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'It can give you strength' | The importance of exploring your genealogy

For African Americans, finding genealogy records and documents that tell a complete and full story can be a daunting task - until now.

BARDSTOWN, Ky. — With websites like Ancestry.com and 23andme.com becoming more popular and widely used, the desire to learn more about family histories and genealogy is high. 

But, for African American families, these services don't always paint a complete picture.

"I think when you understand who you are, there's more self-value," said Nelson County Library Director Sharon Shanks. "And, I think it’s really important now with all of the things that are coming from every direction of media, every source, that people understand who they really are. It can give you strength."

Shanks is the first African-American library director in the state of Kentucky. And, she knows first-hand the value of genealogy. 

With the help of the county's head genealogist, Ellen Smith, Shanks has been able to trace her family back to what is believed to be the Nelson County home where her ancestors were enslaved.

Credit: WHAS11

In her work, Smith researches everything from financial documents to newspaper clippings to piece together family histories. With the right guidance and direction, she said others can also have similar successes.

Smith said the first step in any genealogy journey is to interview family members. The key is to ask questions about relatives, marriages, adoptions, divorces, property ownership, etc. This information will help inform your next steps.

While Ancestry.com and 23andme.com are helpful, they do come with a cost. But, familysearch.org is a free resource that should be part of your toolkit.

You can also visit your local library, county clerk’s office, or your state’s department of libraries and archives. Some counties also have free-standing archives that may be helpful as well. These types of searches can uncover slave emancipation documents, purchase and sell documents, church baptism records, newspaper classifieds searching for runaway slaves, and slave ownership records.

You can find a sample of some of these documents here.

The African-American Genealogy Group of Kentucky is also a good resource. The organization was formed in January 2011 by eleven researchers in preserving the history of Kentucky’s African American generations and telling the “other” side of the story.

You can also contact Ellen Smith in the genealogy department at the Nelson County Public Library for information.

If you chose to begin this journey, email Eric King to let him know! We’d like to follow up with you in a few months to see what you’ve uncovered, and share your story.

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