Family Trees: African-Americans find it difficult to trace history

By Judi Gatson - bio | email

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - For many African-Americans, family history can be difficult -- in some cases nearly impossible -- to trace.

Now, new technology allows people of African descent to trace their ancestry by analyzing their DNA.

WIS, News Anchor, Judi Gatson was curious about her own history beyond her immediate family.

Judi's parents were married in 1964. She says she spent plenty of time with both sets of grandparents. On her mother's side, there was Emily and Jim from Daphne, Alabama. On her dad's side, there was Dorothy and Charles lived in St. Louis, Missouri.

Through family research, we've discovered some surprising South Carolina connections.

"It's sort of like it's putting a puzzle together," said Steven Tuttle with the South Carolina Department of Archives and History. "You have to track the pieces down and put them together the best that you can."

One of Judi's great-great-grandfathers, Preston Gridiron, was born in Winnsboro and his wife, Carrie, grew up on a slave plantation in Aiken.

However, beyond those two new names, Judi's family history, like many other African-Americans, is a mystery.

"Often people have looked for this information for years and when they find it, they're so happy to have found it, it's a wonderful experience for them," said Tuttle.

Tuttle says tracing African-American genealogy has unique challenges.

"If you're doing African-American genealogy research, you really have to hook up the slave with the slave owner," said Tuttle.

But even accomplishing that may not get you very far. During slavery, much of our history was lost because many African-Americans were listed as numbers on an inventory instead of by name.

Most African-Americans were not even included in the US Census until 1870. For those who are lucky enough to find historical documents, the search is still complicated by names that were changed or misspelled.

For many African-American families that leaves a lot of branches of their family tree empty, but now technology is finding answers where none could be found before.

The pieces are there. But tracking them down and putting them together can be a titanic task, especially for African-Americans.
"It's important to me because I just want to know, kinda reconstruct where I came from," said Urica Pope.
Pope has been researching her family history for more than 10 years. It's been a time consuming project searching census records, land deeds, birth & death certificates and tracking down any other documents that can connect her to her past.
"You find one name and you follow it until it stops, and then you find another name and follow it until it stops," she said.
For some it's a nearly impossible journey. Steven Tuttle with the South Carolina Department of Archives and History says the injustices of slavery robbed many family trees of vital information.
"Sometimes you'll see an inventory and it will just say six slaves and won't give the names," said Tuttle. "This is a rare one in the fact that it lists the name of the slaves, lists their age and they're in family groups here so this is really an unusual inventory for it to be so thorough."
Even though some family names were missing, changed or misspelled.
"I found my maiden name Pope, my father's name Pope, I found it spelled as Rope, but I knew it was my family because it had all the correct names," said Pope.
Urica had some success. She learned her great-great-grandfather, Daniel Pope, migrated to Williamsburg County, South Carolina, near Kingstree.
"He bought land, he bought a little over an acre of land for $61.87," she said. "Then searching back, you know, finding each name and making that connection and seeing where my father was eight years old or so when he was on the census it was, it was kinda, oh gosh it was so exciting."
Now she's on the verge of another big discovery through the power of DNA.
"When we test African-Americans and find these matches, it give us some excitement because we're finding matches," said Dr. Rick Kittles, Scientific Director of African Ancestry.
He says each individual has a unique DNA signature passed down from their ancestors, and through a simple cheek swab he can compare your signature to the DNA of present-day Africans to see if there's a match.  
Those using the technology to discover their roots include Oprah Winfrey, director Spike Lee and former Grey's Anatomy star Isaiah Washington.
There are skeptics, but Kittles stands by the science.
"We do have the largest database, I mean I've worked very hard with anthropologists, archaeologists and historians in identifying which parts of West Central Africa are important for the African-American ancestry," said Kittles.
Urica believes in it too, and can't wait to trace her DNA.
"I want to know who were the people that came before me, what you know how, who were the people, what kind of character they had, and everything that went into what made me the person I am today," she said.
She plans to share the information at family reunions and keep putting pieces of the puzzle in place until she creates a complete family picture.
"Once I do the test, I'll be on pins and needles and excited to find out what the results reveal," she said.

Copyright 2010 WIS. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.