By Sylvia Wong Lewis, First of a 3-part series
The woman searching through the rubble of her destroyed Staten Island home after Storm Sandy still haunts me. The news report showed her clinging a drenched wedding photo with a glazed, bewildered look. Like many Storm Sandy survivors, I had post-Katrina flashbacks. Grateful to have survived but thinking about legacy—family photos, letters, keepsakes—all elements of my family genealogy.
Genealogy is taken from the Greek – genea– generation, logos-knowledge. It is the study of family descent. Vital statistics, oral history, photos, letters and family stories all play important roles.
Why do genealogy? The answer is simple: to learn your family history. “You must know where you come from to know where you going,” our elders told us. However, once you get started, your search becomes complex and personal. When I first started, I was obsessed with slavery. I also wanted to learn more my family’s migration-immigration story. Recently, I discovered new details about my Caribbean, Chinese, and Native ancestors. Mostly, I want to make a mark for my family and to empower the younger generation who seek answers.
Was it intuition that motivated my “genie buddy” Bernice, an expert genealogist, to click a photo of her great grandmother’s picture hanging on a wall in her New Orleans home? She also cleared a dresser drawer. “Maybe it was a premonition. But Katrina hit the next day and destroyed everything. Had I not taken a picture of a picture of my great-grandmother or collected those old items, I would have nothing,” said Bernice Bennett, host of popular genealogy radio show National Archives and Beyond. (http://www.blogtalkradio.com/bernicebennett)
The items from the old drawer were priceless—her grandmother’s 1929-’33 school transcripts, an original hand-written obituary for great-grandmother written by her sister, letters from her son during WWll, an original property deed, her dad’s Army discharge papers, her parent’s marriage license, her mother’s school records, and lots of photos of her mom and girl friends hanging out Washing DC. during the 40s.
“When you find real records like that, it’s a treasure trove. You get a guide to their life— addresses, names, details, all of these items tell a story that you would never find from the Census,” said Bernice.
How do you start your family’s genealogy? To trace your ancestors, start with yourself. Here are some basic steps:
· Make a family tree by listing everyone in the family. Organize kin branches. Find a “genie buddy,” someone who shares your genealogy passion.
· lnterview elders, cousins, and extended family to get names, births, deaths, marriages, baptisms. Be open to discovery.
· Ask your elders about the details of their lives: work, daily life, culture, neighborhood, religion, traditions, celebrations, food, school and family stories. Document their oral history on video, photograph and audio.
· Educate yourself about resources: Ancestry.com, Family History Centers, National Archives. Attend workshops, conferences. Take DNA tests.
· Ask yourself some questions: What do you want to know? What do you know? The key is to get started and think of it as a journey. Your ancestors are waiting to be found. They left footprints for you to follow. Happy searching!