RootsTech is a gathering of the most amazing, wonderful, normal people—just like you and me. There is a common thread that ties us all together at this enormous gathering in downtown Salt Lake City, Utah: Connection! We all want to have and feel connection with someone—with our family, with our roots with our blood.
This year one of the keynote speakers was Brandon Stanton, a young blogger who set out to photograph 10,000 New Yorkers and create some kind of a catalogue of the city’s inhabitants. Brandon reported, ““Somewhere along the way, I began to interview my subjects in addition to photographing them. And alongside their portraits, I’d include quotes and short stories from their lives.” This exploded into what became known as Humans of New York, one of the most popular blogs and social media ventures in the world, now followed by 25 million people.
I thought I would do a little taste of what Brandon does, but do it with some of the RootsTech participants, you know, capture a photograph and then let each person say something about their tie to this great work of Family History. We even interviewed Brandon himself (the cover story on Wednesday will be Brandon’s story).
Come and enjoy these 11 Humans of RootsTech 2018.
Creator, Humans of New York
New York City
Meridian: What happens to your heart when you are talking to someone and you start involving your heart with their life?
Brandon: I try to have it be as back and forth as I can. I try to make it be more of a conversation than an interview. A lot of the times these stories are very affecting and, you know, I just cry a lot. That’s probably the shortest answer. When that person is crying, I will cry with them. I feel with them. I think a lot of the power of the blog comes from sitting in a moment with somebody and you know, feeling what they’re feeling.
I stopped viewing my self as a photographer a long time ago. I can’t tell you how many articles I’ve had to read about my photography being this and that. It’s like “Man, I stopped thinking of myself as a photographer so many years ago” The photography to me isn’t all that important. It’s all about the story.
Elder Erich W. Kopischke
General Authority Seventy
When the Russians came through Poland in World War II, they cut a swath of destruction about 50 miles wide as they headed west. This took them right through West Prussia where my people were from and they burned all the records. What do you do? The Lord has a way of opening up a path for you. It isn’t easy, but He will make the way possible for you to do this work. I know this. If you cannot find the names and you’ve done everything you can, then He will send angels with the names.
Meridian: You have been doing this your whole life?
Peggy: I have a picture of my mother when she was expecting me and she was going to a cemetery to do research. I was born four days later. She would have been 43 years old out in that hot sun doing research. I’ve been involved in genealogy my entire life, but it was really brought home to me at the death of my son which took place nine years ago. It made the veil between here and there seem so much thinner. When I see the great plan behind why we even do this to begin with. It was hard. Just because I’m LDS doesn’t mean his passing was an easy thing and oh, let’s just go on. Parents just aren’t supposed to outlive their kids, but because of that I have that renewed interest and that recharged interest to make sure we gather that family that we love. He’s there with them. He’s with two of the best sets of grandparents he could have. He’s there with his childhood heroes of Joseph Smith and Nephi and Captain Moroni. He’s there with them, so that’s why. That’s why I do this work.
Bernice Alexander Bennett
Silver Spring, Maryland
I was teaching at Johns Hopkins University clear back in 1976. And people started telling me that I looked a lot like this portrait of my grandmother. So, when you’re told something like that and you see this image, what do you want to do? You want to find out about her. And so, that’s what I did; I had this journey, I had this thought in my head that maybe if I go on this journey to find out about my South Carolina kin…then maybe I will connect with people.
And so, as I began to look for relatives I actually found that my grandmother had a brother, of which I did not know anything about. And I met the children of this brother. Then, after meeting them, we decided to keep researching our grandparents—trace them all the way back to enslavement. We found them on a slave record and then connected with the slave-owner’s descendent. Yes, so I thought that’s a journey that I thought was very important to take—to tell that story, so that I could at least say that not only did I find my grandmother, but I also reconnected with other descendants of my Great Great Grandfather Andrew and my Great Great Grandmother Matilda.
