Archivist Launches African American Genealogy Conference: 'You Never Know Who You're Related To'

Jan 30, 2020

kYmberly Keeton harvested community interest to create Growing Your Roots: The Inaugural African American Genealogy Conference. And she has a perhaps surprising suggestion of where to start exploring family history.

Keeton is the African American community archivist at the Austin History Center and is the conference's organizer and coordinator. She says the conference will have panels, workshops and research hubs for scholars, students, genealogy historians and gurus but will also provide training for novices. Keeton says the best place to start tracking down family history is actually via funeral programs.

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"A lot of people don't know that funeral programs have so much information," says Keeton. "Sometimes they list all of your family history as far as all of the people that came to that funeral and then that person that was deceased, everybody on their side."

Keeton says she believes multiple "conflicting histories about how America began" have people curious to know "how they fit in the grand scheme of this story about the United States." But she acknowledges the history of African Americans in the U.S. has been inadequately and poorly chronicled, making records such as accurate census reports harder to come by.

Listen to KUT's interview with Keeton and read the transcript below to hear more about genealogy including how technology is impacting the practice:

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.

kYmberly Keeton: With genealogy, I think as it pertains to DNA, a lot of people have asked me, had I taken that route and I haven't because I'm more interested in doing the footwork. And I'm not saying that you shouldn't get a DNA test. I mean, please do, because you will find out information about yourself and your family. However, you still have to do the footwork at some point to figure out from Z to A. Back to a where we originally come from. And then I just think people are really, really interested knowing who they are today.

KUT: I wonder why we're more interested these days in knowing who we are.

Keeton: I would say we have so many conflicting histories about how America began. And I think people want to see how they fit in the grand scheme of this story about the United States.

KUT: The kinds of things that I'm assuming you're talking about and what people explore when they explore their own genealogy might be documents or photos, for example.  But we live so differently these days. Everything is digital — documents and photos. What will people do in the future? I guess they'll study digital everything. They won't hunt down photos or documents or anything.  

Keeton: There are a lot of things that we have to continue to save and archive. So there's always going to be an archive of images. There's always going to be an archive of documents. Now, is that going to be your family history, though? How do you want to document your history? Do you want to archive it digitally? Or, would you like to have both components where you donate some of your history to the Austin History Center? Or would you prefer to create your own platform and digitize your history that way? Where we will go in the future, I have no idea. I've always been a proponent of twofold — the physical and digital.

KUT: How do you suggest that people even just get started with that? If you've never done anything but you want to chronicle your family history, where do you start?

Keeton: I would start searching for funeral programs. A lot of people don't know that funeral programs have so much information. Sometimes they list all of your family history as far as all of the people that came to that funeral and then that person that was deceased, everybody on their side. Then looking at different photos that your grandmother gave you and your mom or your father and you have them sitting in a box under your bed — take those photos out and have a photo naming ceremony or photo party with your family and y'all come together. And if they have information about those photos, let them write that information down on the back or have a notebook. And you can archive information that way. And say, you don't know the names of those people they can give you those names, too.

KUT: Is there an additional challenge for archiving African-American families just because of a lack of proper attention, writing, chronicling and imaging of African Americans in the history of the United States?

Keeton: I think there's an amazing, excellent question going into this conference, because as a genealogy curator, one thing that I share with people is that when you look at the census records, African American people in the 1800s were not taking census records. It was Caucasian males typically going to different farms, knocking on these doors and asking how many people are in your family and what are their names. And the names are misspelled. So let's say ‘Stevens’ was your great, great-grandfather's last name. They could have spelled it ‘S-t-e-v-i-n-s’. And today you all go by ‘S-t-e-v-e-n-s.’  So how do you get back to that? As well as places of where African American people were originally born. Some of them just actually answered questions just so that person could leave because they didn't want to be a part of the census.

KUT: You have done research and found some of your own family history. What does it feel like to have that information about people who came before you?  

Keeton: My mother passed in 2015 and my mother's baby sister passed two months after her. My aunt was the family historian. So in 2011, she started giving me all this information. I think she knew she was passing. And I just started connecting dots. And I'm looking at my great, great, great-grandfather's sister’s death certificate and on the death certificate Stella Wells was the informant. I got to Austin in 2018 and something just told me to just start looking at city directories.  Find out that Willie Wells was her father. Willie Wells has a statue at the state Capitol. So I keep looking at the birth certificate and I'm looking at who her grandmother is. Her grandmother and my great, great, great-grandfather were brother and sister which makes her my, probably, third cousin removed.

I decided to call this phone number that I found online. She answered the phone — 98 years old, still living, told me to come by her house. Lives in East Austin. I go by there one day. She has these beautiful blue eyes, all this gray hair, small, frail. But I got to say hello. I got confirmation in the work that I've been doing for so long.

I was just in tears. This is just like history. History. And she passed July 4, 2019. So that is to show you not to stop, to keep going, keep going. And you never know who you're related to.