Telling Your African American Family Story

“Telling your African American Family Story,” a workshop cosponsored by the Delaware Genealogical Society and the Center for African American Heritage at the Delaware Historical Society, introduced the topic of African American genealogy to a large and enthusiastic audience on September 15, 2012.  While any family search can be filled with roadblocks and brick walls, African American genealogy has its own challenges.  Records are often scarce, and the status of slavery makes research before 1870 difficult for many.  But that’s no reason not to give it a try!

Noted African American genealogist Shamele Jordon provided an excellent introduction, presenting the basics in an entertaining fashion guaranteed to inspire confidence.  In particular, a case study from her own family showed how she used indirect clues from records to learn about some of her enslaved ancestors.  In other words, if your direct ancestor doesn’t lead you to answers to your questions, pursue other family members or even unrelated people mentioned in the documents—those people might lead to what you’re looking for.

Syl Woolford, Delaware African American historian and genealogist, approached the topic from a community perspective.  He used the Delaware Historical Society’s Szymanski photograph collection and the 1940 census to explore what Wilmington’s East Side, a historically African American neighborhood, was like in 1940, when the city was still segregated.  He presented a community with people from all walks of life, from professionals to laborers, all living together.  It was interesting to note how many working adults were still living with their parents, and how many households included lodgers.  Of course, both of these situations don’t seem so strange today, although they might have not so long ago.

Jim Jones of PBK Photography spoke about caring for and learning from family documents and photographs, and Dr. Constance Cooper, Chief Curator of the Delaware Historical Society, introduced researchers to the resources of the Delaware Historical Society Research Library.

These presentations barely scratched the surface of the topic.  More programs and workshops will follow from both the Delaware Genealogical Society and the Center for African American Heritage at the Delaware Historical Society.  If you’re interested in learning more about African American genealogy in Delaware or in joining the e-mail list to learn about future opportunities, please e-mail

— Connie

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