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Black past comes alive at Hub genealogy conference

Howard Manly

For the last 10 years, Williard Johnson and his wife Vivian have been members of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society (AAHGS).

They have traveled to Washington D.C., Little Rock, Ark., and Salt Lake City, Utah to participate in the society’s annual meetings.

For them, genealogy is more than just a family tree.

“What we have found is that the social context in which our families were developing is really fascinating,” Johnson said. “The history part has really taken over. It’s much more interesting than what was ever taught in school.”

In fact, Johnson explained, he never would have thought that he would be spending his graying days on something he considered boring during his time as a student.

It was no surprise, then, that the Johnsons would attend last weekend’s AAHGS conference just outside of Boston in Burlington. Started 29 years ago in Washington, D.C., the genealogical society has chapters across the country and has steadily grown over the years. About 200 people attended the dozens of workshops, seminars and field trips last weekend.

AAHGS President Rev. Khadijah Matin said the conference went “very well,” and reflects the nation’s growing interest in history in general, and family history in particular.

“For most people,” Matin said, “the curiosity of trying to figure out who they are strikes at their very core. Once anyone starts, the research begins to feed that hole that we all have. And with families being spread out all over the world, the research becomes even more fascinating.”

Matin knows firsthand about the relevance of history in today’s world. She comes from a long line of folks that worked as ministers, educators and in the health care industry. Their struggles were really tough, and when she found herself divorced and a single parent, she was able to put her life into its proper context.

“I reflected on my grandmother,” she said. “In 1909, she lived in Cherry County, Neb., and was part of a group of maybe 100 or so mostly African American homesteaders. She lived in a house made of grass and dirt. They had no electricity and she was one of the people that pulled the plow. If she could survive that, I knew I could survive.”

Matin said that researching family history can be intimidating and that not every one is going to be interested in the same way. But what is interesting is getting together every year with people of like minds and sharing information, everything from Web sites to documents kept in the National Archives or the Library of Congress.

“Genealogy satisfies the gaps in our own history,” she said.

For Charles Howard, the society’s vice president of genealogy, the journey stared in the late 1970s when he watched the adaptation of Alex Haley’s “Roots” on television. Haley had delivered a lecture at Howard University, and Howard was one of the attendees. His reaction was almost immediate.

“I thought to myself, ‘Maybe I could do this,’” he said.

Howard is quick to point out that he didn’t know that tracking down his family history would require more than talking to one or two relatives.

It has taken a while, but he is able to prove that his great-great grandfather served in 127th Infantry during the Civil War. The Pennsylvania-based regiment was one of a handful of colored troops.

The process can be slow.

“You have to start with your present family and work your way back,” he said. “You need birth certificates and death certificates. In genealogy, you must be able to prove that someone is related to you. Sometimes bits of information are found in marriage certificates.”

That is how he learned about his great-great-grandfather. When he died, his widow wanted to collect his pension from the federal government. Howard researched military records and was able to come up with his great-great grandfather’s enlistment records.

The point is pretty clear. “We all want to know who we are and where we came from,” Howard said. “It’s more than just looking at your relatives. It’s about knowing the times in which they lived.”

Johnson has lived in Boston for years, and was part of the anti-apartheid movement that led to the creation of TransAfrica with Randall Robinson. But both sides of Johnson’s family are from Kansas, a state and region that was once at the center of the national dialogue.

Back in the mid-1800s, Native Americans and African Americans were fighting together against the slave-owning elite and the loss of tribal land, among other things. Fleeing from Oklahoma and the Deep South, both groups settled in Kansas. Other settlers sent by a Boston-based abolitionist group joined them. One of the goals of the group was to send enough bodies to the territory to prevent it from becoming a slave state. Though many know about “Bleeding Kansas” and John Brown’s first bloody attack against slavery in Pottawatomie, very few know about the extensive collaboration among the Seminoles and blacks.

“The information in the history books is just the tip of the iceberg,” Johnson said.