Underground Genealogies

By Susan Wenner Jackson Premium

The organized passage of slaves from the South to the North prior to and during the Civil War brought many African-Americans their freedom — something their descendants will be able to celebrate at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center when it opens next year in Cincinnati. But learning more about the people who participated in the Underground Railroad can be difficult for the same reason the system was successful: secrecy. For genealogists who believe their ancestors found freedom through this historic network, traditional records and documents may not exist to show who those ancestors were and what they did.

Fortunately, though, the new Freedom Center will do more than present museum exhibits and lectures; it also will offer a research institute designed to accommodate private and collaborative research — including genealogy. When the museum opens, the institute will have a reference librarian to help patrons, computer workstations, an archival reading room and collections storage for manuscripts, letters, photos and rare books.

Anthropologist and freedom studies professor Delores Walters heads up the institute’s genealogy program, which will bring together historical records, family stories and African-American genealogies. The program gives researchers the opportunity to learn about the complex relationships among families.

Prior to the museum’s opening in summer 2004, Walters — who is also a professor at Northern Kentucky University’s Institute for Freedom Studies — is visiting places across the United States to host community workshops for local historians. Held in collaboration with historical and genealogical societies as well as universities, these workshops show participants how to begin with oral history, use historical tools to verify and document people and sites, and establish a pool of individuals to talk to and primary documents to look at. “I’d also like them to know what’s underneath those stories,” Walters says. Another goal of the workshops is to help community researchers learn how to create well-documented, publishable research that will be recognized by professionals in the genealogy field.

Walters hopes the participants in the genealogy workshops come from all races and backgrounds and help one another achieve their research goals. Bringing together people of different races to collaborate and create dialogue is fundamental to the Freedom Center’s mission, she says. The center’s purpose is to tell the Underground Railroad’s story of freedom from slavery and connect it to current issues of freedom. The museum will use history exhibits, educational programs, research, interactive and simulation media, and live performances “to inspire visitors with a renewed commitment of citizenship and civic engagement.” To learn more, visit the Freedom Center’s Web site at <>.

From the April 2003 issue of Family Tree Magazine.