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'It's extremely important': Tracing Black roots with African American genealogy

Allen County Library Genealogy Center
Posted at 5:55 PM, Oct 11, 2022
and last updated 2022-10-11 17:55:40-04

INDIANAPOLIS — Indianapolis resident Colleen Heeter has always been interested in genealogy — the study of families. She loves finding family members she never knew she had.

"I've met about 65 different cousins. They're all over the United States. But there's more. There's over 100," Heeter said.

Heeter's grandparents opened a school for Black children in rural Kentucky after the Civil War. It was the only school for miles that would educate Black children.

That's just one of the stories she's learned about her family through her research.

The journey to find her family wasn't always easy. Sometimes she turned to her friend Eunice Trotter for help.

"Particularly children and a lot of adults, see history as boring, but history is our underpinning. It is who we are as a family, as a nation, as a state, as a world," Trotter said.

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Trotter is the director of the new Black Heritage Preservation Program at Indiana Landmarks. She says it's one of the only state-wide African-American preservation programs in the country.

"We have a chance to shine like a diamond and set an example for the nation," Trotter said.

The goal of the new program is to document African-American heritage in Indiana.

With October being family history month, WRTV is shining a light on what researchers are doing to trace Black roots and uncover African American genealogy.

"In the case of African-American heritage and history, the actual sites have been wiped out all over the country," Trotter said. "Here in Indianapolis, for example, Indiana Ave. would have been a heritage site. All the buildings are gone. We've never, in Indiana, really focused on African American heritage. Of the 2,000 places that are on the National List of Historic Places in Indiana, only 2% of them have anything to do with Black history."

Trotter's job will be to document the stories of Black Hoosiers and help honor their contributions to history.

"It's extremely important that we know who we are, and that our history as African Americans is included in the overall history for many reasons, but for the richness and the fullness and the truth of our story," Trotter said. "Because it's not just Black history, it's everyone's history. We're a part of this place called Indiana. We've been contributing to history since the beginning of time."

She encourages people to not just research their heritage but to write it down.

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She documented her family's history in her book, "Black in Indiana." In it, she tells the story of her great-great-great grandmother, Mary Bateman Clark, who brought the court case that ended slavery in the Hoosier state.

Bateman Clark was enslaved when slave owner Benjamin Harrison, brother of 9th United States President William Henry Harrison, brought her to Indiana and forced her into indentured servitude.

Bateman Clark argued that this was involuntary labor, and fought her case all the way to the Indiana Supreme Court. She won, and her case set precedent, ending involuntary labor in Indiana.

"There wasn't such thing as a slave state. This was a slave nation," Trotter said.

Trotter found so much joy in learning about her family, and now she helps other African Americans uncover their heritage.

It can be a daunting task. America's history of slavery can make genealogy study more difficult for many African Americans, but it can be done.

"I think most African Americans are told that they can't trace their histories that far back, but I was able to do it with relative ease," Trotter said.

This is a common misconception that genealogists hear at the Allen County Library. Based in downtown Fort Wayne, the library has the second-largest genealogy center in the world.

Curt Witcher runs the center, which houses more than 1.2 million physical pieces of history.

"It really is an amazing place of discovery. Everyone has a story, and we like to help people discover their stories," Witcher said.

The staff has placed a special emphasis on documenting the lives and families of enslaved people. He says there's a lot more information available about them, their families, and their way of life than most people realize.

"There's a myth that pre-Civil War if your ancestor was a slave, then too bad, you won't find anything. But that's not true," Witcher said. "It will be challenging, there will be different paths, but there's a lot of information available, and more (is) becoming available all the time."

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Roberta Ridley is the chair of the African American Genealogical Society of Fort Wayne. She volunteers in the Genealogy Center, helping others navigate the databases and documents.

She said we owe it to our ancestors to learn and preserve their stories.

"I just think that when we speak their names, and what they did, and how they survived it, then we acknowledge them through the pages of history where they've been written out. It used to be that there was no question - they were from slaves, and that's it. No. That's not it," Ridley said.

According to Ridley, many of the people she helps assume they won't find anything. They've heard that the family trees of slaves were wiped from history, never to be traced. But that's not true.

Witcher said researchers are learning more every day about the lives of enslaved people, and much of the research comes from people digging into their own family histories, curious about how their families lived. Slavery can present a challenge in research, but it's not insurmountable.

"They were property. So you have to move from people records to property. And that's painful for individuals to realize that," Witcher said.

The center keeps extensive property records from the antebellum South.

Ridley and Witcher prove every day that no story is ever really lost, some are just waiting to be told.

In her own family tree, Ridley found an enslaved ancestor who taught himself to read by eavesdropping on school classes. When he taught other slaves, he was punished severely and sold across the country. But he continued to teach other slaves to read.

"To give voice to them is to say what they did and what they went through and how they survived. And they survived. Because I'm here," Ridley said.

"It's always said that history is written by the winners," Witcher said. "What is history? It's the lives of so many individuals. All of them. Not just the winners. Not just the men. Not just the important people, whatever that means. But all of them. Everybody has a story. And all those stories come together to form the tapestry of what a community is."

After decades on the job, Witcher says that finding people in property records never gets easier. But pressing through the discomfort and pain is worth it for people to know their place in history.

"Genealogy turns history into my history," Witcher said. "What did Rev. Jesse Jackson say a generation ago? 'I am somebody.' He really hit on the power of story."

"I think it's important that people know their heritage. Especially African Americans because of the history that comes with being an African American," Trotter said. "There's more confidence that comes with knowing your story, less acting out because you know who you are. You're part of a tribe, a group of people, a family, a village. It gives you a sense of belonging."

A few years ago, Heeter did a DNA test to learn more about her background. She learned that she's a product of the world, with ancestors scattered across Europe and Africa.

"It really gives me a better understanding of God. He just made one race. The human race," Heeter said.

History can be ugly and painful, but Heeter knows that everything her ancestors endured created the family she has today.

"It's like I'm connected to the world. I have real relatives. Real, live relatives all over the world that I have a connection to. And it makes me feel good," Heeter said.

If you want to learn more about your family's roots, you can get started by searching the Allen County Library's database online. You can also check your local library.

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