First Saturday Presentations Explore Black Ancestry

627

African Americans interested in tracing their ancestry often face roadblocks. The American slave system scattered Black families, separating husbands from wives and parents from children, making it difficult for later generations to trace their family’s roots.

But this past weekend’s First Saturday Presentations, held at U Street’s African American Civil War Museum, showed that while often difficult, this feat is never impossible.

At each presentation, a mix of history lovers, tourists and descendants of Black slaves meet in the museum’s photograph-splattered conference room to learn more about the role that African Americans played in the Civil War. Saturday’s presentation proved to be no exception when Alice Harris, the direct descendant of a soldier who served with the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War, discussed how her research led her to locate enlisted ancestor, Reese Brooks.

“I get emotional about this, so bear with me,” Harris said before sharing the results of her research. She traced her ancestry back to Charleston, W.Va. “I’m so honored to be here with cousins, nieces and great nieces that I am meeting for the first time,” said Harris. “This means a lot and says to me that you are really interested in where you came from.”

Harris discussed her two-pronged reason for sharing her research results: to educate her family about their military history and to instruct visitors on how they can conduct their own research.

“Start with what you know; start with yourself,” said Harris, who began her journey by interviewing her 91-year-old father. “Talk to your parents and great grandparents. Write down dates, places, births, marriages and deaths. Then, start your oral history and make sure you talk to your elders first. I spent hours sitting in their kitchens and dining rooms, just asking questions.”

Harris said the best way for Black Americans to locate ancestors who served in the U.S. Colored Troops is to identify males between the ages of 18 and 45 who lived between 1861 and 1865. She also advised those interested in decoding their family trees to use 1870 as a starting date because that marks the first year in which African Americans were counted in the census. And as for preliminary research, Harris encouraged Internet searches and DNA testing.

Museum slave re-enactor Bobbie Coles lauded Harris’ efforts. She said retracing family history and sharing soldier stories is crucial because it helps dispel misconceptions about Black troops.

“Only 270 of these soldiers died as a result of different skirmishes,” said Coles.

“These deaths were mostly a result of disease. But if you watch the movie Glory, you get a far different story.”

Glory, directed by Edward Zwick, tells the story of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, which fought alongside White, Union soldiers during the Civil War.

“In that movie, all the Black soldiers die during the first assault,” Coles said. “That’s inaccurate. It’s great that Alice and others are telling their ancestors’ stories. It’s one way for the truth to come out.”

Visitor and Philadelphia, Pa., resident Riziki Grand Williams agreed, saying that the contributions Blacks made to the Civil War benefited everyone, regardless of their skin color.

“I feel like when we talk about our history, it’s always this big joke,’ said Williams.

“That’s unfortunate because it keeps the African’s impact on key historical events like the Civil War hidden. These soldiers stood up for every American’s rights, not just Blacks.”

{The First Saturday Presentations feature a different speaker every month. Admission is free and open to the public. }