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March 9, 2024 22 mins
Genealogical work isn't easy, but it can be especially difficult for people directly related to some of the millions of men, women, and children who were enslaved in pre-and-post colonial America through chattel slavery. Many Black Americans say they wish they knew more about those who came before them, and American Ancestors wants to help make that a reality through the new "10 Million Names" project. President and CEO Ryan Woods talks with Nichole about the importance of this work, how they're tracking down those whose names have been lost to history, and what you can do to help.
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Episode Transcript

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From WBZ News Radio in Boston.This is New England Weekend where each week
we come together we talk about allthe topics important to you and the place
where you live. It's great tobe back with you again this week.
I'm Nicole Davis. It was afew years back when I started to make
a concerted effort to learn more aboutmy family history and get into tracing my
family tree. It has not beenan easy process. If you have done

any sort of genealogy work, youprobably agree that you hit all kinds of
speed bumps and you're not really sureif the information is always correct, and
you're trying to find a trace ofsome relatives who seemingly just disappeared from history.
Still, it's a labor of loveone I enjoy and maybe you do
too. That being said, formillions of Americans it is next to impossible
to fully track their families past acertain point in time. That's because their

ancestors were enslaved, brought here tothe United States through the years of chattel
slavery. Over in Boston at theNew England Historic Genealogical Society, there's an
organization called American Ancestors, and they'rebehind a new effort called ten Million Names.
This project specifically is focused on helpingto recover and honor the names and
histories of enslaved African Americans. Thisproject well underway, but they need your

help, so let's go talk aboutit. Ryan Woods, President and CEO
of American Ancestors, he's here onthe show. Ryan, thanks so much
for being here for people who mightnot know about American Ancestors, might not
be familiar. Give us a rundownof your efforts here. American Ancestors is
the world's founding institution for the studyof family history. Established here in Boston

in eighteen forty five, we havebeen engaged in nonprofit based historical and genealogical
research, publishing, and preservation nowfor more than one hundred and seventy nine
years. We are a member basedorganization with a full time staff of professional

historians, genealogists, archivists, researchers, and other cultural institution professionals who are
here to serve our members and abroad and diverse audience of public users to
facilitate research by creating online resources suchas databases. We have more than one

point four billion searchable records on ourprimary website Americanancestors dot org, and our
facilities hold more than twenty eight millionitems in our manuscript collection as well as
a print book collection of more thantwo hundred thousand volumes, and staff will

facilitate access research on behalf of membersand the public. And we're also engaged
in education programs. We hold morethan two one hundred education programs a year,
many of which are free, andin the post pandemic era, a

number of online programs, so thatwe're able to serve members and users around
the country and indeed around the world. Phenomenal. So tell us a little
bit more about how the ten millionNames project got started. Where did the
idea start floating around that, Hey, this is a part of history and

genealogy that we really should be focusingon. Well, we've long believed that
the power and promise of family historyis that it enriches lives, that family
history is a source of joy,inspiration, empowerment, education, and it
can also be a source of healingand repair and engaging in family history strengthens

families and communities. There have beennumerous studies which look at the social emotional
benefits of family history that in youngpeople. It helps to establish emotional wellbeing,
cognitive growth, resiliency against trauma,identity development, It helps with social

cultural intelligence, and likewise with adults, it is a source of joy and
education. The research process also bringsabout enhanced cognition, other types of resiliency,
family cohesion, and so we havebeen engaged in family history research now
since eighteen forty five. It becameclear over the last decade plus that there

are significant inequities in access to informationacross a whole host of cultural sectors,
ethnicities, backgrounds, and part ofthe work that we had done over the
last number of years was based onwhat's known as the Georgetown Memory Project.

This is a genealogical and historical effortto identify the names of individuals who were
listed in a sale or referenced ina sale in eighteen thirty eight from Georgetown
College, and we, along withthe founders of the Georgetown Memory Project,

have been able to identify more thantwo hundred of the individual's reference by name
and more than twelve thousand of theirdescendants. The founder of the Georgetown Memory
Project, Richard Chalini, who cameto us to stewart the Georgetown Memory Project

some years ago, saw that wehad achieved at scale the goal of identifying
individuals previously thought not to have recordednames, and so the relative success of
recovering and restoring the names of theindividuals referenced in the Georgetown Sale document led

to the belief that this was possibleat a much larger impact level, and
so was born the ten Million NamesProject. People who who either identify as
multiracial or people who are Black Americans, they have so many challenges when it
comes to trying to find out moreabout their ancestry. You're talking about that

