Editor's note: This is based on a post on the authors' website.
“Did they own slaves?”
It’s day two of the RootsTech family history conference, and I’m getting some free advice from a professional genealogist in the new Coaches’ Corner. She’s giving me some tips to help find my grandmother’s family in Virginia.
“I don’t think so,” I reply. “They were too poor.”
“Well, everyone was poor after the (Civil) War,” she says. Since I haven’t been able to get past the late 1800s, it occurs to me that I really don’t know how my ancestors made a living antebellum. If they were landowners, the chances are good that they would have owned a plantation and owned other human beings.
I’m not sure how to feel about this. I thank her and go back to our vendor booth, deep in thought.
Day three: I get to the Salt Palace early to get a VIP seat for the day’s keynote address by actor LeVar Burton. My inner geek girl is pretty excited ("Star Trek"! "Reading Rainbow"!) and as I take note of the large, diverse crowd I remember that it is African Heritage Day at RootsTech. Burton is introduced and, looking dignified and a bit older than his press photo that adorns the giant screens, he walks to the podium.
What follows is decidedly different from the usual entertaining, often humorous RootsTech keynotes. Burton is professorial and serious. He stands behind the podium rather than pacing the huge stage, and reads a prepared speech. But he is a consummate storyteller, and it is riveting.
He does talk about "Star Trek," not to reveal snappy anecdotes, but instead relates how, as a child, seeing characters of color in the original "Star Trek" taught him that “there was a place for me when the future came.”
Because this is RootsTech, he talks about his family. And about his ancestry, which he cannot do without bringing up slavery in America. He shows a scene from the groundbreaking 1977 TV miniseries "Roots," in which he played the slave Kunta Kinte, who was whipped until he said his newly given name, Toby. Forty years later, the scene is still disturbing and powerful. The audience is completely still. I dig a Kleenex from my purse and offer one to a fellow blogger sitting to my right.
Burton concludes, “All of us truly stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us. Those willing to sacrifice and sweat and shed blood and even give that ultimate measure to ensure that their children and their children’s children might live in a world that values an individual not as a commodity to be bought and sold for labor, but as an accepted child of the Creator and worthy of the dignity and respect deserving of any human being.”
The audience rises to give a standing ovation. (Except for an older couple sitting to my left who have remained unmoved throughout.)
Thom Reed from FamilySearch comes on stage to surprise Burton with a leather-bound volume of genealogical research on his family. On the screens appear a photo of Burton’s grandmother and a document that shows the signature of his grandfather. Burton is visibly weeping, wiping his eyes with a large white hankie. As if he suddenly understands, he turns to the audience and calls out, “So this is what you folks are all doing here?!” The audience cheers in reply.
Next is a panel discussion with Melvin Collier and Sherri Camp, renowned African-American genealogists, and Kenyatta Berry, host of PBS’ "Genealogy Roadshow." They mention that they all have European as well as African DNA.
Panel moderator and journalist Nkoyo Iyamba said, “No matter what skin color we are, everyone in this room — we are connected.”
She is inspired to think that people who don’t look at all like her are potential cousins. She turns to the audience and says, “You could all be my relatives!” which elicits a cheer from the crowd.
“People have asked me, ‘Why are we still talking about slavery? At what point can we move on if we continue to tell these stories?’” (I wonder about the stonefaced couple.) “Please explain why that’s kind of a dangerous way of thinking,” Iyamba asked the panelists.
“It’s important for us to continually tell our stories," Camp said. "How will our children know who they are if we don’t tell our stories to them? How can we have a better world if we don’t know where we came from?” The audience applauds. I am grateful to the RootsTech team for sponsoring and supporting the idea that family history is cross-cultural and universal.
Later that day, as a RootsTech ambassador, I am able to interview Berry. I am mystified why anyone — especially anyone who would attend a conference about family history — would feel that we should just stop talking about painful or “inconvenient” ancestral stories. Just because it’s not our story? Would we say to a person of Irish extraction, “Enough about the potato famine already?” Or one whose Mormon pioneer ancestors were exiled and threatened with extermination, “Get over it, that happened a long time ago?”
“I feel tremendous pride in knowing that I am descended from survivors,” said Berry, who in addition to hosting a television show is also an accredited genealogical researcher, lawyer and entrepreneur. “The fact that I am here means that my ancestors survived slavery, where many more didn’t. I come from a long line of strong-willed people.”
Another ambassador tells Berry that ever since she discovered that her own ancestors were slave owners, she's been disturbed by that piece of her family history. “How do we talk about that?” she asks.
“You may feel shame about it, but we don’t,” Berry replied. “We want to have that conversation because it’s through your records that we can find our people.”
She encouraged her to record and share online what she finds so it can be found by those searching for their African heritage. Berry laughs, “If you feel guilty about what your ancestors did, that’s how you can make up for it.”
My mind is spinning. If I do find out that my ancestors owned slaves, I can’t say that I would personally feel guilty about it, or about the fact that my Scottish ancestors were brutal, war-mongering cattle thieves. It’s all a part of history. And knowing their stories — whether they be villain, hero or something in between — makes me a richer person. I resolve, inspired by Berry’s words, to share whatever I find.
What makes me so passionate about family history is that feeling of connection that goes beyond my tight circle of family and friends. What infects me with this “genealogy bug” is the constant reminder that I am part of a larger family, a human family. This connection is a cure for loneliness and hate. We are all children of our Heavenly Father, equal in his eyes, and all of our stories matter to him. Our stories, even if different than our own, should matter to each other.
Tom and Alison Taylor have helped hundreds of people, businesses and towns tell their stories in books and video. They are authors of the book “How to Save Your Life, One Chapter at a Time.” Their blog is at picturesandstories.com.