A. Kittles, Ph.D., co-founder of
African Ancestry, Inc.
While it may be surprising to some, most African Americans know very
little about their ancestry. I am one of the tens of millions
descended from enslaved Africans in America. Like many others, I
grew up wondering where in Africa my ancestors came from. So, I
began my search, which included DNA analysis. For most African
Americans, this search is not recreational, but an important
question that produces strong emotions.
Given the tragic period of slavery in American history,
one wonders why some may be surprised that African Americans go on
such quests for “Roots.” Strong public interest and emotion
surrounded Alex Haley’s book and subsequent movie by that same title
thirty years ago. Similar emotions were stirred after the PBS
special “African American Lives,” which detailed the tracing of
family genealogy and ancestry using both traditional records
searching and new DNA technology. Oprah Winfrey, who at the time
thought she was South African Zulu, was quite surprised that her
maternal lineage was not Zulu but was common among the Kpelle people
in Liberia, West Africa.
As a result of Haley’s book and film, many African Americans
suffered from “Roots envy,” a term coined by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.,
who is a Harvard professor and producer of the acclaimed “African
American Lives.” However, for most African Americans, it is very
difficult to succeed as Haley did in tracing their family history to
Because of the American slavery system, significant
aspects of the history, identity and culture of enslaved Africans
were essentially effaced and lost to succeeding generations. These
lost histories have simply come to be gaps in the historical record.
When African Americans, including myself, attempt to trace our
family history using traditional methods we hit a wall at the
Tony Burroughs, an expert genealogist, states that
“records of births and deaths during the period of slavery are
substandard at least and non-existent in most cases.” Things are
improving however with recent public releases of federal census
records pertinent to African American genealogy. Additionally, DNA
has proven to be an ideal resource to supplement historical
documents and possibly extend the African-American search for
African ancestry. DNA testing for ancestry is seen by some to be
controversial, especially as it relates to African Americans and
their longstanding need to re-connect with particular African
communities disrupted during the transatlantic slave trade......
we stand tall, it is because we stand on the shoulders of many
African (Yoruba) proverb
“He was a slave.”
Those words uttered from Grandma’s lips and into the ears of her
curious grandson. My paternal grandmother, the late Mrs. Willie Ealy
Collier, had just gotten off the telephone with her first cousin.
Like many of my childhood days, that day I was spending time with my
grandparents, and I quietly eavesdropped on her telephone
conversation with “Cut’n Dunk” Ealy. They were conversing about
their paternal grandfather, Robert “Big Bob” Ealy of Leake County,
Mississippi. I overheard statements like, “Grandpa Bob was something
else!,” “Grandpa had over thirty children,” and “Grandma Jane was
this . . . and Grandma Jane was that . . .” Never before had I heard
my grandmother talk about her grandparents. After anxiously waiting
for her telephone conversation to end, I bombarded her with
questions. I wanted to know about the subject of her conversation.
Grandma relayed things about my great-great-grandfather
she had never shared with me before. Why? I had never asked until
then. Grandpa Bob was born into slavery in Nash County, North
Carolina around 1814. According to my grandmother, he was
transported to Mississippi by his enslaver, “Masser Billy” Eley, who
used him as a breeder or “stud.” I was fifteen years old when
Grandma shared this with me. That was one of the early indications
that I would grow to have an undying interest in my history.
Learning about slavery was important, but personalizing history with
my own ancestors made history even more intriguing.
One of the highlights of my childhood, which excited me
much more than my sister, was my mother’s annual trips to her
hometown church, Beulah Baptist Church in northern Panola County,
Mississippi, nearly 150 miles north of my hometown, Canton. This was
probably another early indication that family history would become
vastly important to me. Every third Sunday in May, Beulah Church
held a special day called “Homecoming Day” that was attended by many
present and past church members from far and near. Other than the
normal holiday visits with my mother’s siblings and their children,
this was the only other time during my early childhood when I saw
groups of people who looked like my mother. These great people were
blood relatives, and the trips back to her hometown reinforced the
fact that my maternal roots ran deep.
My passion for African-American history began to truly
evolve at the age of nineteen, when I first visited the Mississippi
Department of Archives and History to start researching my family
tree. African-American genealogy does not or should not only involve
just a mere collection of names, places, and dates within one’s
family. Similar to Carter G. Woodson’s analogy relating to Black
History, genealogy research for me is a historical study of my own
family, arriving at a reasonable and analytic interpretation of the
facts that incorporated the Black experience – from pre-colonial
Africa, to the Maafa (Middle Passage), through American chattel
slavery, Reconstruction, the Black Migration, the Civil Rights era,
and up to the present. This became an everlasting, passionate
This passionate journey has resulted in me writing this
book. A number of great genealogy books are on the market today.
Therefore, I did not want this book to be just another how-to book.
My goal is to provide readers with a genealogical model, presenting
the research of my maternal grandmother’s family with comprehensible
explanations of how a southern, African-American family was traced
back seven generations, from Mississippi to South Carolina, with
definitive clues uncovering West African ties, validated by DNA
testing. During this journey of discovery, the African retentions
that prevailed in the family during slavery for several generations
were also revealed which reflected my family’s persistence in
maintaining their African ancestral customs. Uncovering these
African retentions served as an integral part of successfully
bridging the gap between America and West Africa.
In researching my grandmother’s family, many amazing
things were unearthed.....