Ron Jackson wove the threads of names and dates he pulled from census data, marriage records, and the family Bible to reconstruct lost history.
His quest unraveled details of his family's background and revealed a few surprises.
Jackson, 71, of Toledo, Ohio, began his research around 2000, and participates in Journey, a program of the African-American Legacy Project of Northwest Ohio that connects and supports genealogists. The former Toledo police deputy chief of investigation knows how to follow clues, but this search was personal.
"It's a tremendous mystery, and the information is probably just as hard, if not harder, to uncover as ... a very difficult, intense investigation, especially with minority families," he said.
African-Americans who have delved deep into their family's past said the research, while sometimes difficult, provides important perspective and gives future generations a sense of their history.
"One obvious observation is that African-Americans being descendants of slaves in this country and having ancestors coming to this country against their will gives us kind of a strange relationship or a strange understanding of our place in the community," said Gary Franklin, an active member of the Journey group who researched his family back to the mid-1700s.
Franklin, the son of the late Lucas County, Ohio, Common Pleas Court Judge Robert Franklin, Jr., said it's especially key for African-American youths to know their genealogy because it gives them "a sense of their ancestors' contributions."
"We had a communal and legal system that was designed to keep African-Americans marginalized, yet the growth and expansion of this country was largely dependent on the work of those very same people," he said.
Death records, census data, court documents, and city directories offer valuable troves of information. But roadblocks can frustrate researchers trying to tie together family history from sparse, difficult-to-decipher, or sometimes nonexistent documentation. That can be especially true for African-Americans researching their roots.
A search of early Toledo death records kept on microfilm in the Local History and Genealogy Department of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library illustrates the obstacles. One handwritten listing for the July 1859 death of a 40-year-old African-American laborer lists the man's name only as "Bart."
Shirley Green, deputy mayor for public safety and personnel, earned her doctorate in history from Bowling Green State University and has encountered such "brick walls" while researching.
"You can tell if a person was a person of color by the fact that some information was missing," said Green.
Old marriage records for a black bride and groom may not list the couple's parents' names, a customary step for those of European descent, she said. Slavery-era records may omit last names, and in later years African-Americans may have changed their names.
Jackson said his family didn't talk about their history, so his search started with the basics. He learned he had a half-brother who lived in Indianapolis. Jackson was able to get to know him before his half-sibling'sdeath. Jackson also traced his family's arrival in Toledo to 1925.
Through historical sleuthing, hunch following, talking to family, and traveling to the locations where documents are kept, he tracked his grandmother as she moved from Paducah, Ky., to Michigan City, Ind., and then to Toledo's east side more than 80 years ago.
Street directories and school records provide important dates, but don't fill in all the gaps. Jackson isn't certain what brought his grandmother and her children to northwest Ohio. He assumes, like many African-Americans who migrated north around that time, her move was work-related.
Jackson was able to go back even further into his family's history, finding information about his great-grandfather Anderson McClure, who was born before the Civil War, in 1846. He worked for the railroad, and Jackson found documentation listing him as a Tennessee voter in 1891 but has been unable to obtain a death certificate.
A family Bible includes information that backs up some of the other details he had gathered from other records.
The Journey group members support each other in their searches and share helpful tips, Jackson said. Franklin's advice to those who want to track their genealogy is simple: Start with yourself.
"Document yourself, your parents, your grandparents and as far back as you can go that way," he said.
(Contact Toledo Blade reporter Vanessa McCray at email@example.com)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, shns.com.)