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Published: Monday, 2/11/2013

Tracing ancestry a formidable task

Data sparse for many black Americans

BY VANESSA McCRAY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Ron Jackson shows his family Bible. The family tree was entered by his grandmother, Irene Jackson Leak, who married Warnie Leak in Napoleon in 1939. Ron Jackson shows his family Bible. The family tree was entered by his grandmother, Irene Jackson Leak, who married Warnie Leak in Napoleon in 1939.
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Ron Jackson wove the threads of names and dates he pulled from census data, marriage records, and the family Bible to reconstruct lost history.

His quest unraveled details of his family’s background and revealed a few surprises.

Mr. Jackson, 71, of Toledo began his research around 2000, and participates in Journey, a program of the African American Legacy Project of Northwest Ohio that connects and supports genealogists. The former Toledo police deputy chief of investigation knows how to follow clues, but this search was personal.

“It’s a tremendous mystery, and the information is probably just as hard, if not harder, to uncover as ... a very difficult, intense investigation, especially with minority families,” he said.

Local African-Americans who have delved deep into their family’s past said the research, while sometimes difficult, provides important perspective and gives future generations a sense of their history.

“One obvious observation is that African-Americans being descendants of slaves in this country and having ancestors coming to this country against their will gives us kind of a strange relationship or a strange understanding of our place in the community,” said Gary Franklin, an active member of the Journey group who researched his family back to the mid-1700s.

A family portrait taken at Walbridge Park in Toledo shows Ron Jackson's mother, Elizabeth Jackson, with her two children, Beverly, left, and Ron, in the summer of 1941. A family portrait taken at Walbridge Park in Toledo shows Ron Jackson's mother, Elizabeth Jackson, with her two children, Beverly, left, and Ron, in the summer of 1941.
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Mr. Franklin, the son of late Lucas County Common Pleas Court Judge Robert Franklin, Jr., said it’s especially key for African-American youth to know their genealogy because it gives them “a sense of their ancestors’ contributions.”

“We had a communal and legal system that was designed to keep African-Americans marginalized, yet the growth and expansion of this country was largely dependent on the work of those very same people,” he said.

Death records, census data, court documents, and city directories offer valuable troves of information. But roadblocks can frustrate researchers trying to tie together family history from sparse, difficult-to-decipher, or sometimes nonexistent documentation. That can be especially true for African-Americans researching their roots.

A search of early Toledo death records kept on microfilm in the Local History and Genealogy Department of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library illustrates the obstacles. One handwritten listing for a July, 1859, death of a 40-year-old African-American laborer lists the man’s name only as Bart.

Shirley Green, deputy mayor for public safety and personnel, earned her doctorate in history from Bowling Green State University and has encountered such “brick walls” while researching.

“You can tell if a person was a person of color by the fact that some information was missing,” said Ms. Green, another member of the Journey group.

Old marriage records for a black bride and groom may not list the couple’s parents’ names, a customary step for those of European descent, she said. Slavery-era records may omit last names, and in later years African-Americans may change their names.

Researchers feel rewarded when they uncover something significant.

Mr. Jackson said his family didn’t talk about their history, so his search started with the basics. He learned he had a half-brother who lived in Indianapolis. Mr. Jackson had the chance to get to know him before his death.

Ron Jackson found his grandmother and step-grandfather's marriage license. Ron Jackson found his grandmother and step-grandfather's marriage license.
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Mr. Jackson also traced his family’s arrival in Toledo to 1925.

Through historical sleuthing, hunch following, talking to family, and traveling to the locations where documents are kept, he tracked his grandmother as she moved from Paducah, Ky., to Michigan City, Ind., and then to Toledo’s east side more than 80 years ago.

Street directories and school records provide important dates, but don’t fill in all the gaps. Mr. Jackson isn’t certain what brought his grandmother and her children to northwest Ohio. He assumes, like many African-Americans who migrated north around that time, her move was work-related.

He was able to go back even further into his family’s history, finding information about his great-grandfather Anderson McClure, who was born before the Civil War, in 1846. He worked for the railroad, and Mr. Jackson found documentation listing him as a Tennessee voter in 1891 but has been unable to obtain a death certificate.

A family Bible includes information that backs up some of the other details he had gathered from other records.

The Journey genealogy group supports each other in their searches and shares helpful tips, Mr. Jackson said. Mr. Franklin’s advice to those who want to track their genealogy is simple: Start with yourself.

“Document yourself, your parents, your grandparents and as far back as you can go that way,” he said.

The Journey group welcomes new members and meets at 1 p.m. on the second Saturday of most months at the African American Legacy Project, 2321 Upton Ave.

The legacy project’s Robert Smith said the organization will move to 1326 Collingwood Blvd. in the coming months, and the new space will feature a small family search center to assist research.

“It is incredibly important to know who you are,” Mr. Smith said.

“The goal is to be able to house and lodge all this information so future generations will be able to understand how they evolved.”

Contact Vanessa McCray at: vmccray@theblade.com or 419-724-6065.



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