A Tale of Two Family Trees

How Black Americans can face uphill battles building their family trees

Andrew Gaertner
7 min readNov 26, 2022
Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels

And why it is important to persist.

I was recently asked to help a co-worker’s mother with her family tree. I confidently said yes, no problem. I enjoy helping people find out about their ancestors and it usually takes me about five hours to build a tree. This time, my confidence was misplaced. I had no idea I would run into so many brick walls with this tree. You see, this was my first tree for a Black family.

Spoiler: Systemic racism can make every part of genealogy research harder for Black Americans.

For folks with European ancestry, like me, the process is straightforward. The website Ancestry.com has hundreds of thousands of documents, all digitized and searchable. Newspapers.com has done the same for historical newspapers. In addition, millions of people have entered publicly searchable trees into Ancestry’s database. Many of those trees can be corroborated with Ancestry DNA connections.

So, if I can locate a person with European heritage’s ancestors in the 1950 census, then usually very quickly I can find documents going back to immigration and often some documentation for the family in Europe. Piece. Of. Cake. Except not always.

Sometimes one or two lines are stubborn. Every brick wall is different. It can happen because someone has a common first and/or last name or lives in a big city where there are many people with the same name. Also, sometimes other people’s trees have incorrect or inconsistent information and it throws off the algorithm. If a family moved in between censuses, then that can also throw off the search. I have a few ways to try to get around these blocks, but it takes time.

I knew the process would be different for a Black family.

The first census that formerly enslaved people appeared in was the 1870 Census. Prior to the Civil War, enslaved people were tick marks under the white owner’s “Slave Schedule” census, without names or exact ages. So my assumption was that the best we could do would be to take each line back to a location in 1870. I found it next to impossible to do even that.

I do my family tree research to hold up a mirror to myself. I want to know the stories of my ancestors. As part of my research, I find that the stories of my ancestors intersect with the “big stories” of this nation. For example, when people say “we are a nation of immigrants,” I can look back at the many immigration stories in my family. When we hear stories of pioneer farmers making a home on the prairie, my mirror shows my family in overalls, plowing fields.

To be white means that I can easily see (at least some of) my stories reflected in the collective national mythos.

As I dug into my friend’s family tree, the mirror I held up to her family showed some difficult truths. To a Black person with ancestors who were enslaved or to a Native American person, the line that “we are a nation of immigrants” rings hollow. I will not use the phrase anymore. Instead, we need to begin to rewrite our national stories to be a more accurate and inclusive mirror for our nation.

On my father’s mother’s side, I am descended from a community of German farmers who immigrated together to Central Illinois and lived for generations in the same small town, and went to the same church. These farmers almost all owned their own farms and they prospered on some of the best farmland in the country and built generational wealth. There is an abundance of genealogical data available to me or anyone else related to these people.

My friend’s family all came from one county in Mississippi with some of the best bottomlands in the South, and at one point every line was listed as “farmer” in the census. On the surface, it seems like a similar story. But few of those farmers owned their land, instead, they were listed as renters, likely sharecroppers, in a system that held all the economic advantage for the (usually white) landowners. Both of our families are rooted in agriculture, but there were big differences. I can see why Black people left the South by the millions during the Great Migration for jobs in cities away from the history of plantation agriculture.

Researching both families I can see how the documents seem to accumulate more when you are white.

In my grandma’s small town, the newspaper listed the names of my relatives any time anything big or small happened. Obituaries and marriage announcements listed all the relatives who attended, and often a blurb noted that so-and-so was in town to shop or visit their uncle. Those newspaper stories corroborate census documents and birth and death records to provide the necessary information to triangulate and confirm names in the tree.

In the town in Mississippi where my friend’s family is from, the only times her ancestors’ names appeared in the newspaper was when their names were posted as being purged from the voter rolls because of an unpaid poll tax, which was a common Jim Crow era way to disenfranchise Black people. If there was a marriage or death announcement, it only listed the names and not the whole family.

