots.”

Since embarking on the hunt for her own roots in 1990, she’s found ancestors from as early as 1830.

“I hate it when people say you’re African-American, you’ll never be able to find your history,” she said. “The records are there.”

Still, she acknowledges the task is tough.

Tracking down ancestors can be difficult for people of any nationality. Americans of African descent face the added burden of slavery and its aftermath. Slave schedules kept by slave owners typically listed only the age, gender and color of slaves, making it difficult to link slaves with their named descendants. Families were torn apart not only during slavery, but also in later years as family members moved to find work, frustrating efforts to find their records by locale.

“We were not allowed to speak our own language, so we lost that. We were not allowed to write. Our history was lost,” said Colette Armour of Tacoma, who is researching her family.

“It’s much easier for non-African-American people to find out their roots because people kept documents, whereas slaves didn’t keep documents. They were on documents.”

And family genealogists need to be prepared for the possibility of finding interracial heritage. In an Oct. 8, 2009, column at, Gates cited a statistic by Morehouse College geneticist Mark Shriver that 58 percent of African-Americans possess at least 12.5 percent European ancestry, the equivalent of one great-grandparent.

“It was accepted practice that white men used black women for their own pleasure and they created many, many babies,” Thomas said. “Otherwise, you wouldn’t see so many of us who look the way we look, and wouldn’t have had that category invented: mulattoes.”

No matter what is found, the new knowledge of self makes the journey worthwhile, say the keepers of family history.

“If you get a sense of your history, it builds up pride,” Winters-Harris said. “Your ancestors are waiting to be heard in public records. Listen hard and your relatives will speak to you.”

Debby Abe: 253-597-8694

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