boston.com Your Life your connection to The Boston Globe
Leona W. Martin
"There's so much to find out," Leona W. Martin says of her genealogical search aided by "The Book of Negroes." (Dina Rudick/Globe Staff)

The search

Interest in piecing together family trees grows among African-Americans

LEXINGTON -- In 1783, after the rebellious colonists won the Revolutionary War, 3,000 African-Americans who had fled slavery to aid the British in exchange for freedom gathered at the docks of New York and boarded ships for Nova Scotia. Among them was James Langford, age 40, a "stout fellow" from "Brooklin, New York."

When Leona W. (Langford) Martin saw that name and description in 2005 on a microfilm copy of "The Book of Negroes," which listed passengers on those boats, she found the answer she'd sought for more than three decades. Langford, she believes, was a forebear of her paternal grandfather; another loyalist, Joseph Cromwell, was kin of her maternal great-grandfather. They were among the tens of thousands of slaves -- including some owned by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison -- who'd made their way to Redcoat lines to take the British up on their promise of liberty and land to any who fought alongside them or otherwise helped them. Now, using their British certificates of freedom as passports, they escaped to Nova Scotia.

Finally, Martin knew why her family, which eventually e migrated from Nova Scotia to Massachusetts, originally settled on that Canadian island. Moments like this, she says, are the "little miracles" that keep her hooked on tracing her genealogy.

"When they come it is so unbelievable," says Martin, president of the New England chapter of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society. "It's such a feeling. You're connecting back to family members you never knew."

The pieces of her family's narrative that Martin has painstakingly assembled over 35 years are reminiscent of the genealogical tours Harvard scholar Henry Louis "Skip" Gates Jr. has conducted on public television's "African American Lives" series over the past year, most recently in this winter's "Oprah's Roots." His new book, "Finding Oprah's Roots: Finding Your Own," offers practical suggestions. He's working on a curriculum for schoolchildren and plans another "African American Lives" series on PBS, this one including Beyoncé, Tina Turner, Maya Angelou, and Morgan Freeman.

Interest in genealogy among African-Americans has been growing, nudged most recently by Gates's attention. Gates says the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard, which he directs, has received thousands of calls in the past year. The New England Historic Genealogical Society has been fielding an increased number of requests from African-Americans. Boston's Museum of African American History had standing room only at its November genealogy event. Genealogist Kenyatta Berry, who specializes in African-American genealogy, estimates that her business has increased 20 percent in the past year.

"The Skip Gates special, because Oprah was part of it, has had a tremendous impact," Berry says. "I had a number of people call me. They said, 'I saw the special.' The interest is a spark. Genealogy is not easy. It's hard work. It requires patience. There may be some who don't continue. It will spark a lot of conversation at the dinner table. People will realize how much they don't know and how much they want to know."

AAHGS, the African-American genealogy group, has noticed steady growth since the New England chapter was founded 10 years ago, and, says Martin, membership has risen another 10 percent in the past year. The 80-member chapter and the New York chapter are the organization's largest. Later this year, AAHGS will hold its annual national conference in Boston for the first time.

"It's important for us to reconstruct our history because the system of slavery and Jim Crow kept us from knowing our history , " Gates says. "They took away our names. The system had laws against us learning to read and write. The real heroes of African-American tradition have yet to be unearthed. How these people survived slavery, kept their dignity, created a culture, created forms of religious expression, created music against the odds are inspiring stories."

Longtime quest
What Gates presented to Oprah Winfrey in the form of a neatly prepared book that traces her family's story, Martin has piled in her Chevy for presentations she makes at schools or crammed in a home office she declines to show a visitor. She wheels a basketload of materials from her car into her living room, then fetches from upstairs a handful of binders -- Langford, Hicks, Cromwell, Jarvis, Postell -- containing information on branches of her family tree.

What the television producers who researched Oprah's roots culled contracting a professional genealogist for five weeks and local researchers for another month, Martin has uncovered in free moments snatched over 35 years of raising a family and consulting on affirmative action and caring for aged parents.

The search is made easier by the Internet. Ancestry.com, for instance, is pulling together an "African-American Historical Records Collection" that includes records ranging from census data to Freedmen's Bureau records, from slave narratives to World War I draft cards. The House of Representatives passed a bill last month to preserve and digitize genealogical records of former slaves.

Martin is in her 60s now, and she's pursued her avocation since 1972, when she took a course in nonfiction writing while her two young sons were in school. She chose to research the old-time boxer Sam Langford, a cousin who had fled Nova Scotia to Massachusetts to escape an abusive father. That summer, her curiosity piqued, the Martins went camping in Nova Scotia, where Martin met relatives and spent hours in the library of Dalhousie University in Halifax.

Her quest since then includes finding her great-grandparents from Georgia listed in the 1880 Census and trying, so far without luck, to find relatives in the Freedmen's Bureau records. Along the way, her husband, Charles, 71, a retired engineer, found a five-page handwritten obituary of his grandfather while cleaning out his mother's apartment six years ago and launched his own quest into a family history that includes Cherokee forebears.

"The more I find out," says Leona Martin, "the more enthralled I am with this history."

Still, Martin had no answer to her original question. Why did her family settle in Nova Scotia? Then, a year or so ago, someone -- Martin can't remember who -- suggested she try "The Book of Negroes." She remembered a distant relative who years earlier had, in passing, mentioned that the family descended from black loyalists.

Her eureka moment came two springs ago in the National Archives in Waltham, where she scrolled to her ancestors' names. She's now reading "Rough Crossings," Columbia University historian Simon Schama's chronicle of black loyalists. The book, a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle award, includes the story of disgruntled settlers who left Nova Scotia for Sierra Leone; Martin's ancestors were not among them .

"They all had a struggle up there," Martin says. "They didn't fully get what they were promised."

Meanwhile, Martin had posted an Internet query seeking information about her paternal grandmother, surnamed Hicks, who grew up in Granville County, N.C. A woman who has the same name and location in her family history responded.

"She kept sending me pictures of her family, and they're all white. I had a moment of angst. How do I tell her my people are people of color? She said, 'Well, I saw the Skip Gates program. I think we're all brothers under the skin,' " Martin says. "I have researched her great-great-grandfather back to slavery times. I haven't told her this, but I know they owned slaves in that particular area. There's so much to find out."

The journey Martin has undertaken is one Gates invites the young to join. "I want to develop new curriculum," he says, "that will revolutionize the way history is taught to inner-city black kids and science is taught to inner-city black kids."

What better way to teach history, he asks, than to have children collect family lore, as well as the names and birthdates and birthplaces of grandparents and great-grandparents, then go trace their families through the US Census and other records? What better way to teach science, he asks, than to collect children's DNA samples and study genetics while waiting for results that would pinpoint their ancestors' tribes in Africa?

"A machine," he says, "would come to life with that kind of lesson plan."

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES