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Genealogists help African Americans trace lineage past enslavement

Angela Mallet at HoneyBee Sage & Wellness Apothecary
Posted at 10:06 AM, Jun 16, 2021

MILWAUKEE, Wis. — More than a century and a half after African Americans broke the chains of enslavement, breaking down the strains of DNA to figure out where they come from is filled with roadblocks, making it difficult to trace their ancestry.

“I don’t know who my great-grandmother’s mother was,” said Angela Mallet, an herbalist in Wisconsin. “There are roadblocks there and you can’t go any further because there is nobody who would know.”

Mallet has taken a special interest in tracing back her roots. It’s important for her to know where her family comes from so she can better understand how their lived experiences can impact her life today.

Angela Mallet shares her journey through identifying her African lineage
Angela Mallet shares her journey through identifying her African lineage

“We’re charged with looking at the challenges that may come from trauma that was passed down generationally and focusing on how we can overcome those things or change that energy that may be negative, into something positive so we can hand down something different to our children to help them evolve into better humans and people,” Mallet said. “So, it not only affects their families but their communities, their cities, their nations.”

Mallet knows her family came to Milwaukee from Mississippi. She was even able to locate her great-great-grandmother on her dad’s side at a gravesite in Mississippi. She was born in 1878.

Angela Mallet's oldest known relative
Angela Mallet's oldest known relative, Syrentha Mallet, was born in 1878. This is her gravesite in Mississippi.
Because of poor records kept during the slavery-era, Mallet has run into many roadblocks in identifying her ancestors.

However, due to the transatlantic slave trade and American slavery in general, there are very few records to tell her more.

“My grandfather, T.C. Mallet, was part of the great migration,” Mallet said. “The record-keeping and census taking in the South was definitely not accurately reported in a lot of communities where African Americans lived. My mother’s father knew his mother but did not have a large awareness of who his father was. He hears his father is a particular person but never met him or had a large engagement with him.”

Map showing the Great Migration from south to north

The Great Migration brought some 400,000 African Americans to the Midwest between 1916 and 1918 to cities like Chicago, Detroit, and Milwaukee. In 100 years, the African American population in Milwaukee went from 106 in 1860 to 62,458 in 1960.

Through the number of genealogy sites available, almost anyone can open up an account and figure out who their great-great-grandparents are with the click of a few buttons. While most white Americans can look back and find pride because their ancestors fought in the wars that freed the country, people like Angela Mallet are left with a melancholy moment of reflection.

Her relatives were brought here against their will; losing their language, their culture, and their freedom.

“The things that challenge my being, I’m not aware of where they come from,” Mallet said. “I absolutely love my full lips as an African American woman. I’ve come to love my nose. The features that make me a Black woman, right? But [my ancestors] were stripped of their language, the foods they ate, moving to a whole different climate zone. They lost dances, religion, spiritual practices. All of that was stripped from them. It makes figuring out what my job is and what my lessons are here on planet earth very difficult.”

“We have the brick wall of all brick walls,” Nick Sheedy said. “That’s slavery.”

Finding Your Roots
Finding Your Roots video courtesy of McGee Media, Inkwell Media and PBS

Sheedy is the Lead Genealogist for the PBS series, “Finding Your Roots” hosted by Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. The show helps trace the lineage of several famous and well-known people. Sheedy says they’ve had the most difficulty with guests of African American ancestry.

“For most African American families, we can trace them back to the 1870 U.S. Census. Occasionally, we will find a few earlier records after the Civil War, but the 1870 Federal Census is the first nationwide census on which all African Americans would have been listed by name. You get ages, birthplaces, family groups.”

All of that information provides a trove of hints to who came before them. The problem is, getting back to 1870 can be difficult. Remember, Mallet’s oldest relative she can find, from a gravestone, was born in 1878.

“Anybody doing this work needs to have enough information to get back to the 1940 Census,” Sheedy said. “Once you get back to the 1940 Census, you can find your family, and then you’ll get some information. Hopefully, you can find the 1930 Census and it gives you ages which allows you to estimate birth dates. Then, birthplaces of parents. So now, you can start profiling the family and go back to 1920, 1910, 1900, and so on.”

Angela on learning about ancestors through word of mouth

Sheedy suggests starting small. Ask questions of any living family members. The older, the better.

“Ask a great aunt, an older cousin,” Sheedy said. “We will often ask our guests’ relatives. Maybe our guest doesn’t know some of this stuff but their parents may be living, so we get as much information as we can from the family. What does the family remember? That gives us a place to start.”

Critical information to continuing the path are names, dates, and places. So, Sheedy suggests finding out where someone lived and when they lived there. Important documents, which aren’t publicly available in all states, are birth certificates, death certificates, marriage licenses, military draft cards, wills, estate inventories. All of these can have nuggets of information to connect and confirm ancestors.

Strategy for African Americans

But because African Americans were viewed and treated as less than human, these records can be harder to come by as time goes on.

“The brick wall for African Americans is Emancipation,” Sheedy said. “At that point, you really have to scratch back another generation or two into the slavery era. I would estimate, I’m only successful 20 to 25 percent of the time to identify the last slave owners. That’s really what you need to do in order to delve into the slave research. All of the slavery records are going to be filed under the slave owners' names. If you don’t know who you’re looking for, that’s very, very difficult.”