about the Georgetown Project, but justfor people who potentially have ancestors who were
enslaved, census records are lacking oreven nonexistent. Tell us a little bit
about the challenges that people who wantto find out more about their ancestry are
going through when it comes to this. Yes, the family history research process

is rewarding, but it can certainlybe challenging, particularly in the case of
people of African descent who descend fromenslaved persons. There is something known as
the eighteen seventy brick wall in AfricanAmerican research. Eighteen seventy marks the first
federal census after emancipation, when formerlyenslaved people were listed by name in the

federal census. Prior to that,government record sources often do not list enslaved
persons by name, and the recordsources before emancipation in eighteen sixty five will
require you to look at different typesof records. Those things will include wills

and deeds and probate records because thenotion of chattel slavery saw enslaved persons as
property, and so you have tolook at record sources that record property.
And in a number of instances,in wills and deeds, for example,
there will be given names. There'llbe birthdays in some instances, and those

are critical clues to the research process. But there are certainly unique challenges,
but there is hope for people whoto send from enslaved persons to recover and
restore their family history. DNA testingis one of those options. I personally

haven't taken a DNA test. Youknow, I'd love to know more about
my background. It's mostly colonial American, but you know a lot of people
in my orbit have taken these DNAtests to varying success. I'd love to
know if you think the DNA testingis truly an accurate way to track your
lineage if it's worth you know,the exchange of information. What are your
thoughts on that. DNA is certainlyan important tool in the family history research

process. DNA testing is by andlarge accurate to the extent that it can
help connect you when you take what'sknown as an autosomal test, which looks
at your sort of total ancestry.That's the test that will give you results

around relative ethnic makeup percentages. Itwill also connect you with cousins. DNA,
unlike a document, does not reveala name of an ancestor necessarily,
but it can connect you with peoplewho may have those stories within their own

family structure, and so DNA iscertainly part of the research process. In
the case of ten Million Names,we are keenly interested in recovering and restoring
names because names give agency, namesgive humanity, and part of the institution

of slavery erase names, and sobeing able to recover those names from documents,
from oral traditions within families is incrediblyimportant important to this process. And
so while DNA can be a tool, it's not the primary tool for the

ten Million Names project. That isfair enough. Let's talk about your journey,
because I watched a presentation you recentlygave about how you have been searching
through your own ancestry and your owngenealogy. Just really quickly tell us about
what that was like for you todo that work and what you found.
Yes. Well, I've had theprivilege of working at American Ancestors for nearly

eighteen years. Have had a deepinterest in family history, as have other
members of my family. Father wasborn in Asia to a black US serviceman
and a Korean woman. My motheris from New England, largely of colonial

American ancestry. Most of her ancestorsarrived in this country in the seventeenth century,
and so I have African American heritage, I have Korean heritage, and
I have Colonial American heritage, bothEnglish Scottish as well as some Dutch,
and so, like many Americans,I have a diverse ancestry, if not

a globally diverse ancestry. And soover the years, I've been able to
successfully, in most cases unimpeded researchmy mother's ancestry, and I've documented thousands
of people in those lines, includingMayflower passengers and officers in the American Revolution,

early Dutch settlers to New York andso on. But on my father's
side of the family, it's beenmore difficult. My grandmother was a first
generation, but on my father's father'sside, I'm only several generations removed from
emancipation, the last enslaved ancestor,and so that becomes much more difficult in

that particular line. My research hashit a wall in the eighteen sixties.
I found at least one document sofar prior to eighteen seventy, an eighteen
sixty six document in Alabama. ButI've hit a brick wall there, and
so it's a personal journey for meas well. I only ask you to

share this story because there are somany people probably listening who are in a
similar boat, who might be multiracial, who might not really know where to
begin when it comes to searching forthose names who could be part of the
ten million names part of your project. So, while it can be complicated,
what is some of your advice forpeople who might want to dive into
this and say, yeah, Iwant to contribute, Where do I begin?

So there are several ways to contributeas well as to begin the research
process this will will truly be acommunity based effort in order to achieve the
goals of the ten million Names projects, because what we are ultimately doing is
amplifying the voices of people who havebeen telling their family stories for years,

if not centuries, and so byvisiting ten million names dot org, people
can contribute information that they may have, whether they're a descendant of an enslaved
person or the descendant of an enslaver, or they come across records in their

own research that may help someone connectto their enslaved ancestors. And for those
who are looking to get started,the first thing to do is to start
recording what you know, and ifyou have the privilege of older family members
that you can talk to, startasking questions. The family history process is

really about asking questions. It oftenbegins with questions we ask ourselves, who
am I, where do I comefrom? And asking and engaging in conversation
with family members community members is partof what brings about the benefits of family
history research. It's part of thatenriching activity to connect with people. Yeah,

