Roots Journeys

Vol. 8, No. 7
February 17-23, 2000
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Seeking African American Ancestors
by Kim Cammarata, Christy Grimes, Lori L. Sikorski and Sandra Martin

From school children to grandparents, Marylanders are following in Alex Haley’s footsteps, discovering their African American heritage in Chesapeake Country …

Carol Parham had always been told that her great-grandfather was freed from slavery to fight in the Civil War. She heard about him from the older people in her family. She’d looked over records and compared notes with a cousin.

She knew that James Edward Egans died in a country store on Broomes Island. She’d even seen his grave and tombstone in Brooks Chapel at Brooks United Methodist Church in Calvert County. She’d visited the family farm and shot photos of what’s there today.

All in all, she’d heard so much about James Egans that she felt like she knew the man.

But her great-grandfather came alive when Parham paid a visit to the Maryland Archives. For there she read his words as he spoke them. Not in his own hand, for James Edward Egans was not a man of letters, but as they were transcribed when, in 1890, Egans made application for his Civil War pension.

“It was almost as if I could hear his voice,” says Parham. And, she adds, “I could relate to what he said, about how despite all that had happened to him in the war, he was determined to keep managing for his family.”

The treasure house Parham discovered told her that her great-grandfather Egans — or Egins as his name was sometimes spelled — had been stationed at Benedict, on the Patuxent River.

“African American soldiers had the worst bivouacs,” she continued, as if she had seen with her own eyes rather than with the eyes of history. “The white soldiers camped on the high ground, while the African Americans were down in the swamps. Many of them died before they could ever fight.”

She saw, too, papers describing her great-grandfather as a slave for life. Those documents were signed by John Sedgwick, the man who manumitted Egans to fight in the Civil War. Sedgwick earned a $300 bounty for freeing his slave — and son, Parham and her family believe — to fight. Egans’ service exempted his white half brother from serving.

“It was like magic when they got together,” recounts Leonard Blackshear, president of the Alex Haley-Kunta Kinte Foundation. “The archives had research, but things they couldn’t find — like where he was buried and a picture of his tombstone — she already knew.”

Releafing the Family Tree

Such encounters are especially sweet to Blackshear, whose foundation is dedicated to continuing the Alex Haley tradition. Haley, of course, is the man who sent all of America roots touring with the 1976 publication — and later serialization on television — of his book, Roots. Roots traced Haley’s family tree back to Kunta Kinte, the Gambian prince captured in Africa, transported on the Lord Ligonier across perilous seas and sold into slavery in Annapolis.

The foundation has — “pushes” in Blackshear’s words — a Hidden Histories Initiative to encourage people to discover their stories. “It’s a grassroots Alex Haley thing,” says this entrepreneur of history.
But African Americans, he thinks, have been slower to follow in Haley’s footsteps. “There’s so much. It just goes on and on and on,” says Blackshear. “And most of it’s hidden.”

To releaf their family trees, African American genealogists have had to go the extra mile. Paucity of information is one roadblock, for records of the lives of the poor are scarcer than records of the rich.

Fear of what might be found can be another barrier. “A lot of African Americans don’t want to talk about their slave forefathers,” explains Blackshear.

But times are changing. Carol Parham is one of a new generation of African Americans who’ve caught roots fever. Energized by each new discovery, they are sharing their stories in new forums with enthusiastic audiences. They are — as Blackshear says about Parham — “proud [their] people survived slavery.”

“Things are perking up around here,” says the man who brought the Alex Haley Memorial to Annapolis City Dock to bear enduring witness to the presence of African American history in Chesapeake Country. “There’s a rising tide of awareness of hidden history.”

Spreading the Word

In laying eyes and hands on the paper record of her great- grandfather’s life, the superintendent of Anne Arundel County Public Schools is doing just what she wants county students to do: Learn from history that they are not alone.

“I think that when so many things take away from family cohesiveness, it becomes even more imperative that young people know about their history, know about their families and know that some of the things they’re going through now are not so very different from what the human family has always gone through. People have come before them and gone through some of the same difficulties and they not only survived, they prevailed,” Parham says.

