QUEBEC-RESEARCH-L ArchivesArchiver > QUEBEC-RESEARCH > 2005-01 > 1106696338
Date: Tue, 25 Jan 2005 18:38:58 EST
Descendant of slaves digs up family tree
Painstaking research may yield model for expanding genealogy in academia
Monday, January 24, 2005
Thirkelle Harris Howard's family tree didn't always have solid roots.
She realized that in third grade, after a teacher assigned the class to fill
out a genealogy chart and return it to school.
Some of Howard's white classmates had their family trees traced back
anywhere from five to 12 generations. But Howard, the only black student in the
class, wasn't even able to come up with the names of all her great-grandparents.
"I realized my parents didn't have all this information," Howard said. "So I
started asking other older African-Americans about it, and their parents
didn't want to talk about slavery. And if they talked about it, they sent the
Now five decades later, Howard not only has traced portions of her family's
genealogy back to the late 1700s, she's using her experiences as a basis for
pioneering research that shows black Americans may be more closely related
than previously thought.
Howard, a 58-year-old Kansas University doctoral student in American
studies, lives in Manhattan and is coordinator of multicultural affairs at the
Kansas State University College of Human Ecology.
She's wrapping up her dissertation research this year. Using slave sale
records and other genealogical tools, she has determined that between 80 percent
and 90 percent of black Americans are descendants of slaves brought to North
America between 140 and 385 years ago. She said 400,000 to 600,000 Africans
were brought to America, and about half of them had children.
That would make most black Americans seventh or eighth cousins.
"African-American families are very much intertwined," she said.
Howard long ago realized that conducting genealogy research was not easy,
especially for black Americans.
Census counts are typically a reliable source of information for those
tracing their family trees. But slaves weren't included in census counts; after
slavery was abolished, the first former slaves began to appear in the 1870
It's a problem that Helen Krische, archivist and exhibit coordinator at the
Watkins Community Museum of History, 1047 Mass., has been familiar with as
she has assisted genealogists.
"You'd have to go to other sources and be creative," Krische said. "It's a
problem not only for the black slaves but if you're doing Native American
Using the Internet, family Bibles, slave records, obituaries and death
certificates, Howard has been able to fill in much of her family tree going back
more than 200 years. All of her great-grandparents were slaves, as were two of
Though many blacks in previous generations were reluctant to reopen the
painful legacy of slavery, Howard says she thinks there's a renaissance in blacks
using genealogy to reconnect with their family lineage.
"So often people who are living now, and especially younger people, aren't
aware of what people lived like in the early 1800s," she said. "Once they
start tracing their ancestry and finding out where people lived, they don't just
get names, they find out how they lived, who lived in the household, and they
understand more about what life was like in this country."
Maryemma Graham, professor of American studies at Kansas University and
Howard's doctoral adviser, says she's hoping family trees branch out into
Genealogy -- like oral history -- has been a "paraprofessional" topic for
years. She said she was not aware of any dissertation similar to Howard's
"It seems to some people like a hobby and not a professional area," Graham
said. "People have been doing it for a long time, but it's never accepted in
the academy as such."
And that has meant some headaches for Howard while trying to convince those
in traditional history fields of the project's worth. Graham said that adding
DNA testing could give future genealogy projects an even greater legitimacy
"The anxiety in being first is you're going to run into all kinds of
roadblocks," Graham said. "She's got to convince everybody every step of the way.
It's quite novel and new in the academy. She's bringing a new body of knowledge
to the discipline. We hope it will take off and other people will reap the
benefits of her pioneering research."