The Christian Science Monitor

On US slavery’s 400th anniversary, how ancestry quests help heal

"I think there’s a need for humankind to know their story," says Dwight Fryer, a minister in Memphis, Tennessee, who writes historical novels about slavery. Source: Clara Germani

Flipping through his social studies textbook as a seventh grader in the 1970s, John F. Baker Jr. was stopped cold by an old black-and-white photo of four African Americans dressed in 1890s finery in front of a plantation home. The unidentified woman in the photo staring seriously out at him reminded him of his grandmother – and a tickle of curiosity was triggered every time he opened the book.

Coincidentally, when that grandmother came to see Mr. Baker’s family near Nashville for her annual visit in 1976, she asked the youth to take a photo of a local newspaper clipping that included a picture of her grandparents. They were posing in front of the Wessyngton Plantation house where they were born enslaved and continued to work as a cook and laundress into the late 1800s.

Mr. Baker says he was “in shock” when he realized that it was the very same photo as the one in the textbook with which he’d been obsessed. “Although I had seen the photograph in the textbook many times, it assumed a different meaning once I knew that those people were my ancestors,” he wrote in his book, “The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation: Stories of My Family’s Journey to Freedom.”

“I could hardly wait to get back to school and tell my classmates that my ancestors were in our history book. ... I was so excited I could hardly sleep.” 

Mr. Baker’s jolt of elation – echoed today in the increasing number of African Americans engaging in ancestry searches through internet records and DNA testing – only seemed to grow in meaning over time as he made discovering his family’s past his life’s work. His painstakingly handwritten, 6-foot-long family tree of 11 generations and 1,000 descendants of enslaved people who labored at the Wessyngton tobacco plantation is his visualization of 40 years of sprawling

A changing multiculturalismInspiration from 1970s, to digital eraA movie, new museums, and 1619Filling in the voidFinding 11 generations of his family, beginning at age 13Pain – and survivalThe ancestry “reveal”“Not for the fainthearted”Reconnecting with AfricaCultivating relationships to past and present

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