Learn to ‘peel back the layers’ of your ancestors


Each year, the Archives of Michigan and the Michigan Genealogical Council host a seminar on compiling family histories that’s geared toward both genealogical experts and amateurs who want to learn more about their families and where they came from.

The program is named for the late Barbara J. Brown, who dedicated her life to writing her family history. It’s supported by the Abrams Foundation, a nonprofit that funds various projects around the state, primarily relating to education and science.

For 26 years, Brown was president of the Abrams Foundation, founded by her uncle and aunt Talbert and Leota Abrams. She was also president and a board member of the Abrams Aerial Survey Corp., a former Lansing company that was world-renowned for its aerial photography.

Brown published two books on family genealogy, including one on the Abrams family. Her work is a significant part of the state archives’ genealogical collection, which is underwritten by the Abrams Foundation, now led by her daughter.

Registration for the two-day program May 10 and 11 at the Michigan History Center is $55 and available at michigan.gov/mhc/archives. For those who attend in person, breakfast and lunch will be provided. The sessions will also be available on Zoom.

This year’s keynote speaker is Ari Wilkins, who specializes in African American genealogical research. She’s a librarian at the Dallas Public Library and runs her own genealogical consulting company called Black Genesis.

Wilkins will speak on three topics throughout the two-day seminar: tracking African American migration patterns to Northern industrial cities; reconstructing communities through Sanborn maps, city directories and census records; and using antebellum plantation records to trace family history.

The African American population of Lansing was fueled by the Great Migration as families moved to the city for jobs in the burgeoning auto industry. One of those individuals was William Turner, who left his spouse, Vellmerie, two days after they were married to make the trip to Lansing to look for work. When he finally landed a job at Atlas Drop Forge, where he worked for 38 years, he sent a letter to his spouse back in Ragland, Alabama, telling her how to make the treacherous trip north.

Other seminar speakers include librarians Jessica Trotter of Capital Area District Libraries and Adam Oster of the Library of Michigan. Trotter will highlight useful genealogical information from historic clubs and associations, especially during the Progressive Era of the 1890s to 1920s, and Oster will discuss the use of school resources like yearbooks and alumni lists in researching family history.

I recently looked up a yearbook from Grosse Pointe South High School to track a deceased friend from college and found yearbooks can be a vast resource for information.

State Archivist Mark Harvey attributed the growth in genealogy research to “people looking for an anchor in a world that’s more disconnected.”

“Genealogy continues to connect individuals with families and increasingly connects them with the communities they live in,” he said.

He also posited that “people are just curious about their family’s past and want to peel back the layers of their ancestors.”

Arguably, the popularity of genealogy as a hobby can be traced to popular media like the 1976 book and corresponding 1977 TV miniseries “Roots” and the PBS series “Finding Your Roots” with Henry Louis Gates, as well as the explosion in online data that took research out of dusty public buildings and into peoples’ homes.

Websites like jointly owned Ancestry.com and Newspapers.com have had a massive influence on the growth of amateur genealogy. Ancestry.com has more than 3.5 million subscribers and more than 40 billion records in its database, while Newspapers.com has about 2.5 million subscribers, according to public records, and offers archives from more than 25,800 publications. Many libraries and research institutions allow free in-person access to these sites.

Another free resource is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ FamilySearch database, which holds everything from cemetery records to birth and death certificates and marriage licenses.

A quick search on the database showed I was living in Bay City in 1949 with my parents and grandparents. I also fell into a bit of a rabbit hole: My maternal grandparents, despite living in Bay City, were married in Wayne in 1920. Why? Did they elope? What was behind that decision? I may never know since everyone is dead, but I did discover my mother was a pastry chef.


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