Researching genealogy is easier than ever, particularly with DNA analysis and online archives, but many African-Americans still struggle with a lack of government records on their enslaved ancestors.
Among researchers, it's known as "the 1870 Brick Wall."
Helping African-Americans get around or over that wall has become a driving mission of Charleston's emerging International African American Museum where its Center for Family History already is up and running with tutorials on the internet.
The center not only will help visitors with quick tips and advice to help them learn more about their ancestors but also will offer standing appointments for more substantive consultations.
Museum Director Michael Moore said, "With our Center for Family History, we will be able to literally identify the personal strand of history that is part of a broader story that we're telling. And there's no question that will be amazing."
It's even possible that the center might help some visitors learn that their ancestors once walked across the museum site as enslaved Africans.
New testing, new questions
Visitors to the center will first notice a gallery, a series of images and stories from seven different African-American families and their work studying their own ancestry.
"That provides a visual clue as to what you as a visitor can do," said Chief Curator Joy Bivins. "What can be unearthed in a genealogical search."
Helping them actually unearth that will fall to Center Director Toni Carrier and her staff. Carrier previously founded Lowcountry Africana, a nonprofit that helped with genealogical research in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.
She has mapped out a strategy of using onsite collections, community seminars, an online blog, a social media presence and more.
The museum won't do DNA testing but it will point visitors to the options for getting it done and then help them learn more from their results.
"We can help them download their results and upload them to all the free services that identify DNA matches and help you identify cousins," Carrier said. "We can also help explain what some of those DNA results mean and help the visitor strategically test members of their family based on what they’ve learned and new questions that have arisen from that."
Getting around that wall
The center's real value to visitors may lie with its particular expertise in archival searches.
The U.S. Census Bureau did not list the first and last names of enslaved Africans; they were only recorded in 1870, after the Civil War ended and they had been freed.
But Carrier said many other records were generated before 1870 and contain information on African-Americans, "but people are less aware of what those are."
For instance, Freedman's Bank records and pension records from U.S. Colored Troops can provide crucial information, such as the names of ancestors, other family members and a former slave's owner.
There are also insurance records, probate records, bills of sale — even family Bibles.
"That's the key," Moore said, "We've got folks who are among the best in the world in piecing together these bits of information to come up with a coherent story."
A key step in getting around the 1860-70 era is pinpointing the name of the slaveholder. Some U.S. Colored Troops records include the first and last names, plus the name of the slave owner, enabling a researcher to follow the trail back to plantation and other records with first names only.
"Such records are rare and very significant," Carrier said.
Carrier said the center will be able to work with prospective visitors about what work and testing they might want to consider doing even before visiting the museum in Charleston, and the center's staff also will do follow-up meetings via Skype or Facetime once visitors have returned home.
“We’re actually seeing an explosion of projects to bring records for people of African decent onto the internet, Carrier said, such as a new online compilation of runaway slave ads.
As the museum's team prepares to break ground soon, Carrier hopes its Center for Family History will help numerous families break ground on better understanding themselves and where they came from.
"There is a greater understanding of the importance of people of African-American descent and a greater understanding of the importance of African-American family history as public history," Carrier said. "History is the sum total of individual experiences, but only when all individuals' experiences are recorded do you have a clearer picture of the whole history."
For visitors, their interaction with the center may prove to be the most memorable part of their trip.
"It will contribute to the museum becoming a site of pilgrimage for people," Carrier said. "It’s one thing to go and see museum exhibits about African-Americans, but what if you walk out with your great, great grandmother's marriage record?”