Genealogy books

Tracing Black Roots with African American Genealogy

INDIANAPOLIS — Indianapolis resident Colleen Heeter has always had an interest in genealogy — the study of families. She loves finding family members she never knew she had.

“I’ve met about 65 different cousins. They’re all over the United States. But there’s more. There’s over 100,” Heeter said.

Heeter’s grandparents opened a school for black children in rural Kentucky after the Civil War. It was the only school for miles that educated black children.

This is just one of the stories she learned about her family through her research.

The journey to reunite with his family has not always been easy. Sometimes she turned to her friend Eunice Trotter for help.

“Especially children and many adults, see history as boring, but history is our foundation. It’s who we are as a family, as a nation, as a state, as a whole. as a world,” Trotter said.

Photo WRTV/Tony Grant

Trotter is the director of the new Black Heritage Preservation Program at Indiana Landmarks. She says it’s one of the only statewide African-American preservation programs in the country.

“We have a chance to shine like a diamond and set an example for the nation,” Trotter said.

The goal of the new program is to document African American heritage in Indiana.

With October being Family History Month, WRTV shines a light on what researchers are doing to trace black roots and uncover African-American genealogy.

“In the case of African American heritage and history, the actual sites have been wiped out across the country,” Trotter said. “Here in Indianapolis, for example, Indiana Ave. would have been a heritage site. All the buildings are gone. We never, in Indiana, really focused on African-American heritage. Historic places in Indiana, only 2% of them have anything to do with black history.”

Trotter’s job will be to document the stories of the Black Hoosiers and help honor their contributions to history.

“It is extremely important that we know who we are and that our history as African Americans is included in the global story for many reasons, but for the richness, fullness and truth of our history,” said said Trotter. “Because it’s not just black history, it’s everyone’s history. We’re part of this place called Indiana. We’ve been making history since the dawn of time.”

She encourages people not only to research their heritage, but also to write about it.

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Photo WRTV/Tony Grant

She documented her family history in her book, “Black in Indiana.” In it, she tells the story of her great-great-great-grandmother, Mary Bateman Clark, who brought the lawsuit that ended slavery in Hoosier State.

Bateman Clark was enslaved when slave owner Benjamin Harrison, brother of the 9th President of the United States William Henry Harrison, brought her to Indiana and forced her into indentured servitude.

Bateman Clark argued that it was involuntary labor and took his case all the way to the Indiana Supreme Court. She won, and her case set a precedent, ending involuntary labor in Indiana.

“There was no slave state. It was a slave nation,” Trotter said.

Trotter found so much joy in learning more about her family, and now she’s helping other African Americans learn about their heritage.

It can be a daunting task. America’s history of slavery may make studying genealogy more difficult for many African Americans, but it can be done.

“I think most African Americans are told they can’t trace their history that far back, but I was able to do it with relative ease,” Trotter said.

This is a common misconception genealogists hear at the Allen County Library. Based in downtown Fort Wayne, the library has the second largest genealogy center in the world.

Curt Witcher runs the center, which houses more than 1.2 million physical pieces of the story.

“It really is an amazing place of discovery. Everyone has a story, and we love helping people discover their stories,” Witcher said.

Staff placed particular emphasis on documenting the lives and families of enslaved people. He says there is a lot more information available about them, their families and their way of life than most people realize.

“There’s a myth that before the Civil War, if your ancestor was a slave, then too bad you won’t find anything. But that’s not true,” Witcher said. “It will be difficult, there will be different paths, but there is a lot of information available, and more (is becoming) available all the time.”

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PhotoWRTV/Kayla Molander

Roberta Ridley is president of the African American Genealogical Society of Fort Wayne. She volunteers at the genealogy center, helping others navigate databases and records.

She said we owe it to our ancestors to learn and preserve their stories.

“I just think that when we say their names, what they did and how they survived it, we recognize them through the pages of history where they were written. Previously, there was no doubt – they were slaves, and that’s it. No. That’s not it,” Ridley said.

According to Ridley, many people she helps assume they won’t find anything. They have heard that the family trees of slaves have been erased from history, never to be found. But this is not true.

Witcher said researchers are learning more about slave life every day, and much of the research comes from people digging into their own family histories curious about how their families lived. Slavery can present a research challenge, but it is not insurmountable.

“They were property. So you have to go from people’s records to ownership. And it’s painful for individuals to realize that,” Witcher said.

The center retains many pre-war southern property records.

Ridley and Witcher prove every day that no story is ever truly lost, some are just waiting to be told.

In his own family tree, Ridley found a slave ancestor who learned to read by listening to lessons. When he taught other slaves, he was severely punished and sold throughout the country. But he continued to teach other slaves to read.

“To give them a voice is to say what they did and what they went through and how they survived. And they survived. Because I’m here,” Ridley said.

“History is always said to be written by the winners,” said Witcher. “What is history? It’s the lives of so many individuals. All of them. Not just the winners. Not just the men. Not just the important people, whatever that means. But all of them. All of the world has a story. And all those stories come together to form the tapestry of what a community is.”

After decades of work, Witcher says finding people in property records is never easier. But going through the discomfort and pain is worth it for people to know their place in history.

“Genealogy turns history into my history,” Witcher said. “What did Reverend Jesse Jackson say a generation ago? ‘I’m somebody.’ He really touched the power of the story.”

“I think it’s important for people to know their heritage. Especially African Americans because of the history that comes with being an African American,” Trotter said. “There’s more confidence that comes with knowing your story, less acting out because you know who you are. You’re part of a tribe, a group of people, a family , of a village. It gives you a sense of belonging.”

A few years ago, Heeter took a DNA test to find out more about his background. She learned that she is a product of the world, with ancestors scattered across Europe and Africa.

“It really gives me a better understanding of God. He just created a race. The human race,” Heeter said.

The story may be ugly and painful, but Heeter knows that everything her ancestors endured created the family she has today.

“It’s like I’m connected to the world. I have real parents. Real parents living all over the world that I have a connection with. And that makes me feel good,” Heeter said.

If you want to learn more about your family’s roots, you can start by searching the Allen County Library database online. You can also check your local library.