Roots hunter Kenyatta Denise Berry will share some of her secrets on Saturday at the 11th annual African American Family History Seminar in Sacramento. Berry co-hosts the PBS series “Genealogy Roadshow,” which attracts an average of 1.5 million viewers per episode.
Berry is the past president of the Association of Professional Genealogists. She has helped Americans trace their roots back to outlaws, gamblers, rum runners, war heroes and slaves. Her specialty is tracing the roots of black Americans back to slavery days, helping them break through what she calls the “1870 brick wall,” referring to the first federal census where former slaves were enumerated.
A lawyer who morphed into a genealogist while taking a break from studying torts and contracts, Berry, 43, says that while others go out on Friday nights, she’s at home playing detective, searching through old records. “I love going to cemeteries, I love looking at census records,” she said.
Q: Why has genealogy research taken off?
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
A: Genealogy is now the No. 2 hobby in America. Media, technology and DNA testing are changing the way you do research. Our show has been on the air since 2013, and the new season starts Tuesday, May 17, on PBS. Also popular are “Who Do You Think You Are” and “Finding Your Roots.”
DNA testing has become more accurate. Now you have the autosomal test of 23 numbered chromosomes, which can tell you your percentage of sub-Saharan African, European, Asian, Native American and Jewish ancestry from both sides of the family. Three of the companies that offer DNA testing are Ancestry.com, Family Tree DNA, and 23 and Me. Each test costs about $99. My DNA shows I’m 44 percent Ivory Coast and Ghana; 17 percent southeastern Bantu; 11 percent Nigerian, 7 percent British and 3 percent Irish. I’m still trying to figure that out. My maternal grandmother’s maiden name was Murphy. The British is not surprising because my ancestors were slaves in Virginia, which was settled by the British.
Q: Tell us about the increasing focus on African American roots.
A: Identity is so important. With African Americans, it’s more important in a sense because of the history of slavery. There are no ship manifests for slaves; the slavers didn’t care about their names. African Americans in pre-census records are only identified by their first name; they don’t have a surname attached. There are some plantation records, but you have to find out who was the last owner, then you can find records related to which slaves were bought or sold and their first names.
I’m told it’s similar to Holocaust genealogy. How do you trace someone forced from their homes into concentration camps or sold into slavery? But slaves didn’t always take the name of their master.
There’s a piece of African Americans that’s missing. There’s a void, and finding their ancestors fills a void. When you find them, you tend to be touched by that person; they’re not just a name on a piece of paper. It has to do with the tale of survival through horrific conditions. You could be taken away from your family at a whim. We’re here because our ancestors had the will to survive slavery. It’s only been 150 years since slavery was abolished.
Q: What have you learned about your own roots?
A: I have ancestors that lived past 100 on my mother’s side. A lot of it’s genetic, and they take care of themselves. We’ve always watched what we eat and how much we eat, and we remain active and alert. There was literally no smoking on my mother’s side. My great-great-great-aunt Delilah Bundy Lewis was born in 1870, married a man born during the Civil War in Virginia and died in 1972. My great-grandmother Johnnie Berry lived to be 104, didn’t smoke, never drank and still recognized me up until the day she died. My 5th-great-grandfather Peter Paine was born a slave in 1790 in Madison County, Va., and died a slave. For me, it’s a continual journey to fill all the branches on the tree. I have 5,000 people on my tree, and every day I’m finding something new.
Q: Which roots search stands out?
A: Chicago-area mystery writer Gail Lukasik found some records that showed her mother had African American roots, but (her mother) denied and denied it and finally said, “It’s true, I grew up in Louisiana and had some African American ancestry, but you have to keep the secret until I die.”
When Lukasik came on the show, she thought her grandfather was African American, and then learned her grandmother was African American, too. Lukasik’s mother had passed for white and cut off an entire branch of her family. Gail’s father didn’t even know. Lukasik also didn’t know her grandpa remarried and had four kids – African American half siblings her mother has never met. People who come to the workshop can learn some of the challenges African Americans face and how to overcome those challenges. You never know what you’re going to find when you look into your family history. You’ve got to be ready, whether it’s good, bad or indifferent.
Saturday’s event at 2745 Eastern Ave. in Sacramento will last from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and is open to everyone. Registration is required. For more information, go to aafhs.com, or contact Sharon Styles at 916-275-8084 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sources for genealogy
1. Oral history – Interview your older relatives first
2. Funeral programs
3. Family records, such as insurance and military papers
4. Wills or probate records
4. Family Bibles often contain birth, marriage and death data
5. Photos – Check names, dates and places on backs of all photos
6. Family reunions are great for gathering family history
7. Cemeteries reveal new family members or relationships
8. County clerks in smaller courthouses will often help locate records