MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
The Reverend Al Sharpton says he was shocked and surprised to learn that his great grandfather, Coleman Sharpton, was a slave owned by a relative of the late Senator Strom Thurmond.
Beyond the irony of the ancestral ties between the civil rights leader and the former segregationist, the news points to a growing segment of the genealogy industry. More and more African-Americans are researching their family histories these days. But it can be difficult to find information, especially for people who are the descendants of slaves.
Elizabeth Shown Mills is the former president of the American Society of Genealogists, and she says that Americans researching their family trees makes for big business.
ELIZABETH SHOWN MILLS: At this point, I would say that genealogy has become a billion-dollar industry. It is fueled, in great part today, by the Internet and the availability of records that you need to trace your ancestry on the Internet. There is a desire to understand who we are and why we are the way we are, and I think that this Sharpton situation now has emphasized how we can better understand what drives us if we understand what our ancestors went through because each of them passed down their thoughts and ideas to their children, who passed them down to us.
BLOCK: In order to know where you're going, you have to know where you came from. But for African-Americans, I understand it's particularly difficult to track down their pasts, particularly if they are the descendants of slaves.
SHOWN MILLS: Southern research, by and large, is very difficult unless you descend from one of the wealthier families. The South did not create as many records as other parts of the country did. We've had a much greater destruction of records than many parts of the country. And when you couple that with the poverty and the illiteracy that was imposed upon those who were held in slavery, then yes, you create a situation in which it can be difficult, but it is still very possible in many, many cases.
: Let's say that you believe that you are a descendant of a slave. Where and how should you begin?
SHOWN MILLS: In the Sharpton case, Al Sharpton's great-grandfather was Coleman Sharpton, Sr., and he used the Sharpton name because he belonged to Alexander Sharpton. So that's the first thing that you look for if you're working an African-American line, to see if your ancestor of 1870 carries the name of a white planter.
If you don't find them in any records of, say, the Sharpton family, then you would branch out to see who the Sharptons intermarried with. In this case, Alexander Sharpton's son married Julia Thurmond, so then you would shift over to the Thurmond family to see if a Thurmond died, and then the estate inventory, if it still exists, would name the slaves that he owned.
: Now if you had to reach outside of traditional records, where else might you look?
SHOWN MILLS: Well, actually, there are two very good sources that are available right now. First is the Library of Congress Web site that's called American Memory. There you will find a digitized copy of all of the ex-slave narratives. You can also go to subscription-based Web sites, such as ancestry.com,. Actually, they have there many of the Freedman's Bureau records. It's a wonderful resource for African-American genealogy.
: You can now rely on the Internet to do much of this work for you. If your ancestors are perhaps just a few keystrokes away, do you still at some point have to get out of the house and become a bit of a gumshoe if you really want to get to the source of the information?
SHOWN MILLS: You cannot be a genealogist if you are not a gumshoe. Anytime that you are working with family trees that have been compiled, the odds of mistakes are very, very good. That is why I say when you find these, you are obliged to see what their source is and to go find that source. Verify it in the original records yourself.
: Elizabeth Shown Mills was the former president of the American Society of Genealogists, and she currently lectures at the Sanford University Library in Birmingham, Alabama. Thanks so much for speaking to us.
SHOWN MILLS: My pleasure, Michele.