Expert says to expect the unexpected

Tony Burroughs of Chicago recommends using several sources of information when researching genealogy.
Tony Burroughs of Chicago recommends using several sources of information when researching genealogy.

Researching genealogy can mean finding anything - sometimes in terms that leave nothing to the imagination.

As Tony Burroughs, an African-American genealogy expert from Chicago, ended his seminar at the Main Branch of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library yesterday, he listed occupations he found on the 1850 U.S. Census.

"Prostitute" and "Pimp" drew chuckles from the audience of almost 70 people.

"Does nothing" elicited outright laughter.

And the audience howled when Mr. Burroughs flashed a Census form on the screen that listed under remarks: "Old hag refused to answer."

"Those are your people," said Mr. Burroughs, a full-time genealogist who wrote Black Roots: A Beginners Guide to Tracing the African American Family Tree.

And those aren't the most stunning Census and National Archives notations he's found, he said after his speech. He knows of an early Census record that used an obscenity as a verb for a woman's occupation, which is just one example of such finds.

"Now can you imagine if that's someone's ancestor?" he asked.

A main point of his day-long program, however, might temper anyone pulling up such a record.

Time and again Mr. Burroughs cautioned his audience, which was mainly African-American women, not to take any information as fact until they see it on different types of records.

"You need to analyze information," said Mr. Burroughs, who was brought to Toledo by the library's Legacy Foundation. "Don't just accept it. You need to analyze it."

Death certificates, for instance, are notorious for incorrect information.

Informants, wracked with grief and worried about arranging a funeral and preparing for out-of-town guests, often make mistakes when they're asked detailed historical questions for such forms.

Census records were sometimes made by getting information from neighbors or a child if no adults were at home when the Census takers made their rounds.

Even the basic information on cemetery markers is sometimes wrong.

"Just because it's engraved in stone doesn't mean it's true," Mr. Burroughs said.

He had an appreciative audience for those points.

Barbara Richardson of central Toledo said that in researching her genealogy she's been amazed to find numerous mistakes and omissions in her own children's birth certificates, which she had not noticed when they were born.

Mr. Burroughs balanced his warnings against putting faith in any one record with encouragements of just how many records are available - even for African-Americans whose genealogical quests are often more difficult than for other groups.

The crowd oohed and ahhed when Mr. Burroughs told how he had gone to a funeral home, asked for a copy of all its original records regarding the person he was researching, and was given a list of the people in the funeral procession and their relationship to the deceased, far more information than he had anticipated. And he urged researchers who are told there are no records regarding their ancestor to ask lots of questions. Government clerks, for instance, might not know that records for African-Americans were kept in separate files at some points in history in some offices.

Likewise, Mr. Burroughs advised conducting thorough interviews with the living.

When he learned from public records that one of his ancestors had a previous marriage, he asked a relative why she had never told him. She replied that he had never asked. So "Ask!" he told the crowd.

Mr. Burroughs, who teaches a genealogy class at Chicago State University, traces his own interest in genealogy back to the 1960s, when he was a student at Southern Illinois University. The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley was a best-seller, and Mr. Haley was invited to speak on campus.

But instead of talking about Malcolm X, Mr. Haley spoke about the work he was doing for Roots. It was the first time Mr. Burroughs recalls hearing about genealogy.

Then about six years later, Mr. Burroughs read a newspaper article about genealogy that immediately reminded him of his great interest in Mr. Haley's lecture. The article struck him so intently that he remembers the exact day he read it: Thanksgiving, 1975.

Genealogy became a hobby and grew into such a passion that about 15 years ago Mr. Burroughs took an "extremely significant" pay cut to quit his computer consulting work and become a full-time genealogist.

"It's the most fascinating thing I've ever done," he said.

Contact Jane Schmucker at:

or 419-337-7780.