Very difficult, but not impossible. During an episode of "Finding Your Roots," Sheedy's team was able to trace back the family history of musician Ahmir Thompson, better known as Questlove, to the ship his enslaved ancestors were brought to America on. The drummer for the hip-hop band The Roots was able to see a photo of his oldest known ancestor on the show.

Because slave records may or may not include names, it can be a frustrating venture with no gratification.

“Oftentimes, you’re looking for a record that doesn’t exist,” Sheedy said. “So you never know, when you get into the slave era, whether you’re going to find anything or not. It’s not because, oh, it’s just too hard to find it. It just may not exist. That is the disappointing aspect for African American research because your paper trail runs out so quickly.”

The information Sheedy gets isn't hidden somewhere or in an area he has exclusive access to. Sheedy suggests tapping into several websites online:

Sheedy says, in addition to the aforementioned documents to search through, he suggests looking up The Freedmen’s Bureau Records once an African American person has been able to trace their lineage back to the slavery era.

The cover of The National Archives Freedmen's Bureau Records
The cover of The National Archives Freedmen's Bureau Records

It’s something Mallet is excited to dive into now that she knows it exists. As she restocks her shop, HoneyBee Sage & Wellness, an apothecary near 92nd and Lisbon in Milwaukee, Mallet can’t help but wonder if her career choice is in her blood.

“I’m an herbalist,” Mallet said. “I’m a healer in the sense of, I’ve taken my own personal journey of healing and I share information I have to help people in their journeys of life.”

Mallet feels this didn’t happen by accident. As a child, she told her father she wanted to be a doctor. While she didn’t go that route, the inherent urge to help people remained. She became a massage therapist but felt there was more she could do.

“My great-great-uncle, Uncle Buddy,” Mallet said with a smile on her face. “Gertrude Horton was his name and he was a root doctor in Mississippi. My grandmother told me, she would walk with him to the mailbox to get mail and he’d always have letters saying thank you with money for an herbal remedy or writing in faith with money inside to give them something that would heal them.”

For Mallet, she says that innate gift is something she sees in her shop from people who come into her shop looking for help. She’ll often let them look around before she makes any suggestions. Mallet says someone once came in for indigestion and pointed to a specific herb asking what it was for. Lo and behold, it was something Mallet would have suggested for the ailment. She feels there is something inside everyone that is transferred down from generation to generation. While she isn’t sure she’ll ever know exactly where her ancestors came from in Sub-Saharan Africa, knowing as much about her past could satisfy her curiosity about why she operates the way she does.

Angela understanding who we come from versus where we come from

“There was no training for Uncle Buddy to do this,” Mallet said. “That DNA has expressed in me and now I’m doing the work. Having that knowledge helped me do that more confidently as opposed to linking up with a clinical herbalist, perhaps a white person, gone to school and learned things that would negate my being and my sense of purpose because I didn’t go through that channel. But it’s in me. It’s something I have known. It’s part of who I am.”

She also thinks this could help her identify some of the issues present in her and the lives of other people of color as a result of systemic racism.

African Americans frequently are atop the wrong lists for health issues: higher rates of bad cholesterol, high blood pressure, cancer, obesity, asthma and more.

There are well-documented reasons for how societal pressures have added to these health deficiencies: from redlining, poor schooling, food deserts and others. But Mallet feels, if she knew how something impacted her ancestors, it may help her to break the cycle.

“It speaks about how certain genes are expressed, given certain circumstances or conditions,” Mallet said. “It’s not that you necessarily inherit blood pressure issues because your dad, great grandparents, great-great-grandparents had it. If you know the conditions that lended itself towards this expression, this genetic expression, you have information and tools you need to do something differently. If your grandfather was raised by his father and they ate the same food, lived under similar conditions, you may have a propensity because of DNA. But if you don’t understand the lifestyles and things that happened that led to those expression of genes, whether disease or blood pressure or anxiety or mental health issues, how do you know how to avoid the things that trigger this expression? DNA loads the gun, but lifestyle pulls the trigger.”

The conversation has reinvigorated Mallet’s efforts towards finding her own roots. While she knows there are no guarantees she’ll be able to trace all the way back to Africa, she’s excited for the journey and what she could find.

Angela doing work that's in her blood

“It would give me such a sense of pride,” Mallet said. “Such a sense of being, of purpose. I think that’s necessary for human beings to thrive.”

Inevitably, Sheedy says the paper trail of documents will run out. He suggests using social media to help. Searching for genealogy groups on social media sites can yield helpful tips the amateur genealogist hasn’t thought of yet. The help from everyone could be the difference in Mallet passing down a history of enslavement trauma to another generation or stopping it in its tracks.

“If you don’t know your heritage, you don’t know things that happened,” Mallet said. “It could be the difference between whether or not you can evolve beyond the trauma so your children have a different experience in America. We’re talking 150 years later as we approach Juneteenth. It should be a national celebration of the last liberation of slaves in Galveston. But what happened 400 plus years before that? When you don’t have that information, you don’t really know what’s enslaving your mind and your mentality. So you keep moving in ways that keep you in a perpetual state of suffering and slavery. You don’t even know how or why you’re doing it.”

This story was originally published by Shaun Gallagher at WTMJ.