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African American History, Genealogy Group offers history classes

Illustration by Olivia Abeyta

Members of the African American History and Genealogy Study Group share their own family experiences, discuss black history, and learn research tips from experts.

Growing up, Catherine Johnson, who lived in Evanston, asked her mother and grandmother to tell her stories about their family.

But they didn’t mean much to her. As a black family who moved to Evanston during the Great Migration, their stories of going north weren’t happy ones, she said, and her family didn’t usually tell stories of times when they had been difficult to live through .

Now, as the head of Evanston’s African American History and Genealogy Study Group, Johnson has discovered part of the story her family never told her. She shares these stories with her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren – the fifth generation of her family who grew up in Evanston.

“You need to know your story,” said 80-year-old Johnson. “If you don’t know your story, you don’t know your potential.”

Memories from the past can be painful and embarrassing, Johnson said, which means stories aren’t always passed on. Many African American families have lost their family histories, she said, and for many in Johnson’s generation, black history was not taught in school.

The study group is trying to change that.

In 2008, founding member Mattie Amaker and her “friends” invited a group of about eight people into their living room to talk about genealogy.

“We only tell stories,” said the 88-year-old Amaker. “And we just kept going and it grew and grew… It was always interesting. And someone always had something to tell. “

The study group had quickly outgrown Amaker’s living room. They have grown to about 30 members who are now meeting at the Levy Senior Center.

The group’s events vary from month to month, Johnson said. Sometimes genealogy experts provide research tips, and sometimes members discuss their own family’s experiences or a specific part of black history. Members offer help to one another if they hit a wall in their research.

Johnson said the research process can be both tedious and exciting.

“I researched on the computer until three or four in the morning,” said Johnson. “As soon as you have a hit, you don’t want to stop anymore.”

One of the challenges of African American genealogy is the lack of historical documents. Group member Carole Boone said birth certificates are difficult to find because many of their ancestors were born in rural areas and it can be almost impossible to find documents for enslaved ancestors. Many records have not been digitized.

As a student at Evanston Schools, Boone said she hardly learned any African American history in class. Around sixth grade, she remembers asking her teacher when they would learn about African American history. The teacher sent them to the principal’s office. When she was attending school at Evanston Township High School in 1968, she and her friends held sit-in strikes to protest the lack of black history in their curriculum.

Now, learning about black history in the United States is the focus of the study group. At meetings they learn about reconstruction, the great migration and other subjects that they never learned in school.

“I don’t think you can really study genealogy if you don’t do the history,” said Johnson. “It helps you better understand your family, how they responded and the values ​​and cultures they had. Everything interlocks. “

Prior to the pandemic, the study group held community events, including a Black History Month series of lectures and a Kwanzaa celebration. While they’ve largely been on hiatus over the past two years, the group recently applied for and received their first scholarship. They plan to hold a series of workshops for families to begin exploring their own lineage, tentatively known as the Evanston Family Sleuths Project.

Boone said she hopes her new initiative will inspire young people to study genealogy.

“One day my nieces and nephews will tell their grandchildren, ‘Let me tell you about your great, great, great grandmother because that’s what my great aunt told me,’” Boone said. “And if you can pass on these stories, then these people are alive. And they are still alive because we are still telling their story. “

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Twitter: @luciabarnum_

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