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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Steve Rockwood, president and CEO of FamilySearch, speaks to the crowd at RootsTech in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019.

SALT LAKE CITY — FamilySearch President and CEO Steve Rockwood stepped onto the main stage to thunderous applause and quickly made a promise to attendees at RootsTech 2019.

"We are going to have such a blast this week," Rockwood said. "You're about to feel some extremely strong emotions that are very unique to discovering, gathering and connecting your family. In the next few days you will connect to your homelands. You will connect to your families, both past and present. And in the process, you're also going to connect to each other."

RootsTech may also offer deep, abiding, meaningful impressions, he said.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Steve Rockwood, president and CEO of FamilySearch, speaks to the crowd at RootsTech in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019.

"My advice to you is follow those impressions. Act on them," Rockwood said. "Family history is not a spectator sport. Nothing really happens here until you act."

Thus began what many consider the largest family history conference in the world Wednesday at the Salt Palace Convention Center.

Rockwood's remarks were actually fairly short as he gave way to a video and a lineup of other speakers, culminating with Elder David A. Bednar, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, announcing the donation of $2 million to the International African American Museum Center for Family History in Charleston, South Carolina.

Before making the announcement, Elder Bednar also made a promise.

"I promise the things you will learn this week will enrich your life forever," he said.

Having supervised the work of the church in Africa for many years, Elder Bednar expressed his love for the people of African descent in that vast continent, as well as in the United States and the Caribbean. With the advent of genetic genealogy and DNA technology, it's exciting to see those of African ancestry discovering their roots in their homelands, he said.

Elder Bednar told the audience that FamilySearch is collecting oral histories of various ethnic and family groups in 15 nations in Africa. For example, in 2018, through more than 4,000 local contractors with native language abilities, over 44,000 interviews with village and clan leaders were conducted, resulting in 16.2 million names recorded that will be added to FamilySearch's database in the next five years, he said.

"And we're just getting started," Elder Bednar said. "We're doing our best to reconnect families who previously were disconnected by the transatlantic slave trade. We applaud Michael Moore and his team at the International African American Museum for their vision of reestablishing family connections and of restoring an appropriate sense of place in our world through the work they will do in the Center for Family History. We are inspired by their example and want to assist in making a vision a reality."

In recent years, initiatives like the 2001 Freedman's bank records database project and the 2016 Freedmen's Bureau project are two more examples of how the church is working with various partners to make more records freely accessible for those with African heritage in the United States.

"The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, through FamilySearch International, is making a concerted effort to help establish a bridge back to Africa so individuals can reclaim their African roots," Elder Bednar said.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Steve Rockwood, president and CEO of FamilySearch, speaks to the crowd at RootsTech in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019.

The video introduced the conference theme, "Connect.Belong," featuring a montage of scenes depicting families in all walks of life.

Following Rockwood's remarks, Elder Bradley D. Foster, a General Authority Seventy and the executive director of the Family History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, welcomed visitors to the "historic" conference.

Elder Foster introduced Michael B. Moore, the president and CEO of the International African American Museum, who spoke for several minutes about his vision of African-American genealogy at the museum, the history of the transatlantic slave trade in Charleston, South Carolina, and one of his ancestors, Robert Smalls.

"Those who landed there and their descendants, it will endeavor to tell of their incalculable sacrifices and contributions in the building in this country," Moore said. "So we will be telling this broad story about African-American history. But then in our Center for Family History, we will empower people to find their personal strand in that story and to personalize the broad history in very, very powerful ways."

Moore grew up listening to stories of Smalls, his great-great-grandfather, who stole a Confederate steamer and sailed past a federal blockade in Charleston Harbor to freedom. Smalls later fought in the Civil War for the Union as the captain of a ship and after the war served as a legislator and congressman, Moore said.

"In a very practical way, he bet everything he had on everything he dreamed of, and he won. He made it to freedom," Moore said. "I wouldn't be here if he hadn't achieved that."

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Moore also shared his tender experience of discovering his roots in the West Africa nation of Sierra Leone, where he was embraced as one of their own.

"At the ripe old age of 57, as I mentioned, I was adopted by this paramount chief and his wife and I found myself being an African prince," Moore said.

Moore summarized his message by telling genealogists and family historians that their work matters.

RootsTech will continue through Saturday at the Salt Palace Convention Center. For more information, visit RootsTech.org.