Searching for Roots at Genealogy Day Camp

Susan Roesgen of member station WWNO in New Orleans reports on a day camp where kids spend their time searching for their roots.

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ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS AND NOTES.

Say `summer camp' and most people think of kids swimming and hiking and swapping stories around a fire. But there's a summer camp in New Orleans that takes kids into libraries and cemeteries. Susan Roesgen of member station WWNO in New Orleans has the story.

SUSAN ROESGEN reporting:

Twelve-year-old Jordan Rock(ph) thinks cemeteries are creepy, but he walked anyway among the weathered, above-ground crypts in one of New Orleans' oldest cemeteries. Antionette Harrell-Miller led the way.

Ms. ANTIONETTE HARRELL-MILLER (Genealogy Camp Director): Look at this here, Jordan. You see here? Feel this and I want you to touch it.

JORDAN ROCK (Camper): It feels like old cement.

Ms. HARRELL-MILLER: Like breaking stone, like breaking sand. Right? And that's what happens here so there's no writings there.

ROESGEN: This field trip is part of Harrell-Miller's genealogy day camp for kids. She says she became interested two years ago when she visited Ellis Island during a vacation to New York.

Ms. HARRELL-MILLER: One of the things that really, really was hard for me to look at--all the luggage that many people had donated back to the center. And I said, `My God, there's nothing for African-American people,' because we didn't have an opportunity to pack up luggage and bring it; we had to come just like we was and sometimes with absolutely nothing on. You know, so going back and researching your history is emotional. It's very emotional.

ROESGEN: For the kids in her summer camp, the search is an adventure. Harrell-Miller shows them how to find records to fill in gaps in their family histories.

ROCK: Getting closer.

ROESGEN: At the New Orleans Public Library, Jordan Rock scrolled through miles of microfilm of newspapers from the 1950s. He finally found his great-grandfather.

ROCK: Raymond Rock(ph), there we go. It says, `Entered into restaurant, Tuesday, October 21st, 1958.' As soon as I get home, I'm going to show my dad so he can know his grandfather. It's really fun and interesting, too.

ROESGEN: Another camper, 12-year-old Jameel Reese(ph), has become a whiz at searching computer databases to find ancestors his family didn't know about.

JAMEEL REESE (Camper): I found out that my great-great-great-grandfather was a casket maker. It was a good job for an African-American because that was considered to be one of the best jobs you can get back then. And to know that somebody in my family was a casket maker makes me feel good about myself.

ROESGEN: Shahida Noriden(ph), Jameel's grandmother, chaperoned the library trip.

Ms. SHAHIDA NORIDEN (Chaperone): I have just been overwhelmed with everything he's learned, everything that he's doing, how they congratulate each other when they find a name of a family member. `Oh, that's good. That's great. What did you find? This is what I found,' you know.

ROESGEN: Some family trees branched in directions the campers didn't expect. One discovered that her great-great-grandfather was probably P.T.G. Beauregard, a white general in the Confederate Army. Camp Director Antionette Harrell-Miller believes knowing about the past is better than knowing nothing.

Ms. HARRELL-MILLER: I am a part of history. When history tried to write me out, I am rewriting history, and I tell them that. You are pioneering a whole new way to look at the world through the eyes of your own family history.

ROESGEN: She says families anywhere can start learning about their history by talking about it. Parents should encourage their kids to ask questions and help them try to find the answers. She's getting calls already from families who want to participate in next summer's genealogy camp. For NPR News, I'm Susan Roesgen in New Orleans.

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