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Ancestral journey: Diggin’ up your roots

By Carolyn CarterBy Carolyn Carter

Wayne County Community College District (WCCCD) is the largest urban community college in the state of Michigan. It is a multi-campus district with five conveniently-located campuses, the Mary Ellen Stempfle University Center and the Michigan Institute for Public Safety Education (MIPSE). The District serves nearly 72,000 students annually.

WCCCD offers courses on both the academic and continued education side of the house; thereby giving students the opportunity to take these courses both for credit and not for credit. One such course offered both for credit and not for credit is genealogy — a course for beginners who are interested in finding their roots through research.

Like these students, I, too, have been fascinated with genealogy since I was a child, often wondering about the roots of my family and what I will unearth when I dig deeper. I made my first ancestral find when I was just five years old. I didn’t realize it then, but I have kept this memory with me for more than 45 years. It began in an attic in Black Bottom Detroit while listening to stories about ancestors.

Today, I now teach genealogy at Wayne County Community College District to those who, like me, are interested in digging for their roots. I have been a professional genealogist for over 15 years. Throughout my years of experience and research, one thing I have come to realize is every family has stories passed down about ancestors who were the dark characters in the family; the person whom everyone knows “had a past.”

Once you’ve decided to dig into your ancestry, it’s like opening a can of worms.  You never know what you’re going to get. To a genealogist, family research is a journey full of twists, turns and challenges. Digging into the lives of ancestors can be a painful and joyous experience. Yet, for the some people, researching, they may feel the past needs to remain in the past. In examining your genealogy, you will unearth secrets, make discoveries, and even sometimes find truths among the ruins of your family. Our ancestors did one thing very well, they passed down the pain.

It is interesting how this person’s legacy was kept alive, often by a story related across multiple generations. Today, we are unsure if these family legends are factual. Everyone loves a good story about a scoundrel, especially those who were mysterious and crooked, but embellishments often flourish when memories fade. We may never know the whole truth because the complete story was buried with family members, never to be spoken of again.

I made an astonishing find while working with a family conducting genealogical research. It was one person’s admission of untruth that came to light during the funeral of their sibling. The family story was told that their grandfather was adopted. Everyone knew the story and it was repeated over and over to the children and grandchildren. Fast forward about 85 years to the repast after the funeral service, one of the children asking questions about the passed patriarch. One of the elders recounted he had been adopted. Their oldest sibling said, “Where did you hear that story? Daddy was not adopted.”  The younger sibling replied, “Well that’s what mother always told me.” She boldly told him. “No, he was not adopted.” They were all in shock and in the midst of a dead silence, she spoke again, “Mother often spoke of his mother. She was not a well person and supposedly had some demons in her.” They all left the funeral with more questions than answers. The story had taken legs and had been spread throughout the generations.

So, what was the truth of his life?  Was he abandoned by his mother? Did she have a physical or mental illness and could not keep him? Did she get pregnant at a young age and forced to give him up? Was she some kind of witch-doctor? What did it all mean?

Genealogical records  COURTESY PHOTO

Genealogical records COURTESY PHOTO

For many Southern Black families in the early 1900s, adoption meant a different thing than it does today. Parents would often ask a relative, neighbor or even a stranger to take care of a child for various reasons with no legal paperwork ever created; and for them that was adoption. We may never know the total truth, but we do know there is now a new story spreading through this family. As a genealogist, this is just the type of mystery we like researching.

This family’s ancestral journey led me to find out that this mystery man was not adopted; at least not legally and seemed to have simply wandered away from the family at a young age. There has been no other contact with them. My searching continues.

Everyone wants to know where they come from and we all have a story. Of course we all have that colorful ancestor, but our stories are not all tragic, disappointing, heartbreaking or sad. They are also filled with joy, laughter, family ties, traditions and memories. You never know where the journey will take you. Your ancestral journey begins with you. But where do you start?  What do you know? Write down facts and information you remember as early as you can recall.  Now the fun begins as you sift through areas in the home from top to bottom; attic closets, basements, garages, trunks, safes, deposit boxes and so forth.

Look for the family bible, diaries, letters, vital records and school records; anything that tells a story of your family. Next, talk to that relative who gathers family information; we all have one.  The cousin, aunt, grandmother who collects photos, obituaries and keeps track of everyone’s birthday, anniversaries or deaths. This person is a gem to the family.

Talk to everyone you can in the family: parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, other relatives and friends of the family for help in finding information to add to your story. These are the beginning steps in the journey to learn about your past and filling in the blanks to your story of “Who Am I, and Where Did I Come From?”

Once you have documented your own story, start on the next relative; mother, father and so on.  If a grandmother or grandfather is still with you, don’t rule them out, but don’t wait too long.  There is a saying in the world of genealogy, “when a family member goes to be with the ancestors, it’s like burning a library.”  The person dies and takes the stories with them. So, don’t wait! Talk to them now.

Technology allows us to virtually visit where our ancestors lived without being there physically.  Start a family tree online. Websites such as,,, and many more are good first steps.

Identify a potential story about family that you heard about or are interested in and begin exploring. Look for archives, records and newspapers related to your family’s stories. Join a network of family historians through social media like Facebook and Twitter to make connections and gain insight into your family.

The United States Federal Census is a great place to start. Look for a historical or genealogical society in your area to visit, connect or join. We have some great resources in the Detroit Area like the Fred Hart Williams Genealogical Society, the Oakland County Genealogical Society, the Detroit Society for Genealogical Research and many more. These are only some beginning steps for you to start your ancestral journey. Stay tuned for more insights as we dive into the sea of mysteries surrounding surnames.

Carolyn Haliburton Carter, assistant associate vice chancellor for board and public relations at Wayne County Community College District, is an instructor in genealogy. She has been a professional genealogist for more than 15 years tracing both her paternal and maternal lineage to the early 1800s. Contact her at

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