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By Rick A. Kittles, Ph.D., co-founder of African Ancestry, Inc.

     While it may be surprising to some, most African Americans know very little about their ancestry. I am one of the tens of millions descended from enslaved Africans in America. Like many others, I grew up wondering where in Africa my ancestors came from. So, I began my search, which included DNA analysis. For most African Americans, this search is not recreational, but an important question that produces strong emotions.

     Given the tragic period of slavery in American history, one wonders why some may be surprised that African Americans go on such quests for “Roots.”  Strong public interest and emotion surrounded Alex Haley’s book and subsequent movie by that same title thirty years ago. Similar emotions were stirred after the PBS special “African American Lives,” which detailed the tracing of family genealogy and ancestry using both traditional records searching and new DNA technology. Oprah Winfrey, who at the time thought she was South African Zulu, was quite surprised that her maternal lineage was not Zulu but was common among the Kpelle people in Liberia, West Africa.

     As a result of Haley’s book and film, many African Americans suffered from “Roots envy,” a term coined by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who is a Harvard professor and producer of the acclaimed “African American Lives.” However, for most African Americans, it is very difficult to succeed as Haley did in tracing their family history to Africa.

     Because of the American slavery system, significant aspects of the history, identity and culture of enslaved Africans were essentially effaced and lost to succeeding generations. These lost histories have simply come to be gaps in the historical record. When African Americans, including myself, attempt to trace our family history using traditional methods we hit a wall at the antebellum south.

     Tony Burroughs, an expert genealogist, states that “records of births and deaths during the period of slavery are substandard at least and non-existent in most cases.” Things are improving however with recent public releases of federal census records pertinent to African American genealogy. Additionally, DNA has proven to be an ideal resource to supplement historical documents and possibly extend the African-American search for African ancestry. DNA testing for ancestry is seen by some to be controversial, especially as it relates to African Americans and their longstanding need to re-connect with particular African communities disrupted during the transatlantic slave trade......



"If we stand tall, it is because we stand on the shoulders of many ancestors."
African (Yoruba) proverb

     “He was a slave.” Those words uttered from Grandma’s lips and into the ears of her curious grandson. My paternal grandmother, the late Mrs. Willie Ealy Collier, had just gotten off the telephone with her first cousin. Like many of my childhood days, that day I was spending time with my grandparents, and I quietly eavesdropped on her telephone conversation with “Cut’n Dunk” Ealy. They were conversing about their paternal grandfather, Robert “Big Bob” Ealy of Leake County, Mississippi. I overheard statements like, “Grandpa Bob was something else!,” “Grandpa had over thirty children,” and “Grandma Jane was this . . . and Grandma Jane was that . . .” Never before had I heard my grandmother talk about her grandparents. After anxiously waiting for her telephone conversation to end, I bombarded her with questions. I wanted to know about the subject of her conversation.

     Grandma relayed things about my great-great-grandfather she had never shared with me before. Why? I had never asked until then. Grandpa Bob was born into slavery in Nash County, North Carolina around 1814. According to my grandmother, he was transported to Mississippi by his enslaver, “Masser Billy” Eley, who used him as a breeder or “stud.” I was fifteen years old when Grandma shared this with me. That was one of the early indications that I would grow to have an undying interest in my history. Learning about slavery was important, but personalizing history with my own ancestors made history even more intriguing.

     One of the highlights of my childhood, which excited me much more than my sister, was my mother’s annual trips to her hometown church, Beulah Baptist Church in northern Panola County, Mississippi, nearly 150 miles north of my hometown, Canton. This was probably another early indication that family history would become vastly important to me. Every third Sunday in May, Beulah Church held a special day called “Homecoming Day” that was attended by many present and past church members from far and near. Other than the normal holiday visits with my mother’s siblings and their children, this was the only other time during my early childhood when I saw groups of people who looked like my mother. These great people were blood relatives, and the trips back to her hometown reinforced the fact that my maternal roots ran deep.

     My passion for African-American history began to truly evolve at the age of nineteen, when I first visited the Mississippi Department of Archives and History to start researching my family tree. African-American genealogy does not or should not only involve just a mere collection of names, places, and dates within one’s family. Similar to Carter G. Woodson’s analogy relating to Black History, genealogy research for me is a historical study of my own family, arriving at a reasonable and analytic interpretation of the facts that incorporated the Black experience – from pre-colonial Africa, to the Maafa (Middle Passage), through American chattel slavery, Reconstruction, the Black Migration, the Civil Rights era, and up to the present. This became an everlasting, passionate journey.

     This passionate journey has resulted in me writing this book. A number of great genealogy books are on the market today. Therefore, I did not want this book to be just another how-to book. My goal is to provide readers with a genealogical model, presenting the research of my maternal grandmother’s family with comprehensible explanations of how a southern, African-American family was traced back seven generations, from Mississippi to South Carolina, with definitive clues uncovering West African ties, validated by DNA testing. During this journey of discovery, the African retentions that prevailed in the family during slavery for several generations were also revealed which reflected my family’s persistence in maintaining their African ancestral customs. Uncovering these African retentions served as an integral part of successfully bridging the gap between America and West Africa.

     In researching my grandmother’s family, many amazing things were unearthed.....


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