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Galvanizing genealogists

A husband and wife team teach how to discover African-American ancestry



Genealogist André Head’s great-great grandfather, George Washington Merrit, a member of the Louisiana Native Guard and among those who joined the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War

Family stories are wonderful, says genealogist André L. Head, but they are not always accurate.

He says the key to accuracy is documentation, and it’s a gospel he preaches to people across the state who want to learn about their ancestors.

Head, a retired firefighter, founded the Oklahoma City-based Black Genealogy Research Group of Oklahoma in 2016. Last year, the Oklahoma Genealogical Society invited him to serve on its board.

Head’s maternal grandmother, who lived to be 105, was the primary storyteller in his family. Nearly 30 years ago, a cousin put together a family history book that placed one of his forebears in an historical context: A great-great-grandfather was a member of the Louisiana Native Guard and was among those who joined the 73rd and 74th regiments of U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War.

“I read it, and I was so excited about it,” he said. “I wanted to get the actual documents.”

He had the enthusiasm but lacked the skills. So he and his wife, Jessilyn—both living in Seattle at the time—joined the city’s Black Genealogy Research Group.

“As I continued to research, I got more involved in history, genealogy, and the historical black towns of Oklahoma,” Head said.

After returning to Oklahoma in 2014, the Heads went full-time with The Coltrane Group, a nonprofit they founded while in Seattle that has a mission of revitalizing the 13 remaining historically black towns of Oklahoma. It’s named for the Oklahoma City street on which Head’s storytelling grandmother lived for many years, Coltrane Road.

“We saw the need to give the black towns of Oklahoma a sense of collaboration and partnership,” Jessilyn said. “And we want to help the towns galvanize volunteers.”

The Coltrane Group’s bus tours have visited Langston, Boley, Rentiesville, Grayson, Brooksville, Lima, Clearview, and Tulsa’s Greenwood Cultural Center. Another trip to the Cultural Center is scheduled for April 28.

The Group also partners with the Oklahoma History Center in Oklahoma City. St. John Missionary Baptist Church in Oklahoma City will be the first to be featured in an exhibit at the Center chronicling the role black churches play in the lives of their members. The exhibit will likely open in 2020.

In another partnership with the Center, Coltrane Group volunteer Beverly Kirk created a quilt representing all 13 towns, which was showcased at a September banquet honoring the town leaders. Each of the 13 towns will be invited to make their own quilt for a future exhibit.

Since 2015, the Coltrane group has partnered with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and several African-American churches to offer genealogy classes and information about the Freedmen’s Bureau records, a database of former slaves’ records created by the government after the Civil War. The project has resulted in digitized records for 1.76 million of the estimated 4 million former slaves.

The records have helped people push past obstacles they encounter when seeking their ancestors.

“I love telling people that you can go to the Freedmen’s Bureau Project, and we have just knocked down that wall,” Head said.

In December, he taught a genealogy class at the Rudisill Regional Library in Tulsa.

“I showed them how to get started,” Head said. “I taught them common terms and resources and how to find vital records.”

“We had a great turnout,” said Alicia Latimer, the African-American Resource Center coordinator for the Tulsa City-County Library system. “It was a very effective class.”

Latimer said her programs are planned well in advance, so it will be a while before another class can be offered.

She said Head also talked about DNA testing, something she has experience with.

“A lot of people think they have Native American ancestry,” she said. “It’s my family lore, and I’ve believed that all my life. I did a DNA test and found out I have none.

“I was aligning myself with Native American culture,” Latimer said, explaining the extent to which she accepted her family’s stories.

In reality, her lineage is from Rwanda, Kuwait, East Timor, Ireland, and Scotland.

“It’s important not to assume where your ancestry is,” Latimer said.

The ProQuest African-American Heritage database at Rudisill offers such resources as census records, slave records, church records, U.S. Colored Troops records, and AfriGeneas, a social networking site for African-American genealogists.

Many people who come to Head’s classes know family stories but don’t know how to find the paperwork.

“It’s the same thing I went through,” he said. “I knew it was not going to be easy to get into those slave records.”

He said a cousin has found the name of a Virginia slave master who owned one of his ancestors, and records for at least one relative are on the Freedmen’s Bureau website. But he said he’s been too busy with teaching right now to delve into the new discoveries.

To request a genealogy class or register for the April 28 tour, call André Head at 206-948-8852. The Coltrane Group’s website is currently under construction. For more information on Tulsa Library’s African American Resource Center, visit tulsalibrary.org/aarc.

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