February is Black History Month. For many black families, their history goes back 200 years in America. If their ancestors were among the first slaves at Jamestown, their history goes back 400 years. If their ancestors were among the first slaves brought to St. Augustine, Florida, their history goes back 500 years!

The journeys of their African ancestors began when they were kidnapped by mercenaries. After being shackled and marched to the African coast, they were bathed, sprinkled with holy water, branded and given a new name.

They were then sold, kept in a pen and eventually taken by canoe to a slave ship where men were packed on the lower level, and women and children packed on the next level. During the monthslong journey to America, a third to half died.

Most slaves were sold in South Carolina and Virginia. Georgia and Maryland were next in number, followed by other areas.

Unfortunately, few records of black Americans were kept before the Civil War. Genealogy experts advise slave descendants to interview older members of their family and ask about stories they were told by parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. Those stories might provide clues for finding records.

Early census records did not include names of slaves. Church records and court records (that list names of slaves being inherited or bought and sold) are sometimes helpful. Ship manifests listed names of slaves who were transported. Newspaper ads of runaway slaves contained names and descriptions.

DNA tests provide some help. Through matches, the name of a common ancestor shared with another person might give clues to identifying the family who owned the plantation where the slave family lived. DNA tests might also reveal the area where ancestors lived in Africa. DNA companies identify the countries by comparing a person’s DNA to DNA of people in present-day African nations.

Although the history of African Americans has always intertwined with our nation’s history, few museums until recent years have reflected their experiences and contributions.

The Smithsonian Institution’s African American History and Culture Museum at Washington, D.C., is one of the first to do so. Historic Jamestown now has black actors who join white actors in describing the early settlement. Other museums are updating displays to reflect the harsh truths of our past and the powerful impact of slaves on our country’s development.

Suggestions or comments? Contact Frankie Meyer@yahoo.com.

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