The census documents for my white ancestors are like stepstones, with accurate data appearing at ten-year intervals. By contrast, it was hard to tell if a census document that I found for my friend’s family should be assigned to the family because names, spellings, and ages change from one census to the next. It is as if the census taker did not care.

So we have unreliable census information and non-existent newspaper stories. We are trying to build a puzzle with dozens of missing pieces. At some point, it is just impossible.

One of the best resources out there for genealogists is a website called “Find-a-Grave.” Volunteers have created profiles for millions of graves all across the country. The searchable database can link you to a photo of an ancestor’s grave, and often you can find data on other people in the family plot. I trust the dates on gravestones because they are literally written in stone. Cemeteries with white people in them are well-documented on Find-a-Grave.

We did find some of my friend’s ancestors on Find-a-Grave, but there are many more who are not there. I jokingly sent her an email saying that we should go down to Mississippi with a weed whacker and see if we can uncover more gravestones. It is possible that the markers are lost forever.

Names are clues. When someone has a unique first or last name, that makes them easy to research. My grandma’s last name, Lovekamp, is unique to her family. All Americans with that name are somehow connected to her family.

The problem comes when I research some of the seemingly unique names for my friend’s ancestors, they keep coming up with white people with the same names. This confuses the Ancestry algorithm which keeps suggesting records for those white people. Since there are so many more records for the white folks, the Black people with the same name can get lost in the snow.

Those similar unusual names can speak to two uncomfortable truths about Black Americans with enslaved ancestors. First, their ancestral names, languages, religions, and much of their cultures were systematically taken from them and replaced with “white” names, English, and Christianity. This is cultural genocide. The even more uncomfortable truth is that rape was so common on plantations that a white and a Black person with the same unusual name might be half-siblings.

Ancestry.com is a for-profit company and uncomfortable truths might put off their white customers. Although they have the largest database of subscribers’ trees and an astonishing array of instantly searchable documents, they have repeatedly failed Black Americans.

In 2019, they released (and then retracted) an advertisement that whitewashed and romanticized slavery. In 2018, they changed their algorithm to not show “Slave Schedules” when searching for a white ancestor by name. Presumably, they did this to prevent white people from finding out the unpleasant truth that their ancestral wealth was built on the enslavement of Black people, but this change also made it harder for Black folks to trace their own ancestry. Supposedly they changed it back.

I have been told that the website “Family Search” is better for research into Black families. That is all well and good, but Ancestry has something necessary that Family Search does not, which is the largest family-tree-linked database of consumer DNA tests, and DNA is one hope for building family trees that go back before 1870 for Black researchers.

I won’t talk about my friend’s DNA and what we discovered using the tools at Ancestry, except to say that in the absence of documents, DNA can corroborate family stories and knowledge and it can tell a kind of story itself.

There is also a company out there specializing in African DNA. They are called “African Ancestry” and they offer tests that can pinpoint both the maternal line and the paternal line. The maternal line is found using mitochondrial DNA, which each baby receives only from the mother’s egg. That means it comes from the mother without mixture and each generation and can be traced to an ancestral mother. By comparing the mitochondrial DNA to samples from base populations in Africa, they can give a best guess for the region where the maternal line comes from.

African Ancestry can follow the same process for the Y chromosome for males, which is inherited from father to son without mixture from the mother. However, because of all the rape, it is possible that a paternal line test might yield a European ancestor. These tests can give people with African ancestry a specific location for one of their lines and contribute to their story.

After several weeks of picking away at my friend’s tree, I can’t say I added much more than she already had, but I will keep at it. I wanted to help, but mostly I ended up with myself learning more than helping.

It is worth building accurate family trees for Black Americans. Part of this is because the majority of history classes in the United States erase Black people from our nation’s story or minimize their roles in history. A family tree can be a significant act of resistance against the whitewashing of history.



Andrew Gaertner

To live in a world of peace and justice we must imagine it first. For this, we need artists and writers. I write to reach for the edges of what is possible.