Each summer, particularly around the Fourth of July, the Washington area hosts hundreds of family reunions. While many of the families who reunite in the region have long established bonds built over generations, today, through technology, families are celebrating bonds created and maintained online.
According to Joyce Rose with the Howard University Department of Afro American Studies, family reunions gained mass appeal following the 1976 television hit series “Roots,” based upon the book penned by the late historian Alex Haley. This series’ depiction of an African-American family’s ability to trace its roots to a West African village served as inspiration for generations of Americans, of all races. “Roots” not only revealed a family’s ties to Africa, it also brought to light complicated relationships between people who found their way to America from places such as
Europe, Africa and Asia to create to create this melting pot of a nation.
One outgrowth of “Roots” was the increased interest in the study of genealogy, the science of family lineage and ancestry research. Traditionally, genealogical research has required tedious research and documentation using census records, birth and death certificates, and even plantation records. Many of these records are found in depositories in Washington, D.C., such as the Library of Congress, according to James Sweany, with the Library’s Local History & Genealogy Reading Room.
“Until recent years, most researchers who wished to access the Library of Congress’ vast resources had to visit the library in person,” he said. “However, many of our library’s records have been digitized and made available on our website (loc.gov).”
Recently, public interest in genealogy has been reignited through social media sites, family research portals, and even TV shows. These media have made the craft of family research easier and more accessible to those without years of formal training.
Sites such as Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org offer software tools for building family trees and cataloging other historical resources. A Google search of such genealogy sites registers 47,800,000 hits.
Often, families run into a dead end due to missing historical records. However, through the use of modern DNA research, families can now overcome gaps in written records and even locate their family’s original homelands.
Gina Page has made DNA based family research into a profitable business. Her company, AfricanAncestry.com has collected over 25,000 DNA samples from Africa. Using this data, Page’s firm can help those with ties to the African continent trace their ancestry to their present-day country of origin, with a 99 percent success rate. Results are yielded in about six weeks.
The Manuel-Wiseman-Scott-Malone clan typifies how today’s technology is helping people in the Washington area make family connections around the world. Offspring of Theodore Manuel and Donna Scott serve as the clan’s foundation.
As the story goes, Mr. and Mrs. Manuel lived in Memphis, Tenn., around the 1930s and had five children. Over time, most of the Manuel offspring migrated north to Detroit. As with many families, many of the Manuel siblings had children, some of whom were born out of multiple marriages and other relationships. “All these factors contributed to a break in family ties,” says Verneda Manuel Blair, the last living of the Manuel siblings, and the clan’s matriarch.
Mrs. Blair’s brother, Theodore George Manuel Jr. (a.k.a. Dr. Talib Karim Muhammad) formed a family that ultimately included 14 children. However, as a result of their father’s evolutionary life, which ended in 1997 shortly after he was elected to the Memphis City Council, Dr. Muhammad’s children never lived in the same household and three lost contact completely with the others.
Some of Dr. Muhammad’s offspring found their way to the D.C. area, with four attending Howard University. Two years ago, as the Manuel-Wiseman-Scott-Malone clan began planning for their 2011 family reunion, Dr. Muhammad’s family began actively searching for the remainder of their siblings using the Internet. “As a computer forensics specialist, I made a hobby of mining the net for traces of my siblings,” said Hassan Karim, one of Muhammad’s 13 remaining children. “Last year, my sister Aeesha’s mother read a Facebook post written by one of my relatives, and within days, we were reunited,” Karim explains.
The family’s next online family reunion came in the form of an Ancestry.com “leaf.” Subscribers to the Ancestry.com database receive e-mail updates, known as “leaves,” whenever new information is located. Through such a “leaf,” Karim learned that the last of his missing siblings had been married and changed their names.
With this information, the Karim siblings tracked down their two sisters and were reunited, first by e-mail, then by phone.
Last weekend, the eldest of the newly found siblings, now known as Rayvn Manuel, celebrated a reunion with nearly a 100 family members at activities held at the Arlington,Va. Renaissance Hotel. “Now I’ve made these connections, my new family and I plan to use technology to maintain our bonds and finish building our family tree,” said Ms. Manuel.
Ultimately, the Manuel-Wiseman-Scott-Malone clan plans to publish its family tree in a book for submission to the Library of Congress, thus preserving the family’s ties in the nation’s archives.
Talib I. Karim, an attorney and freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C., is one of Theodore George Manuel Jr.’s (a.k.a. Dr. Talib Karim Muhammad’s) 14 children.