Newton County native Dr. D.L. Henderson, shown here dressed in a period costume at historic Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta, where she gives tours, will be coming to the Conyers library on Feb. 6 at 6 p.m. to present a black Genealogy Workshop. She is shown in this photo with Oakland Cemetery Manager Sam Reed. (Special Photo)
In the age of the Internet, it’s easy to want to begin a genealogy search by first consulting the computer. Not so fast, advises genealogist Dr. D.L. Henderson. Henderson tells those interested in tracing their lineage to first reflect upon their own experiences before they start researching others’ lives.
“I challenge them to record their own history for future generations. I think that is so important,” she said.
Henderson, a Newton County native who now lives in Atlanta, will present an African-American Genealogy Workshop aimed at family research for beginners, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. on Thursday at the Nancy Guinn Memorial Library in Conyers.
A historian and genealogist who holds a Ph.D. in humanities from Clark Atlanta University, Henderson is a genealogy teacher, author and speaker, focusing on African-American culture. She is also the historian for South-View Cemetery, a historically black cemetery established in Atlanta just after the Civil War, and she is on the board of Atlanta’s historic Oakland cemetery, where she also leads tours.
Further, Henderson is the author of “Witness of the Spirit,” a community memoir on the history of Wesley Chapel United Methodist Church in Covington.
Henderson said her own interest in genealogy began in second grade when she wrote a report on her grandfather. She interviewed her mother, grandmother and grandfather for the project.
“I was always interested in family history,” she said.
Oral history is an important method in tracing one’s genealogy, said Henderson. Listening to family members’ recollections can unlock reservoirs of information not found in any book or public record, she said. Though the memories may have been passed down for generations and details may have changed, it’s still important to pay attention.
“Their stories may have a grain of truth in there somewhere,” said Henderson.
Henderson said sometimes relatives are reluctant to recall memories or they are intimidated by the questioning, so she recommends being patient when asking for information and to schedule several interviews, if needed.
“I view every interview as a gift that people are sharing with me,” she said, adding that a recording device should be used in all interviews.
Henderson said knowing the history of the location where ancestors are from is key and researchers should understand the local laws in place during the time their ancestors lived.
In particular for black Americans, finding ancestors who worked as slaves requires researchers to look at the property records of slaveholders to find names. If a black relative lived as a free person before the Civil War, then a registry of free blacks should be consulted, as free blacks in Georgia were required to register in their county of residence.
Even after the Civil War, records for marriages and schools often remained separate, so a family genealogist must request the black records when inquiring, said Henderson, and look for clues like POC, or person of color, next to names.
Henderson said a search into black family history could also lead to research into white families, as ancestries sometimes combine.
“You never know where our journey will take us into the backgrounds of other people,” Henderson said.
Henderson said the first big wave of interest in African-American genealogy began when the 1977 television series, “Roots,” based on Alex Haley’s novel about his ancestors’ lives during enslavement, debuted. That series, along with the nation celebrating the Bicentennial in 1976, propelled interest in genealogy.
Then in 2006, “African American Lives,” a PBS Television mini-series hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr., aired. The show focused on researching the ancestry of several prominent African Americans, reviving an interest in African-American genealogy, said Henderson.
“The year that first one came out, workshop attendance bumped up,” she said.
She had to explain to her workshop attendees that their search might not get the same results as in the Henry Louis Gates Jr. show right away — and maybe not all — as the television show operated with significantly more resources, both financial and staff-wise, than the average person would be able to muster.
Henderson said that most people do genealogy as a hobby and perform it because it’s something they are passionate about. She advises people to take their time with research and not to jump into a line of research too deeply without knowing for sure it is connected to their family.
“It’s something that we spend our spare time doing because we enjoy looking at the records and finding the clues, and many of us enjoy it for the sake of the hunt,” she said.
To register for the African-American Genealogy Workshop, call 770-388-5040, ext. 118.