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From the Archives

African-American family histories can be difficult to come by, but rewarding to find.

For African-Americans, researching genealogy can be a frustrating prospect. During the time of slavery, an individual’s last name may or may not have changed after being sold from one owner to another. Because slaves were often legally banned from marrying each other, a married couple might not have the same last name; then again, they might not. Free blacks were frequently in court trying to get permission for all manor of activities, so court records can be a wealth of information. But wading through them is tedious and frustrating. After slavery, records become increasingly difficult to find as African Americans were marginalized and segregated out of many archives.

“I never said this was going to be easy,” said Char McCargo Bah, a Stafford-based genealogist who led a recent class on African-American ancestry last week at the Barrett Branch Library. “You are going to have to get in the habit of looking at the neighborhood.”

Bah, a native Alexandrian and professional genealogist, has years of expertise on researching African-American families. She is the historian for the Virginia Genealogical Society and a longtime member of the D.C. Genealogical Society’s executive board. She has written articles for a wealth of publications, and she frequently appears on television giving advice to African Americans in search of their lost ancestors. Her advice: Learn as much about their neighborhood as you can.

“Sometimes you have to do the genealogy of a whole neighborhood to find your people,” she told a handful of attendees who braved a rainstorm to learn about research techniques. “When someone disappears off of the tax records, they are probably dead.”

KNOWING THE TRICKS of digging through an archive is important to anyone who has ever tried to find out more about their mother’s mother or that uncle nobody knew much about. Bah’s lecture featured documents from her own family’s history, including vital records reporting births, marriages and deaths. One of the best places to start, she said, was census records. The Barrett Branch Library has complete census records going back hundreds of years, many of which include extremely specific detail about individuals and their professions.

“Sometimes people don’t realize that census records tell a story,” said Bah. “They are like a face.”

Bah explained that social customs surrounding African Americans dictated how their vital records were kept, so researchers must know as much as they can about the period they are digging into. Slaves often took the last name of their owners, but not always — so researchers should not assume who an owner is because of a slave’s last name. Any child born to a female slave was automatically a slave, and women slaves were worth half as much as most male slaves. Those with specialized training were worth much more, and researchers should be mentally prepared to see a price tag next to an ancestor’s name.

“You can get kind of angry when you see this kind of a thing,” she told attendees of the free session. “But after a while you start to ask questions and understand that it’s an important source of information about these people’s lives and their backgrounds.”

PEELING AWAY THE layers of archival material reveals a complicated history for African Americans in Virginia, whose first census in 1619 showed 18 “Negro men” and 17 “Negro women.” In August 1619, John Rolfe noted that “about the latter end of August, A Dutch man of Warr … brought not anything but 20 odd Negroes which the Governor and Capt. Merchant brought for victualle.”

Since that time the story of African Americans in Virginia has been a tale of tragedy and triumph, with African American genealogists shining an important light on families and their descendants.

“My parents and grandparents always said it was important to know your people,” said Karen White, a member of the D.C. Genealogical Society who attended Bah’s class last week. “So history has always been something that’s important to me.”

During Bah’s lecture, those in attendance learned that ancestors are a great source of medical history — especially for African Americans concerned about sickle-cell disease, an inherited blood disorder that affects red blood cells. She explained that one neighborhood she researched near a tobacco factory had an unusually high number of cancer deaths, an environmental phenomenon that has important consequences for their descendants. Some of the best records were kept by wealthy and literate men such as Virginia luminary Peyton Randolph, whose records are invaluable to researchers and historians of the period.

“His manuscript was a jewel,” she said. “He kept very detailed records.”

One of the best ways to get information about your family members is by interviewing the living ones, she said. To demonstrate how much information could be extracted from a simple interview, she explained about her great uncle, who was a bootlegger. Because he was always on the run from the law, he knew where all of his relatives lived and how they were related.

“People who are in their 90s today knew people who had been slaves,” she said. “So they are a great resource.”

BAH MAY BE the most recognized person in the field of African-American genealogy. Last year, she was a panelist for a public-television series about researching slaves. A forthcoming anthology titled “Every Day Grace, Every Day Miracle” includes a short story she wrote. She has contributed to 12 family narrative stories in the “Halifax Heritage Book,” and she is currently working on two family histories.

“She’s probably the most televised genealogist in history,” said George Combs, branch manager of special collections. “When you see her in an upcoming episode of the PBS series ‘History Detectives,’ you might recognize the background because it was filmed here.”

Leslie Morales, a reference librarian at the Barrett Branch, said that she was pleased by the interest in the topic of African-American genealogy. Because researching people who were once considered chattel property poses so many problems, she said, many people give up. That’s one of the reasons why she led a four-year effort to publish a five-volume work titled “Virginia Slave Births Index,” which documents more than 130,000 enslaved Virginians who were born between 1853 and 1865 — about 300 of whom were born in Alexandria and Fairfax County. The first volume was released last month, and the subsequent four volumes will be released later this year.

“In a way, this index honors the people who lived during this time in our history,” said Morales. “It gives them a time and a place.”