Today, a Friday in the middle of Black History Month, Parham and Blackshear are beaming as a dozen Annapolis high-schoolers play at discovering the history of Annapolis’ Civil War soldiery.

These kids are standing in for all their county peers as Frontiers International — a community service group formed as an African American alternative to the Rotary Club — gives every Anne Arundel County school and library a CD-ROM tracing The Aftermath of ‘Glory’: African American Soldiers & Sailors from Annapolis Maryland, 1863-1918. They’re ‘playing’ because this hands-on lesson is too much fun to be called studying.

History Lessons

“You don’t just read history, you do it,” says M. Mercer Neale at Maryland’s Archives.

Anne Arundel County high schoolers can now do history by studying the life of John B. Anderson, an African American Civil War veteran who changed the course of American history.

But students won’t just read textbooks and dully repeat stories. They’ll be poring over late 19th and early 20th century historical documents, searching for threads that, woven together, tell Anderson’s story.

“Students analyze the documents and draw their own conclusions,” says R. J. Rockefeller, head of Archival reference.

Nor will today’s students need to search through dusty Archival files. Instead, they play with the records the high tech way: on a computer screen at school.

On Internet or CD-ROM, maps, court documents, election records, letters, slave statistics, census records, military records and much more make the anthology archivists call In the Aftermath of ‘Glory.’ The 1989 film Glory, a drama about the 54th Massachusetts Colored regiment, plays counterpoint to the document, to draw kids in and inspire them. The documents follow a particular man, John B. Anderson, not only because of the role he played in history, but also because history comes alive in the stories of individuals.

Anderson wasn’t the kind of man you’d think would make history. But he did.

Once African American men got the vote, with the 15th Amendment in 1870, Anderson voted every election. Historians know that from voting records, which you’ll see if you take a look at Aftermath.

But in 1908, the city of Annapolis passed a law denying the right to vote to any man whose grandfather had not voted. Outraged, Anderson “hired a good lawyer. He sued election registration officials in Annapolis. He took his complaint all the way to the Supreme Court. And he lived to see voting rights restored in 1915,” says Maryland Archivist Papenfuse.

Thus this Civil War veteran played a major role in civil rights history.

“John Anderson was an average man who made significant contributions. His story shows students that one man counts,” says Rockefeller.

In addition to the Aftermath of ‘Glory’ project, the new CD-ROM contains another Archives’ research project: From Segregation to Integration: The Donald Murry Case 1935-1937. With this collection of documents, Anne Arundel students follow the path walked by student Donald Murry and lawyers Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall on the way to desegregating the University of Maryland.

These slices of time aren’t just for kids. You can peer into the Anderson and Murry stories on the new CDs waiting at Anne Arundel public libraries. A whole lot more information about African American and Maryland history waits at the Maryland Archives homepage, available on the Internet at

To use the documents, you must request a password by e-mailing or calling the Archives. The information is there at the website, and it’s free. Be forewarned that downloading some of this information is time-consuming because of its size and complexity. If you’re the impatient type, a trip to the library to use the new CDs is a better choice.

Exploring the past teaches lessons for the future, Papenfuse believes. Now, he’s trying to make that point to highschoolers. They’re clustered around computers, looking at the pages of Aftermath, so he’s got proof at his fingtertips.

“One of the things you can explore,” Papenfuse tells them, “is segregation. Annapolis became a segregated city, but in 1878, it wasn’t.

“One of the lessons we’re trying to get across is that the story of America is not just a progression of things getting better. It’s a story of openings and closings. Remember the man who voted every single year from 1870 to 1908? Then the state of Maryland says ‘you can’t vote anymore because your grandfather was a slave.’ Opening and closing.”
“What is really important to learn is that the only way we prevent closings in American society is by understanding our history, by understanding what was wrong and making sure it doesn’t happen again,” Papenfuse says.

Order the CD for $10 from Archives.

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly