Young Black Students at U.S. Genealogy Camp Trace Their Roots
Jameel Reese expected to spend his summer swimming, hanging out and goofing off with friends. Instead, he spent it finding family.
Reese discovered his great, great, great grandfather by — of all things — going to camp. He and six other Black children ages 7 to 15 attended Youth Genealogy Camp, which seeks to nurture an appreciation for the struggles of those who came before them.
“He was trained to be a casket maker while he was still a slave,” the soft-spoken 12-year-old says of his ancestor. “He was sold when he was 11. He must have cried a lot then.”
The month-long day camp is the brainchild of Antoinette Harrell-Miller, founder of the nonprofit African-American Genealogy Connection.
“So many kids have no idea of their own history,” she says. “They don’t stop and think about how their family got here or how they lived.”
The campers pored over records in the library and The Amistad Research Center at Tulane University. They also visited cemeteries and older family members and went to parish courthouses.
They dug through birth and death certificates, deeds, registrations and voting lists.
“We took them to federal and state offices so they could learn how to get records,” Harrell-Miller says. “The thrust of the camp was to teach them how and where to get information.”
Younger campers, who might have struggled with some of the more difficult searches, were asked to bring pictures of relatives from home.
Akanke McKinsey, 10, says she thought the camp might be boring, but it wasn’t: “It was like reading a story about me,” she says.
Akanke proudly displayed a picture of a 1910 federal grand jury that shows her ancestor Homer Cyprien. “He was the first Black man invited to sit on a federal grand jury in Louisiana,” she says.
Discoveries like that, and the sense of family history they give a child, are important for the city of New Orleans, says Mayor Ray Nagin.
“This may be one of the keys for unlocking what is one of the biggest problems in our city,” he says. “Our young men, more than anyone else, need to know their history. They are the ones dropping out of school and getting into drugs and crime and shooting each other.”
Harrell-Miller says she plans to welcome White campers next summer. She says it is easier for people with European ancestors to trace their genealogy because records have been better preserved.
— Associated Press
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