There are cousins I never knew existed. I found the slave record of my Great Great grandfather: Negro Boy. Andrew. $400. He was in the document.
You know, when you think about doing research just to find living relatives and you keep going back and you find your relatives enslaved, that’s a big reality, you know, that your ancestors were enslaved. It’s something I had never seen before. You know, I heard about slavery, obviously, nobody talked about it, but obviously I knew that my ancestors, at least a couple of them, would have been enslaved. But when you actually see the document; it’s heart wrenching. And then to have the descendants say to you, “It was my Great Great Grandfather, Henry Johnson Kemp, that owned your family.”
Now, we are friends. We talk all the time. We call ourselves the Kemp girls—because I’m a Kemp descendent and she’s a Kemp descendent. And what we have come to realize with the journey is that our ancestors shared a common space. They knew each other. They communicated with each other. Their roles were different but they were there with each other. And with this family, my ancestor’s family, we saw with the different slave transactions that nobody was ever sold away. They stayed within the family the entire time. Nobody was sold away.
Thomas: I’m passionate about genealogy. I have a lot of energy, but there’s a lot of energy here at RootsTech. It gets me ready for the rest of the year. Every June I am mapping out my new courses and seminars for the following year. I get great ideas. Even if you don’t attend the classes, RootsTech is great just to sit and listen or network with people. I get ideas for new classes, new products and services. I’m also curious on DNA and what’s coming down the pike. I mean there is just so much energy here, and that’s why I’m here.
Meridian: What do you do?
Thomas: You should ask what I don’t do. I’m sort of a man of mystery. I’ve got books on Amazon. I use the abundance model. I believe in a lot of accessible education, a lot of free education and so that’s why I love FamilySearch and I love RootsTech. I am mostly an educator and author. I want to bring people to the genealogy table and actually get them energized about looking for their family history.
Meridian: Have you been personally moved by your own family history?
Thomas: Oh yes. I’m working on my German line which is my most recent immigrant line and they were chain immigrants, and so I am finding out more and more about how they brought each other over here. That is fascinating because most of my other roots go back to the 1600’s and they’ve been proven for a long time, but my German roots, I’m finding out more and more about it and more records are coming out thanks to FamilySearch.
Meridian: When you come here, how long do you stay?
Thomas: I’m usually here about a week. I travel 50,000 miles a year teaching genealogy all over the world so I have already carved out my 2019 dates for RootsTech. I think I’ve made my hotel reservation. I’m all set to be here.
Meridian: Is there anything that comes to my mind that is an “oh-my-goodness-story” of your own experience of researching family history?
Thomas: It is funny that you are saying “Humans of RootsTech.” I was raised by my Great Grandparents and I almost deified them. I worship them, but I’ve found a few skeletons that make them more human and more endearing. It doesn’t put a blemish on their reputation. I’ve found that they actually fudged a marriage to cover a pregnancy, and that happens more common. I could have looked at that negatively, but no. I think they would be upset if I knew, but those little mysteries humanizes those ancestors. I can connect easier with them.
My husband’s family live in Maine. They jumped ship so they were there like 200 years. They had a homestead, sold it and we just inherited all this stuff. And one item was a box of Vivian’s diaries, but no one’s ever done anything with them. I probably have 30 or 40 of these little hand-written diaries. They’re all in these little paper notebooks that she bought. They start at the turn of the century; her first one is 1900 and go for, I don’t know, 30 years. She lived in Bristol, Maine in a tiny little farmhouse. So, this is like “a foggy morning. Good day. I put in the flour. Mother cleaned her bedroom.” You know. “We went and picked berries.” She’s got the price of eggs. She’s got how many loads of bailed hay they did. You know, it’s just the sweetest thing. And she writes in it that they got the mail at a post box and they had their first postal delivery of mail. Anyway, so it’s just the sweetest thing. So, I came here, I’m going to go over—they’re doing some sort of scanning of books and I’m going to ask them, “What do I do with these? They’re all written in pencil.” So, I can translate them. I could send them out to my family if I could get them digitalized and then everybody could work on some of them. Then we could actually read them.
