News Story

Conference Helps African Americans Connect to Ancestors

Ruth Ann Hager found herself literally sitting in the middle of Harriet Scott’s story, the wife of Dred Scott, a slave who unsuccessfully sued for his freedom in 1856. Hager, a reference specialist in the special collections division of the St. Louis Missouri county library, described her discovery of Harriet Scott’s grave, a long-questioned historical quandary, at an area African American Family History Conference sponsored by the local stakes of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The conference, in its second year, drew nearly 400 participants from the St. Louis communities at large and partnered with a host of community agencies in offering resource information specifically focused on the African American population.

The infamous Dred Scott decision, rendered in 1857 at the Old Historic Courthouse in St. Louis, left local records behind, records that finally yielded vital information about Scott’s wife, Harriet, according to Hager.

Hager cites the Scott example as an illustration of how to track family history information previously thought missing, unavailable or non-existent. The librarian suggested a series of questions that, if applied, would assist individuals in locating their lost family records: “Was a record created? Did the record survive? Where is the record archived today? How can I access the record?”

This step-by-step procedure defines a research path for genealogists to pursue.

Hager also described the value of the World War I draft registration cards as another lesser- known resource. “Those records are solid gold,” she said. “They fill in the gap from the 1880 census and the loss of the 1890 census in a fire. The draft registration becomes an all-male census, but if you can find the fathers and the brothers, you are likely to fit the women into the families.”

Fitting families together genealogically can be perplexing, but success stories like Hager’s motivate others to continue the search.

Another conference presenter, Traci Wilson-Kleekamp, described her search for familial relationships on, the Church’s vast genealogy Web site. The researcher utilized new databases of death record indexes to eventually locate her mother’s adoption details. “After looking for three years, I was able to find a death record for one of my mother's siblings ... a twin who died as an infant. That helped me discover that her other three siblings had also been put up for adoption,” Wilson-Kleekamp explained. “Amazingly she and two of her sisters (adopted to different parents) were, at one point, all going to the same elementary school. Little pieces of information eventually come together to provide solutions,” the instructor related.

Mike Everman, supervising archivist at the Missouri state archives in St. Louis, suggested the use of newly online court records to help define family relationships. “For African Americans, we’ve discovered more than 300 slave freedom suits,” Everman explained. “These legal papers help determine family connections and locations. One example, a slave named Nicolas Jones, who was granted his own freedom in 1829, was, in 1841, involved in a debtors’ case. The later case incidentally named his wife and three children.”

The archivist also suggested that the court records can help fill in the gaps between census records. “There’s a whole lot of life that goes on between the years a census occurs,” Everman said. “People file tax forms, apply for licenses, register for permits; all these actions leave very public footprints to their lives and provide ready information about their circumstances, locations and, often, relationships.”

While conference participants heard numerous research success stories, some even discovered unknown cousins during the sessions. All were introduced to the hundreds of resources readily available in St. Louis libraries, courthouses, archives and online services including

Records provided by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at add to the rich repository of genealogical information easily accessible to the novice or the seasoned family history researcher and provide a specific section of resources for the African American genealogist.

“Today, we are moving in a fast-paced technological world,” notes Karen Jepsen, community relations manager for the Church’s Family History Department, “a world which has given millions more of us an opportunity to find, record and preserve our family histories for the future. The CD and DVD, the Internet, digital scanning, digital recording, online indexing — all of these things enhance our family history efforts. Conferences such as these and access to Family-Search, with its vast resources and tools, enable generations to increase their sense of self-worth and forge the bonds of family for the future.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints provides resources to persons of all faiths to search their ancestry. In addition to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, the Church has smaller centers scattered throughout the world to assist both novice and experienced ancestor seekers. 

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