SALT LAKE CITY—This month, millions of individuals of African descent are celebrating Black History Month by exploring their family history roots. In the U.S., FamilySearch volunteers have been busy helping digitize historic documents and create free, searchable indexes to them online. Throughout Africa, from Accra to Zimbabwe, where irreplaceable family information and traditions are at risk of being lost due to neglect, war, and deterioration, FamilySearch volunteers are also helping preserve this valuable history so Africans can connect with their roots. Researchers can search the millions of African-related records as they are published online at FamilySearch.org.
FamilySearch, a non-profit, volunteer-driven subsidiary of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has been involved in genealogy since 1894, but the African culture presents a unique set of challenges to family history research. Because most family information is passed down orally, FamilySearch is focused on preserving both African oral traditions and related records that can help people learn about their ancestors.
“In Africa, there is a proverb that states, ‘When an old man dies, it is as if a library has burnt down,’ ” said Ghanaian Osei-Agyemang Bonsu, a FamilySearch manager in Africa. “Unfortunately, due to economic difficulties, many young people are moving from their villages, where they have the chance of obtaining information from the older people. The purpose of the oral genealogy project is to go to these old people and record what they know before they die.”
Most African tribes have a designated “storyteller” who is responsible to memorize the tribe’s oral traditions, including names of ancestors going back six to thirty generations. FamilySearch works with chiefs and local volunteers to visit these storytellers and record the information they have been charged to remember in their heads. Sometimes the interview is audio or video recorded, like the Ghana Oral Genealogy Project. If technology is not available, the information is written down on paper. Once it is recorded, the lineage-linked data is put into a spreadsheet and uploaded into a computer format developed by FamilySearch called GEDCOM. Currently, this GEDCOM file is put into FamilySearch’s Community Trees project, but it will eventually be integrated with the FamilySearch.org website.
FamilySearch is also working with children in South Africa to encourage them to write down their family traditions. FamilySearch volunteer Isebelle Krauss conducts training to help young people know how to interview the elderly people in their village.
“We encourage them [South African youth] to find their roots, to record it and to be proud of who they are,” Krauss said.
Krauss works with the South African Department of Education and Heritage and the Department of Arts and Culture to hold oral tradition storytelling competitions in public schools.
“The children are encouraged to collect as many names as possible and come back to either sing, recite, or give a hard copy of their research,” Krauss said. “The pilot project was in Kwa Zulu Natal, and I was privileged to be one of the judges at the final round between 30 schools. What an experience! The little ones danced and sang their history and an eight-year-old won the competition with 15 generations.”
Although the majority of African heritage is oral, written records such as censuses and birth, marriage, and death certificates can help people verify the names, dates, and places in their family history. FamilySearch has worked with governments, archives, and churches in Ghana, South Africa, Cote D’Ivoire, Liberia, Swaziland, Nigeria, Lesotho, Namibia, and Zimbabwe to digitize records of genealogical importance. FamilySearch employee Stephen Nickle says some of the irreplaceable records in these countries are in danger of being lost.
“There are various records throughout Africa that are at risk. Some are destroyed through war or deterioration or because there is a lack of room and other records are more important,” Nickle said. “When those records are destroyed, a part of Africa goes away. Preserving those records helps future generations know where they came from, which is an important part of maintaining a culture.”
Many of the records collected by FamilySearch are now available for free on FamilySearch.org. More African records will be posted on the site in the coming months. Following are a few samples of some types of records at FamilySearch.org that may be of interest to those doing African or African-American research. Many of them are works in progress.
- Virginia, Freedmen’s Bureau Letters, 1865-1872
- U.S. Arkansas Confederate Pensions, 1901 to 1929
- Ghana 1982-1984 Census
- South Africa, Orange Free State, Estate Files, 1951-1973
- U.S. Southern States Births, Marriages, and Deaths
- U.S. Naturalization Petitions
FamilySearch International is the largest genealogy organization in the world. It is a nonprofit, volunteer-driven organization sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Millions of people use FamilySearch records, resources, and services to learn more about their family history. To help in this great pursuit, FamilySearch has been actively gathering, preserving, and sharing genealogical records worldwide for over 100 years. Patrons may access FamilySearch services and resources free online at FamilySearch.org or through over 4,600 family history centers in 132 countries, including the main Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah.