In it, his grandmother, who was just a toddler at the time, sits on the top of the steps of an old log cabin. Fading and yellowed with age, the photo fascinated him. “The questions just immediately flew out of my mouth,” recalls Johnson. He wanted to know why her house looked like that, and who the people were all around her.
At the time, he didn’t know what “genealogy” was, but this photo stoked his interest in history, family, and more. Today, as a reference specialist in African American genealogy at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., he helps guide others who are looking to connect with their past.
Johnson believes that learning about those who came before us can help us feel grounded in our lives and invested in making informed choices. In fact, through his research, he has even learned things about his family’s health history that have helped him make better choices for his own wellness. He wishes more people – especially African Americans, like him – would get to know their past. “I think documenting your family history gives you a connection to your past, and you’re less likely to jeopardize some of the things your ancestors did to get you where you are today,” he says. “There are some fascinating stories out there, especially in African American families because of some of the struggles, triumphs, and things they overcame.”
For some families, however, tracing their history can be challenging. Until 1870, African Americans weren’t a part of federal records, including the United States Census. Johnson, who has written a guide offering genealogy resources from the Library of Congress, shared these tips on how African Americans can get started in connecting with their ancestors.
Start with yourself. Many of the people who ask Johnson for advice say they want to start by researching a grandparent or great grandparent. Instead, he says, they should begin with themselves. In other words, chart your family tree so you have many branches to choose from. “Each of us have two parents and then four grandparents and then eight great-grandparents, and then it goes up exponentially the further you go up the tree,” he explains. “If you get stuck on one line, simply go to the other and see if you can make the connection somewhere else further up the tree.”
Talk to your relatives. The easiest way to learn information about your family is to ask questions. Johnson suggests starting with the oldest living person in your family and interviewing him or her (you can use a free app on your cell phone to record it). Ask them about anything you’re curious to know. “When you’re African American, again, the records aren’t as plentiful. You just never know what’s going to be something that’s important, so just start asking questions,” he says. Here are some questions Johnson suggests starting with:
- Where were you born?
- What were your mother’s and father’s names?
- Where were they born?
- What were your siblings’ names?
- Where did you grow up?
- What church and/or school did you attend?
- What is your oldest memory?
- What’s the name of the oldest family member you can remember?
- What do you remember from your childhood?
- What was your favorite toy?
Consider public and private organizations that could have information. Think about the details you know about family members and consider where records might exist with more data. “Most of the information is going to be where they lived,” says Johnson. Check with county courthouses, state archives, church records, historical societies, and local genealogical societies. If slavery was in your family’s past, records of slave owners could be another source of information, although finding family members’ names can be a challenge. Slaves often took the last names of their owners, but then changed their names immediately upon emancipation, he explains.
In addition, the Library of Congress offers an array of online records that you can search for things like marriage records, cemetery records, tax records, city directories, and more; if you’re in Washington, D.C., the Library of Congress also offers extensive resources you can delve into in person – including free access to a subscription-based genealogy site, along with nearly 70,000 self-published family histories. You can also visit your local library to find out what search tools are available there.
Look for information related to your family’s health. Your family’s health history is wrapped up in your DNA. Keep that in mind as you do your research. Johnson says that information he found clued him into health information he never knew about. While reading an old newspaper article about his great grandfather, Hiram Haywood, who was a fireman, Johnson learned that he died of a stroke while on the job. He knew that his grandfather, who had the same name, also died of a stroke at age 91. It’s made him think differently about his health. “Now I know I have to take care of myself because strokes may run in my family,” he says.
Record what you learn about relatives and about your own life. As you compile stories from your family history, be sure and add insights about yourself. That way, when your grandchildren or great-grandchildren are curious about you, they can learn from the source. Johnson says that once you’ve written your family history, consider submitting it to the Library of Congress (here’s how). There’s no cost, and each submission can help preserve history for future generations.
When you get the “genealogy bug,” as Johnson calls this kind of research, it has a way of consuming you. “You’re following the breadcrumbs – you are an investigator,” he says. And it’s a journey that reminds us to be grateful for those who came before us (“Everything they did is for us now”) and respectful to those who will come after (“Everything we do is going to be for future generations”).
At the Library of Congress, Johnson works to help people so that they can make those connections themselves, and he hopes it makes a difference in their health and lifestyle choices. “I definitely feel a connection to my past, and I feel empowered and enriched knowing some of the things that I know about my family,” he says.