With marriage equality now law of the land, it would seem natural now that all LGBT Americans can start legally recognized families, that there might be a greater interest in the family and its roots in general. Of course, there are a number of tools like ancestry.com or findmypast.com that can be accessed online, but what to do when we encounter a roadblock and further exploration into our past requires a trip?
We asked Kenyatta Berry (photo below), a lawyer by trade, who is also one of the experts on PBS’s Genealogy Roadshow and the Past President of the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG) for some advice.
OutTraveler: What are the first steps toward planning a trip to trace your family tree?
Kenyatta Berry: When you start with genealogy you first start with yourself then work backwards - your parents, your grandparents, your great-grandparents. For any of your family members, get any names, dates, and locations tied to them first. Before you go on a trip, you need to plan and make sure you know why you are going and where you are going. You need to know that stuff before you start your trip, it’s essential to why you are going to a certain place.
OT: So there shouldn’t be any, “I know my family is from Sicily so I’m headed to Sicily and will figure it out when I get there.”
KB: No, none of that, not when you get there. Have a plan, a plan is key. You’ll go to archives, you’ll go to courthouses, and you’ll go to local places to get those records. So it’s very important to know that and know what you are looking for because you want to make sure it’s available. The types of records that they will have at those locations are usually not online: a will, a birth record, or an immigration stop.
OT: What do you do in the place of a question mark?
KB: What you do when you get to a question mark is to try to get as much information as possible. This really depends on if you are first generation or not. From a non-first generation perspective, you can go online to the 1940 census on Ancestory.com; see where your family lived, that will give you ages and where they were born. Start there and then you can go to 1930, 1920 and work your way backwards until you hit that brick wall, that immigrant ancestor.
That kind of stuff you can do online. What really comes into play, the travel part of it, is if you need to go to a certain place to get something. Before you even plan a trip, you need to know what you are looking for.
One of the largest genealogical depositories is in Salt Lake City, so a lot of times what you can do quite a bit of research there.
OT: Is the library specifically for people that come from that region? Or, for people with Mormon ancestry?
KB: No, the library is comprehensive and includes people that aren’t Mormon and from other parts of the country. They are the mecca of genealogy because the Family History Library is a part of the Mormon Church. Genealogy is an important part of the Mormon religion.
So what they would do when they were going around and doing their missions, they would collect taped recordings from all over the world. So there is a whole international section there. It’s huge and there are people there to help you. Let’s say you need something from Italy or something from Spain and you can’t afford to go there and get it, going to the genealogical library would be a step and they have their catalog online so you can search and make sure they have the records that you need before you go and that’s everything.
I would strongly suggest, if you were going to visit a place like a city’s archives, try a Google search on the archive first. Find out what is required, they will tell you what you need to bring, for instance.
OT: What would you pack to go with you, your genealogy backpack so to speak?
KB: Your genealogy backpack needs to contain a notebook, a pencil or pen, a printed out family tree, a printed list of the names of the people you are looking for (because you may not be able to take any technology with you in the room so it is critical to have that piece of paper), obviously I would bring your lap top in case you can bring it into the room with you. I always say to take a USB drive.
Sometimes you can get really caught up; you may want to take an energy bar. I think that would be it, I mean actually depending on where you are going you may want to have an eBook or a book on the specific area you are searching. So if you are doing a town genealogy have a book, also have a list of the locations you want to go to, the times (the hours), and any requirements. Make sure you wear comfortable clothing, bring a sweater in case it gets cold. And, always you will need a photo ID.
OT: What do you think that people get out of obtaining this information?
KB: It’s sort of a life changing experience, because when you know about that connection to your past, it helps you deal with things today. You look at it and say, “wow, my ancestor had to go through that,” or “they came over with $19 in their pocket”. I’ve seen that it does change lives.
OT: How far back can someone normally expect to go?
KB: Normally you get about three or four generations back, it just matters on how much information you have. DNA analysis helps a lot with people who have been adopted, that has been a really big thing for them. I have even gone back- even with my ancestors - five generations, which is pretty remarkable. I think a lot of it is what do you feel, the connection, it grounds you in a sense. Everyone has a story and a lot of people don’t know the stories of their ancestors.
OT: What happens when someone encounters an ancestor that was a Nazi or a slave owner, not something you would necessarily be proud to discover, what is your advice for that kind of situation?
KB: Well, I always tell people, you never know what you are going to find. We all have ancestors that were not so nice. I think one of the things that we try to tell people is that…we’ve told some hard stories for people who were on the receiving end of the information, that their ancestor was part of a lynch mob or something similar. I think the biggest thing is to know that that was that person and it is a part of history. We deal with this a lot when it comes to slavery. That is what happened at the time. That was then, it was crazy and I can’t believe that it happened but it did and we have to know that it makes us who we are and the more that we know that, the more we can talk about it—the prejudice and the racial divide still exist today due to the fact that we want to sweep these nasty things under the rug.
OT: What about when you uncover a still-living relative in the city you find yourself: should you just go knock on her door and introduce yourself?
KB: You have to take that into account that some people just don’t want to know you. They don’t want to know their history; they have a bad taste in their mouth or whatever. I have done research for people who are like, “I’m estranged from my family. Do not contact them for specific information.”
OT: With LGBT people specifically, what makes it especially important or special for a gay person?
KB: Depending on how someone came out and how their family responded to it; I think for them it is a sense of community and family. By doing the research it gives them that connection to the folks that they didn’t know.
It’s also important for health history - and this is true for everyone - a lot of people don’t know that. Yeah, maybe you don’t want to know this information but it is really important for your health. That is always the first thing, what is your family history of cancer, diabetes and you have no idea.
OT: Do you find a lot of gay people in the past, where they lived, with whom and so on?
KB: There is an article by Thomas MacEntee where he wrote about gay and lesbian ancestry and he said it is a lot about looking at the community in which they lived in at the time. They are going to list them as partners or two lodgers together. You just have to look at it and read between the lines, but it is very interesting.
Also, people just flat out lie; I had an ancestor who was listed as widowed in a 1930 census. I knew that the father did die at this time so I go looking for it. And, then oh, I find him on the other side of the city with his wife and kids… okay. I had two of those in my family, ridiculous, one on my mom’s side and one on my dad’s side. The important lesson here is not to just accept everything at face value.
OT: What are some of the difficulties researching in a foreign country?
KB: You have to know that there is a language barrier. You may want to get a local researcher to help you, you find them on the website for the Association of Professional Genealogists. It is the only professional genealogy association with over 2,700 members worldwide, so you can search by country and location.
I don’t think anyone should just say, “I’m just going to go to this place.” Understand what you are getting yourself into. Some European countries are really laid back; I think they close in the summer for about two months.
OT: What kind of timeline in general am I looking at if I am going to research abroad?
KB: I say you have to give yourself at least a week because you’ll probably want to look for your family and sightsee. Also, because you don’t know what you are going to find and what you might find could lead you to something else that’s in a different place.
OT: Any last words of advice?
KB: (laughs) If you go to the courthouse, always be nice to the clerk because they can be really nasty and not get you what you want.