African American ancestors can be traced via World War I draft records.
Documenting your family can be a lot of fun and, thanks to the Internet, easier than ever. But it remains a challenge to many.
"Because of the disrespect that record keepers had at different periods toward African Americans, they weren't fully documented," says Lori Bessler, reference librarian and outreach coordinator at the Wisconsin Historical Society. "You don't necessarily have birth records [even] in the 1920s, whereas in the white community you would most likely have that. Those parts of the paper trail, into the 1930s and '40s, can be difficult to find."
Fortunately, help will be offered at the society's second annual African American Genealogy Conference on Saturday, Oct. 18. The daylong event will provide practical information to beginners and experts alike.
"It's to encourage people to look into their family's past, to learn more about themselves and their current generation, as well as going back farther," says Bessler, an organizer of the conference and a speaker.
She notes that the Historical Society's resources cover all of the U.S., and that it can assist African Americans who don't even suspect a Wisconsin connection. She adds that "there was a lot of settling in Wisconsin that happened just after the Civil War." Family members in that period and earlier can be especially difficult to trace.
"When you're dealing with African Americans, especially in the South, you hit that 1870, 1865 time period, and it's hard to get back further from there because of slavery," Bessler says. "But there's still a way. There are so many pieces of the paper trail."
Chillingly, that paper trail sometimes leads to documents relating to "owned property."
"If a person is found to be a slave at that time, you're looking at the story of the slaveholder," she says. "In that case, you may be looking at deeds or probate files and estate listings. Those could list slaves' names and what happened to them."
The conference's featured guest will be Chicago-based writer and genealogist Janis Minor Forte, granddaughter of a slave. A frequent speaker at genealogy conferences, she recently won an award for excellence from the International Society of Family History Writers and Editors. She'll share how-to strategies she used to trace the 16 children of her great-grandmother.
Carolyn Mattern, a retired archivist at the Historical Society, will speak on finding Wisconsin's African American soldiers in the Civil War. Other topics will include searches of online collections and World War I draft cards.
Looking for an ancestor can provide some nice surprises. "There have been many case studies that show, 'Hey, your person wasn't a slave!'" says Bessler. "It can't be assumed all African Americans were enslaved."
Family history can also reveal bad surprises. "One branch of my family was slaveholding," Bessler says. "They had a pretty good-sized plantation in Louisiana. It was very alarming to learn that our family was connected to that."
African American Genealogy Conference
Oct. 18, Sheraton Hotel, 706 John Nolen Dr., 8 am-5 pm, $40/$30 (members of Historical Society, Wisconsin State Genealogical Society or any African American genealogical society). Attendees may register at the door. For more info, see