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.
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.
From the April 2003 issue of Family Tree Magazine.