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Phoenix Genealogy Group Aims To Uncover Hidden Black History

black family genealogy and history society
(Photo by Annika Cline - KJZZ)
Members of the Black Family Genealogy and History Society meet every month.

February is Black History Month, but history is not always easy to track down and get right, especially for African Americans, whose family history is often obscured by hundreds of years of slavery.

It can take a lot of digging to fill in the details. If you want to meet your ancestors, start with the major life events. 

“The marriage certificate I would consider to be a primary source of information,” said Joyce McCollum, president of the Black Family Genealogy and History Society, a Phoenix genealogical research group.

McCollum presented at the group’s last monthly meeting, telling members how to use basic records to trace their ancestry. 

“You’ll find death records, and you’ll find wills at the county courthouse or the city courthouse level,” McCollum said. 

But she said even finding the basics can be difficult when tracing an African American lineage. 

“We did not appear on census records as individuals, as citizens, until 1870,” McCollum said.

That was the first census taken after the 13th amendment was ratified, formally abolishing slavery. McCollum calls this the “1870 brick wall.” There are many other walls these researchers confront, big and small. The advice McCollum gives is specific to these challenges.

“You have a huge amount of marriages of African American people in the years 1866 through 1868,” McCollum told the group.

Unions before that time weren’t legally documented, so there are no marriage licenses to uncover. Despite these obstacles, the group gathered their hopes to uncover family histories. It’s what McCollum calls “filling in the dash on the tombstone.” You start with the birth and death date, and then you look for the good stuff - the stuff that happened in between. 

Kathy Ayers talked about her grandfather at the meeting as she casually pulled out his purple heart medal. She said she has a lot of memorabilia from him.

“I have a big sword of his that he claimed he killed several men with when he was out here in Arizona,” she said.

Another member, Khameelah Shabazz, hopes to trace her ancestry back to Africa.

“I’m a native. I was born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona,” Shabazz said. 

But even finding her roots in the South has been hard. So, Shabazz went there herself. She said getting her own boots on the ground is better than a long-distance phone call.

“I found my great-great grandfather, who was Jordan King. He served in the civil war,” Shabazz said. “Now I’m unable to find my great-grandmother’s grave in Louisiana, so that’s a challenge.”

Cemeteries come up a lot in the group discussion. Members mourn the graves that have been lost under new construction, and they discuss how to save what’s still there. For a group that aims to uncover history, there’s actually a lot of talk about the future. 

“Part of our responsibility is not just to research and record and document our family history, but to do others’ history as well. Preservation,” McCollum said, addressing the group.

The group hopes to continue to fill in the blank spaces in African American histories to show future generations where they came from.

Annika Cline was born in Germany, raised in California and transplanted to Arizona. She studied at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.Cline produces and reports for KJZZ’s original production, The Show, covering stories from all corners of the Valley as well as bringing listeners a slice of their own community in the weekly Sounds of the City series.Cline also volunteers as an art instructor for foster youths and their families.