Sinking an anchor in American soil

Print is a website that highlights African American-owned businesses and events in the Twin Cities. It includes a directory of Black businesses and a dating service. The website’s Facebook page also offers five hours of genealogy research to contest winners. Though it has only been in existence for about 10 weeks, researchers La Juana Whitmore and Camille Lewis are in the process of doing research for their fourth contest winner.

“People have been really grateful to get the information and find things out,” says Whitmore. “We’ve been able to get them copies of birth certificates, and census information, and that kind of stuff.” Lewis and Whitmore shared with the MSR the stories of how their interest in genealogy began, what they uncovered about their own family histories, and general information on how to being a search.

Whitmore’s interest in genealogy began with the birth of her daughter 13 years ago. She knew nothing of her family before her grandparents and thought she should learn more for the benefit of her own children.

“What I did find out in the 1870 census,” Whitmore says, “was a woman named Molly. She’s my third great grandmother… According to the census she was blind, and she was born in the year 1770, and she was widowed at that time.”

Molly is the oldest member of Whitmore’s family that she has been able to find. Later, in the 1880 census, Molly’s daughter listed her father as African. Due to the lack of information prior to 1860, Whitmore’s father did DNA testing. “He’s got Ethiopian blood in him,” she says, “and now my father’s been able to go back to Africa and kind of see where we came from.”

For the first few years, Whitmore concentrated on researching her own family, but when she came upon roadblocks, she started researching other families. Through her own experience she found family members who weren’t who they professed to be, so now she always tells people, “You will find out something that you probably didn’t know – and you may not want to know.”

Lewis’s story

Camille Lewis started researching her family by asking her father questions. During the early 1900s, when her father was just infant, he and his siblings were placed in an orphanage in Owatonna, Minnesota. Lewis went to the Minnesota Historical Society to find out how her father became a ward of the state, but since her father was still living at the time, records concerning his childhood were considered private.

Lewis simply waited to submit a request for documents to someone new on the job and obtained all the requested documents. “That gave me the daily living of my father, what they [state workers] thought of my grandmother.” Lewis has collected a binder full of information on her family, including photos, documents from the orphanage, and letters written by her grandmother asking to see her son.

“[The State] found her guilty of non-support… She was not married, and they were in fear of her moral character.” According to her letters, in order to regain custody of her children, Lewis’s grandmother would have had to prove herself capable of creating an acceptable home environment by being either rich or married.

In the Owatonna orphanage, children were placed in foster families. “It was a workforce,” Lewis says, “because these kids were placed out on farms to work, and the contracting family would agree to give them two suits and $75 when they reached [age 18]. So it was, to me, cheap labor.”

Lewis has taken a trip to the Owatonna orphanage, which is now a museum. “It’s an amazing place. They have pictures galore of hungry children, abandoned children, and a few little Black children… When you walk into the dining room, I can imagine a child [in] this big [room]. The place is massive.”

In her letters, her grandmother often asked about the Baker kids who were also placed in the orphanage. “Of course I got curious. I wanted to know who all these other kids are.” While she was reviewing their file in the Historical Society, “I flip the page over and…the little girl Ella [Baker was] living in this house… As a foster child she lived in [my] house.”

Lewis has since contacted the family and given the information to Ella Baker’s daughter. The experience, she says, is proof that researching families is something that she was meant to do.

Besides other children from the orphanage, Lewis has also done research on several families, including some well-known Minnesota African American families and those of her coworkers and people she’s grown up with. For one friend she has even found a slave narrative of a family member.

How to begin

When starting to research family history, Whitmore says you should always start with yourself and list everyone that you know you are related to. “People always want to try and pick out someone interesting in their history,” she says, “but you always start with yourself.”

There are also several Internet sites that make research easier. Lewis recommends for getting started. However, to get past a road block she recommends, which consists of people across the country networking around genealogy.

“Let’s say I found my family in 1920, but I can’t find them in [19]10,” Lewis explains. “I guarantee you [after posting the information on 50 people will start looking for you, and if they find it, they will fire back. It’s an awesome family that’s committed to piecing these things together.”

Both the 1930 census and death certificates are good sources of information, Whitmore says. “What’s kind of sad about African American history is that…the 1870 census is when we are first listed as individuals. Prior to that, we’re listed as property.” What you will find, she explains, is a slave owner’s name listed and the age, sex and race – whether mulatto or Negro – of the slaves listed below. Research can prove challenging before 1870, and the process often comes to a halt.

“Camille and I are very passionate about African Americans knowing their history,” says Whitmore, “even if you only get so far as 1850, 1860, having that anchor in where you are as an American has been very helpful to me.”

Even though research often reveals information the family may not be proud of, Lewis says their intent is never to uncover unpleasant truths. “I can care less what somebody has done in order to feed kids and keep families together… Be glad that they had the genes to stick it out, because somebody survived the Middle Passage… If they survived the Middle Passage, they could sure survive the United States.”

Vickie Evans-Nash welcomes reader responses to