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Helping African-Americans trace roots of family trees

Thursday, June 08, 2000

By Monica L. Haynes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

When the members of Roland Barksdale-Hall's family get together in Detroit during the July 4 weekend, it will be the largest gathering of their kindred since World War II, when they came together to celebrate the 102nd birthday of the last living member to have been a slave.

As the official family historian, Barksdale-Hall, a descendant of one of 14 brothers and sisters who'd been slaves in Georgia, Texas and Alabama in the 1800s, knows the importance of family and community history.

That's why the genealogist and author from Sharon, Mercer County, will be presenting a workshop on African-American Family & Community History from 1 to 3 p.m. June 17 at the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center.

Participants in the workshop will learn all aspects of how to conduct research, including where to get information and the costs.

Barksdale-Hall is a co-founder of the Western Pennsylvania African American Historical and Genealogical Society; a certified and charter member of the American Society of Freedmen Descendants, a scholarly African-American lineage society, and the author of more than 30 essays about genealogy, health and history. His most recent book, called "Healing is the Children's Bread," contains not only his family stories but also the stories of other black Western Pennsylvania families and the communities in which they lived.

"These stories help us to have an identity rooted in a historical context," Barksdale-Hall said. "In order for us to understand who we are today, we need to understand from whence we came."

Mary Martin, African-American programs coordinator at the History Center, said it was the book coupled with Barksdale-Hall's other genealogical efforts that prompted her to approach him about leading the workshop.

The idea behind the program is twofold: It will give family members interested in pursuing their history much-needed information prior to the beginning of family reunion season; and it will encourage more of the area's black residents to visit the History Center.

"We're trying to broaden that audience," Martin said.

During the workshop, there will be a display of things in the History Center's collection such as photographs and records from black families, genealogical books, black business directories and newspaper clippings. The center also has archival material from the Pittsburgh Urban League and social organizations such as the Links and the Aurora Reading Club.

For those who'll be attending family reunions this summer, Barksdale-Hall recommends having family members write down the names of their siblings and parents; asking about the location of the family homestead and where family members are buried; finding out what churches and social organizations family members belonged to; and which family members went to college.

Sometimes, he said, it's the indirect link that leads to important information. Finding out about a great-grandmother's sister or brother could reveal something about her.

Barksdale-Halls' desire to research his family was kindled by a newspaper clipping of his great-grandfather that his mother gave him while he was in high school. "At that point and time I just saw this aged gentleman who was celebrating his 100th birthday," he said.

But while a student at the University of Pittsburgh in the 1980s, he worked on an independent research project with Laurence Glascoe, a professor of history. The manuscript he wrote then served as the beginning of his latest book.

Some of the fascinating things Barksdale-Hall discovered during his research were:

Marriage records were segregated.

Agricultural census showed what his grandparents planted, what they harvested and how many mules they had.

Records showed when his great-grandfather and great-uncle went to vote for the first time.

An interesting part of the voting story is that the great-uncle initially was told he could not vote. However, he still had his receipt, presumably showing that he had paid the poll tax levied on black voters.

Through his research, Barksdale-Hall also was able to give some context to why family members described his grandfather and uncle as angry.

He learned that his grandfather's first wife died from a snake bite while pregnant. He came north for a promised opportunity but found the job was not here and the housing was extremely poor. In some cases, urine dripped down the walls from the upstairs bathrooms, Barksdale-Hall said. The grandfather raised chickens and rabbits, one of which was stolen by an Eastern European neighbor and later retrieved. The next day, however, someone had killed all the rabbits. The uncle, who found rampant discrimination in the Pennsylvania steel mills, was relegated to the lowest jobs even though he had a high school diploma. White workers who had dropped out of school got better-paying jobs. He was injured after being hit in the head with a crane.

"This lead to the disillusionment in his generation," Barksdale-Hall said. "If we can go back into history and get an understanding into the events and why our family members made these decisions it will help us today."

For additional information about the African American Family & Community History Workshop and to pre-register by Monday, call 412-454-6430. Fee for the workshop is $20.

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