Sharpton case drives more to find roots on Web site
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While it may not have had the same impact as Alex Haley's discovery of Kunta Kinte, the recently discovered Al Sharpton/Strom Thurmond connection has more people shaking the branches of their family trees.Al Sharpton
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Historian seeks immigrants to recount Ellis Island experiences
"You just never know what you're going to find when you go looking," said Megan Smolenyak, chief family historian for Ancestry.com.
Ms. Smolenyak traced the Rev. Sharpton's family tree and found that some of his ancestors had been owned by the ancestors of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond of North Carolina. Before the story broke, 7,000 new family trees a day on average were added to Ancestry.com. Afterward, that number surged to an average of 46,000 new family trees a day.
Just last month, Ancestry.com launched an African-American Historical Records Collection, aimed at helping black genealogists trying to piece together their family histories.
Some of the records in the collection were already available on the Web site, but some are new, including U.S. Colored Troops Records; Freedmen's Bureau Records; and a Photo Collection.
Other records that are part of the collection are Freedman's Bank Records; World War I Draft Cards; and U.S. Census Records, which have a special filter that would allow people to search using the terms black, colored or mulatto, common categories during those periods of time.Strom Thurmond
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"I think they're really important because of the accessibility," Ms. Smolenyak said of the records in the collection. "Having them all in one centralized place is nice. It gives you a running start."
Tony Burroughs, a prominent African-American historian and genealogist, agrees.
"One of the real advantages of some of these new records coming online is heretofore you had to get on a plane and fly to Washington, D.C., and look at those records."
Ms. Smolenyak said she used the African-American collection as well as other records available via the Web site to do the bulk of her research on the Rev. Sharpton's family. Then she used local records and libraries.
While the new records provide exciting tools for researching family history, both Mr. Burroughs and Ms. Smolenyak caution newbies to do their homework before jumping into the collection.
Genealogists always advise family historians to talk to their relatives first to get as much information and as many names as possible.
"The more they know about genealogy and understand genealogy, the more they'll be able to take advantage of the resources," Mr. Burroughs said.
Ancestry.com used some of the records in the collection to research the family trees of a number of famous African-Americans.
For example in 1870, 13-year-old Daniel Pinkett, the great-great-grandfather of actress Jada Pinkett Smith, could not read or write. That information was gleaned from the 1870 U.S. Census. Ten years later, Daniel could not only read and write but also taught school, according to the 1880 census.
Actor Denzel Washington's grandfather, William Washington, was born on New Year's Day in 1875, making him nearly 44 years old when he filled out and signed a World War I draft registration card in September 1918. When jazz great Duke Ellington filled out his World War I draft card, the then-19-year-old listed his occupation as messenger for the U.S. government. On his World War I draft card, Louis Armstrong, 18 at the time, listed his occupation as "musician."
Freedman's Bank Records indicate that Frederick Douglass' son Lewis made a $1,500 deposit into his father's account in January 1871. Mr. Douglass had served as the president of the Freedman's Bank during Reconstruction.
The Freedman's Bank and the Freedmen's Bureau were separate institutions that happened to share a similar name, Mr. Burroughs said.
The bank was started after the Civil War by a group of philanthropists. There were 36 branches, and anyone in the community could put money in the bank. In some branches, 30 percent of the depositors were white, according to Mr. Burroughs. He said the records included a lot of personal information, such as wife's name, siblings, regiment in the military and whether the person was a former slave owner, so a person could prove it was his account.
"A few indicate the name of a former slave owner," Mr. Burroughs said. "If you're lucky enough to find the name of a former slave owner it's like real pay dirt."
The Freedmen's Bureau was like a social service agency, established to assist former slaves and others fleeing the ravages of the Civil War.
The bureau issued rations, set up hospitals, sent medical care into the field and helped former slaves who had served in the war to get their pensions.
The bureau also managed property that had been confiscated during the war and set aside a certain amount for African-Americans, Mr. Burroughs said.
"They could lease the land with an option to buy up to 40 acres," he said. "Some blacks did receive that land and still own it today."
Ancestry.com offers a free online family tree service. There is a Family Tree and Connections Membership for $19.95 a year. For a limited time, the Web site is offering a U.S. Deluxe Membership for $19.95 a month or $99 a year and a World Membership for $24.95 or $149 a year. Regular prices are $10 more per month.
First Published March 13, 2007 12:00 am