and some of what you find mightbe uncomfortable, but history is uncomfortable,
and you might dig up stuff thatyour family hasn't wanted to talk about
for a while. This and youmentioned some of your ancestors might have enslaved
people. That can be really difficultfor people in our day and age to
process and deal with. Absolutely,family history can be complicated. It is

certainly can be complicated emotionally, andit's part of why we say that some
of the benefits of family history isthat it can be a source of healing
and repair. I like to quotesomething that our friend and advisor, Henry
Lewis Gates often says on his PBSshow finding your roots, which is guilt

is not inheritable. And so whilewe can certainly confront difficult matters that we
come across in our own ancestry orcome across in our research, the guilt
of what has come before is notours to bear. An ancestry is not
destiny, but it is a partof understanding where we've come from. It's

about making connections to the past andconnections to people across time and place,
and we know that to have atremendous benefit for people, including the notions
of healing and repair. When weencounter difficult stories that our ancestors experienced so

let's talk about what is going tohappen. You're gathering all this information.
This is not just starting now,You've been working at this. What exactly
at the end of the day willyou be doing with this information? Is
it going to be a database?Are you going to be doing a big
project? What is the end resulthere? There are several outcomes to the
work that we are doing, andwe're well underway. The ten Million Names

project officially launched in August of twentytwenty three, and we are underway in
researching identifying record collections to create databasesand family trees that will be published.
Some are already available on the tenmillion names dot org website. We are

also doing descendency research to try tohelp people today connect with their ancestors.
But the first part of the workis building searchable databases of records of people
who were enslaved or formally enslaved people, which is to jump that initial chasm

of the inequity of access to genealogicalinformation, and then we will in earnest
begin the descendency research. There aretwo other ways in which we are creating
access points to the ten million Namesresearch. One of those is the corporation
of ten Million Names into our youtheducation curriculum. We have a national curriculum

for the study of family history andin particular looking at how we can teach
inclusive history using genealogy, and someof the research that has come out of
ten Million Names is part of whatis in the curriculum. We've developed this

for elementary age school children and we'vehiloighted this in a number of states at
this point. We also have aprogram in the US Virgin Islands. It
teaches research skills. It looks athow asking questions and developing inquiry based learning
is important and using some of thehistorical fact and narrative that comes out of

family history research overall, as wellas ten Names is critical to that.
And the last part of it isat our facilities on Newberry Street. We
are underway building a new visitor centercalled the Family Heritage Experience. This will
be an inquiry based, interactive visitorexperience on Newberry Street where individuals families can

come visit, learn about the familyhistory process, become excited about what is
possible. And part of that workin showing what is possible is the ten
Million Names work to again help tocorrect some of the inequity of access of

information. We know through recent studiesthat more than fifty percent of adult Americans
say they cannot name their four grandparentswo a number of reasons that is the
case, but more than two thirdsof those who cannot name their ford grandparents
say they wish they could, butthey don't know how if they never knew

the person. And so being ableto teach people the process around family history
so that they can experience those socialemotional wellbeings, the connection, the family
cohesion that comes from this work ispart of what people will see in the
forthcoming family heritage experience here on NewGreen Street. Wow. Incredible, Okay,

very multifaceted approach here. So thenlet's talk about how we can help.
You've got this website, ten millionnames dot org. Just so much
content on that website. I wasdoing some looking at the site before I
came to talk to you. Ialmost got lost in it and almost missed
our interview time. There's just somuch going on. So somebody wants to
contribute, they head to the website. What then, so right on the

homepage of the ten million names dotorg website, if someone is interested in
helping with the project. Right inthe middle of the homepage is a badge
help ten million Names Research, andwhen you click on that, there are

a series of questions that are revealed, asking how you'd like to help.
Do you have a document, doyou have a family story, do you
have a family tree that you've created, do you have some other information that
you'd like to contribute. We alsohave volunteer opportunities. We're looking to partner

with more historical genealogical societies cultural institutionsthat may have records and so helping us
to identify collections or projects that youknow are out there that we can help
shed life ight on through the tenMillion Names project, because this is truly

collaborative. And finally, for thosewho are interested in volunteering, as we
are creating databases for those who wantto contribute to help to transcribe records to
index records. We have a dedicatedvolunteer program for the project, and we

encourage people who may be interested toconsider being a volunteer for ten million Names.
I love that, all right,well, Ryan Woods from ten Million
Names from American Ancestors, thank youso much. Thank you, cal appreciate
it. Have a safan healthy weekend. Please join me again next week for
another edition of the show. I'mNicole Davis from WBZ News Radio on iHeartRadio
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