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We are family: Piecing together the past

African-Americans face unique challenges when they try to trace their ancestral roots, as Tony Burroughs learned. But new tools may help.

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Tony Burroughs was a sophomore at Southern Illinois University when he first heard Alex Haley, then best known as the author of "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," talk about tracing his family history back to Africa. He's been fascinated by genealogy ever since.

But when Mr. Burroughs began researching his own family in 1975, about a year before Haley's "Roots" garnered international acclaim, he had no idea how much detective work would be involved. Genealogy is always painstaking, but it can be much more difficult when one's ancestors were slaves.

For one thing, slaves did not have surnames, so the only way to identify them was by who the owner was. Later, segregated records, inexplicable surnames, and a deficit of written or signed contracts became obstacles most genealogists must now contend with when researching African-American ancestry.

Before the abolition of slavery in 1860, for example, almost 250,000 of the 4 million slaves in Southern states had actually been granted freedom. Many settled in Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma and - partly due to fear, illiteracy, and a lack of money - didn't leave much of a paper trail.

But Burroughs, who is now a professor at Chicago State University and a leading authority on genealogy, was not about to let these challenges stop him.

"People look at the problems rather than the beauty and richness of it," he says. "I looked at Alex Haley and thought, 'If he can do it, anybody can do it.' "

Burroughs began his research in 1975, after reading a newspaper article about giving thanks to your ancestors and tracing your family tree. He read the piece, appropriately, on Thanksgiving Day. The story mentioned a book on genealogy published by the Boy Scouts, which he purchased the next week.

A few weeks later, he interviewed his mother, father, and grandmother, "and I just got hooked on hearing those stories they were telling." It was like piecing together a puzzle, he says, trying to figure out what had happened and who was who.


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