Family Trees: African-Americans find it difficult to trace history - KCBD NewsChannel 11 Lubbock

2/6/10

Family Trees: African-Americans find it difficult to trace history

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By Judi Gatson - bio | email

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - For many African-Americans, family history can be difficult, in some cases nearly impossible to trace.  Now, new technology allows people of African descent to trace their ancestry by analyzing their DNA. The pieces are there, but tracking them down and putting them together can be a titanic task, especially for African-Americans.  "It's important to me because I just want to know, kinda reconstruct where I came from," Urica Pope said.
 
Pope has been researching her family history for more than 10 years. It's been a time consuming project searching census records, land deeds, birth & death certificates and tracking down any other documents that can connect her to her past. "You find one name and you follow it until it stops, and then you find another name and follow it until it stops," Pope said.
 
For some it's a nearly impossible journey. Steven Tuttle with the South Carolina Department of Archives and History says the injustices of slavery robbed many family trees of vital information.
"Sometimes you'll see an inventory and it will just say six slaves and won't give the names," Tuttle said. "This is a rare one in the fact that it lists the name of the slaves, lists their age and they're in family groups here so this is really an unusual inventory for it to be so thorough," Tuttle said.
 
Even though some family names were missing, changed or misspelled, Pope had some success. "I found my maiden name Pope, my father's name Pope, I found it spelled as Rope, but I knew it was my family because it had all the correct names," Pope said.
 
She learned her great-great-grandfather, Daniel Pope, migrated to Williamsburg County, South Carolina, near Kingstree.  "He bought land, he bought a little over an acre of land for $61.87," Pope said.

"Then searching back, you know, finding each name and making that connection and seeing where my father was eight years old or so when he was on the census it was, it was kind of, oh gosh it was so exciting," Pope said. 

Now she's on the verge of another big discovery through the power of DNA.
 
"When we test African-Americans and find these matches, it gives us some excitement because we're finding matches," Dr. Rick Kittles, Scientific Director of African Ancestry said.
     
He says each individual has a unique DNA signature passed down from their ancestors, and through a simple cheek swab he can compare your signature to the DNA of present-day Africans to see if there's a match.  
     
Those using the technology to discover their roots include Oprah Winfrey, director Spike Lee and former Grey's Anatomy star Isaiah Washington.
 
There are skeptics, but Kittles stands by the science.
 
"We do have the largest database, I mean I've worked very hard with anthropologists, archaeologists and historians in identifying which parts of West Central Africa are important for the African-American ancestry," Kittles said.
 
Pope believes in it too, and can't wait to trace her DNA.
 
"I want to know who were the people that came before me, what you know how, who were the people, what kind of character they had, and everything that went into what made me the person I am today," Pope said. She plans to share the information at family reunions and keep putting pieces of the puzzle in place until she creates a complete family picture. "Once I do the test, I'll be on pins and needles and excited to find out what the results reveal," Pope said.

(CLICK HERE) for more information and extended interviews for KCBD's sister station WIS.

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