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Genealogist shares African-American family research tips at Riverhead event

Author and genealogist Sandi Brewster-Walker, center, talks to

Author and genealogist Sandi Brewster-Walker, center, talks to Corene Wood and Lawrence Street about researching their genealogy after giving a lecture about African-American family history research at the Suffolk County Historical Society in Riverhead on Saturday. Credit: Linda Rosier

Lawrence Street came to the Suffolk County Historical Society on Saturday looking for help finding long-lost relatives.

Street, who lives in Riverhead, has traced his ancestors to slaves on a farm in Virginia. And according to a stranger who contacted him from Trinidad, the Street name is somehow connected to Trinidadians with the last name Ragsdale.

But that is where his knowledge ends. That mystery led Street to the historical society's African-American genealogy event, led by author and genealogist Sandi Brewster-Walker, in Riverhead on Saturday.

"I'm on this mad search right now to understand the Ragsdales and the Streets and putting all that together," he said. "So now I'm excited because I can continue my own genealogy from the resources she gave." 

During the event, Brewster-Walker shared tips and resources she uses to find family lineage. She said the resources are particularly helpful for someone researching African-American families, because decades of slavery can complicate finding family members.

Brewster-Walker said tracing African-Americans' lineage presents unique challenges, but family members doing the research should not give up. They should be patient with themselves, and dig deep into government records like those of the Library of Congress and the U.S. Census Bureau, she said.

Brewster-Walker told an audience at the historical society that, while researching, one must assume that sometimes a family member's name is spelled differently. She said not to assume someone else's genealogy research is correct and don't limit research to one or two databases. 

"Do a little more than just Googling their page," she said. 

Brewster-Walker said the first step to finding your family lineage is finding the birthplace, hometown, and life story of your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. Getting that information will bring twists and turns, Brewster-Walker said, but some of the best resources for searching are, Heritage Quest, and  has military records of black servicemen and shows where those servicemen are buried, Brewster-Walker added.

One wrinkle that sometimes trips up people researching African-American families is how the U.S. Census has labeled black Americans over the years.

Brewster-Walker said that from 1790 to 1940, census workers lumped African-Americans into different ethnic categories, including African, Negro, black, colored, mulatto or person of color. But someone labeled colored, for example, wasn't always African-American — the person could have been American Indian or Hispanic, she said. 

"And mulatto, it doesn't mean they had a white mother or a white father," Brewster-Walker said. "It just meant they were light skin."  

Brewster-Walker said there are clues in military records, land deeds, school records and even old newspaper clippings. Those documents could perhaps be stored at your grandparents' home, Brewster-Walker said, so "Don't let people throw out things."


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