So, she’s my husband’s grandmother. The house stayed in the family. We have photos of Vivian. We have everything. But, I think one of the problems our generation has is: we inherit this stuff and what do we do with it? You know, it’s been sitting in a storage unit. It’s like…we even have furniture from her. It’s not my taste. I don’t know what to do with all this stuff. But hopefully, here, they’ll tell us some things we can do.
Cañon City, Colorado
I’m 70 years old, a convert to the Church. I’ve been doing genealogy 20 years. I adopted my son. My stepmother did not like family history and didn’t allow us to talk about it. I did not know my real mother’s family, so when my stepmother died in 1997 I was free in 1998 to start researching, and I thought I would just do a pedigree chart for my son and then I could frame it and put it up on his wall and I wouldn’t go any further. So, I got FamilyTreeMaker and I did the 4 generations for my son, and then I saw at the bottom right of the screen it said: “Add father. Add mother.” I had to click there and it was blank so I had to go do some research who was the father and who was the mother…and it never stopped. There’s no place to stop! It just keeps going!
The first year of RootsTech I worked as a secretary in the Episcopal Church and I knew it was coming on and I wasn’t here so I opened it up on my computer and I thought it was a dry hobby and it was for old people and it was kind of sad and dead, you know. And I watched RootsTech and a girl named Annie was the chairman that year and she introduced Jay Verkler and the lights when out and the spotlight came on the stage and the sound came up and it said, “Ladies and Gentlemen” and I was hooked. And I’ve been here every year since then. Now it’s our annual vacation.
What do I know about my ancestry? Not very much: I know up to my great, great grandfather—three generations of grandparents.
And do we have oral histories in Ghana? Yes, how I got to learn about my Great Grandfather is that my Grandfather is still alive. He’s in his nineties. I visited him and he spoke to me and I put it down. Currently we don’t have records where you list them from your grandparents. I learned from him directly.
You want me to tell you one thing about my family history that’s part of my heritage? Well, my grandfather died at 80. He was studying about the Second World War—and they were hiding somewhere—somewhere in a cave so that he could save his life.
Meridian: And you remember him?
Rosemarie: I was with him right in the hospital when he died.
Meridian: And he told you stories?
Rosemarie: He told me about hiding in the country and eating coconuts to survive and that is how he made it through the war.
I’m a family history consultant in Pleasant Grove and I share family history from my home. I get the members to sign up and they come to my house and we have a prayer, we invite the Spirit. I love doing one on one. I don’t like to stand up and give a big class, but I love it when the Spirit is there. I’m just starting to remember that we also need to have a closing prayer because we need to thank Heavenly Father for those special insights that we’ve received during that time together.
I have done family history for 52 years and served at a FamilySearch library in Las Vegas. I love doing this work. I love helping people. We recently moved up to Utah because of my husband’s dementia. He has had it for six years. I was losing him a day at a time, then he passed away in January and I’m now at RootsTech. I love family history.
Elder Edward Dube
General Authority Seventy
I joined the Church when I was 22 years old. The very first time I really knew about family history was when we were in the Johannesburg South Africa Temple. When we went there, this was 1992 when my wife and I were sealed, we were asked some questions and those questions created curiosity that we went home and started really asking questions and started gathering names and so forth to do this family history.
I remember, too, (before that) with Grandmother sitting down and sharing these stories about when she was growing up and so forth, but never realized that she was giving me this family history.
Meridian: How do we get our next door neighbor to do this genealogy work?
Elder Dube: The best way to do this is really sharing your own experiences. There’s a big difference from a bishop who stands at the pulpit and says, “You need to do this,” and a bishop who stands at the pulpit and says, “You know, this is what’s happening in our family. This is what we are enjoying.” I think as we share the experiences, then we don’t make anyone feel guilty. We just want to share so they can feel how we feel and that we can help them move to action.