Happy Aging is a unique series focused on how to help you age well. These stories have been created in cooperation with AARP and Word In Black.

Imagine discovering that you’re a descendant of scholars from the Songhai Empire or pirates who raided the Eastern Pacific. Popular shows like Finding Your Roots, Genealogy Roadshow, and Relative Race share a glimpse of what it’s like to discover family lineage. Today, there are hundreds of genealogical societies across the United States. Shaun Thomas is president of The Fred Hart Williams Genealogical Society, one of the first organizations in Michigan dedicated to researching African American family history. He spoke with us about the power of learning about who we are. 

WIB: When did your interest in genealogy begin? 

Thomas: As a kid growing up, I spent summers in Union, Mississippi where my parents are from. In the summer, I was down in Mississippi. There was still segregation down there, and up here in Detroit, progressive. My mom took me to rallies as I got older. My mom goes to reunions. Newton County, Mississippi has reunions every summer. Just talking to people just got me interested in finding out, “Okay, how are we related?” I went online and I noticed there was a genealogy group here in Detroit. 

WIB: That’s amazing. You’ve been part of one of the first established groups of its kind in the state for nearly 15 years. How have research techniques changed since you started?

Thomas: When I started, you had books and you had the microfilm and microfiche, so it was a lot of dusty, dark places in libraries. That’s all we had. Then, with the advent of the Internet, you could communicate with people. Ancestry, Family Search, and those types of companies that target genealogy, you had online – so I have a community of people who were looking for ancestors using genealogy. That was a revolution. Then, the third is DNA. With DNA, you can connect with people who have a common ancestor that you weren’t able to trace. You can, with pretty good probability, determine that this is a cousin that’s removed and then after you connect with that person, hopefully you can figure out what the connection is.

WIB: What makes researching African American families distinct from other ethnicities? 

Thomas: You run into what we call, “brick walls.” You’re going to go back looking at records and then you’re going to get to the 1800s – before 1870 when African Americans were enslaved in this country – and you’re going to run out of the normal records. You’re not going to get Census records. You’re not going to get the normal records that genealogists use. There are other records that we use. If you know who the slaveholder was, you can look to see if there were wills or court documents that may name who your ancestors were, but those are few and far between. 

WIB: That’s serious.

Thomas: A lot of times, the hardest thing is a surname. Where did it come from? That’s the first problem. You can trace back using a surname, but then you get to a point where, “Ok, where did this surname come from? Is this a surname that was taken from a slaveholder? Was it a name that was adopted for several reasons? (People may have escaped enslavement and changed their name to avoid capture. After enslavement, during the period where there was a lot of Klan activity and lynchings, a lot of people left the South because they witnessed something. There were people after them and they changed their name.) People will have a name and it’s translated by the person who took the Census or it’s translated down through the generations and they changed the spelling. It may have just been a name that was said and then adopted and then spellings change – that kind of thing. 

WIB: What impact could decisions about reparations have on the work that you’re doing?  

Thomas: It depends. Once those policies or rules or whatever are created, it will definitely involve some research into people’s backgrounds, so it may be a big deal to be able to do that research – either on your own or to hire professionals, but they’re going to run into the same issues that we run into as people who just do it as a hobby. 

WIB: What words of wisdom do you have for people just starting to research their family history?

Thomas: Start with yourself, what you know, and move that way out. Talk to your oldest living relatives as soon as you decide you want to do genealogical research because there are going to be spots where you might not find a document. But if you had somebody who told you something, you might figure out why there is no document and where you should be looking instead. As soon as you begin your journey, speak to the oldest living relatives in your family. Then, you can always go back to the documents. The documents are going to be there, but your relatives are not. 

Find more resources from AARP about genealogy here.