Discovering Our Stories

Smithsonian Museums Empower Family Historians

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A family takes part in a session.

Asking Anacostia native Dianne Dale how a community’s genealogical history illuminates its greater historical narrative is like asking a treasure hunter why they’d use a map. A historian and author of “The Village That Shaped Us,” a collection of oral interviews depicting the stories and goings-on of families living in post-Civil War Anacostia, Dale considers family history vital to preserving and maintaining a community’s own identity.

“Everybody has a story, and so we need to record the stories until we can put one version from our own perspective out there,” she said. “Because our story’s being told by other people,” she added, “and that’s dangerous.”

The Past Is Filled with Treasures
Like a treasure hunter, Dale has a penchant for seeking out all the historical riches she can find, especially her own. The first taste for treasure came from her childhood home in Southeast, where her mother kept boxes of old family documents in the attic. Dale remembers poring over the papers and the rush she felt as she pieced together the story her family records were telling. “It’s a thrill to be able to hold those documents that you find,” she said.

Dale jokingly admitted her records may not have been as comprehensive except for the family’s habit of keeping what others might trash. “I come from a family of, I guess you can call them, pack rats,” she said. “They don’t throw anything away.”

Generations later, those photos and records reveal their value and uncover the voices living through eras, stressors and movements; through economic busts and booms, urban remodeling, segregation and migration. Dale’s family remained for over a century in Hillsdale, Anacostia, all the while accruing documents and stories that trace how Washington’s history impacted the lives of those who lived there, especially those who stayed.

While Dale’s family history has been carefully documented, other families might only have blurry narratives of their past. Circumstances ranging from poor record-keeping to family estrangement or not even knowing where to start can dissuade families from digging deeper.

The Smithsonian Offers New Resources
Maybe that’s why hundreds each day visit the Robert Frederick Smith Explore Your Family History Center, located within the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, and enroll in the daily 30-minute genealogical sessions. Since its opening nearly two years ago, metro-area residents and tourists alike have used the center to answer particular questions, fill knowledge gaps and, for many, start searching from scratch.

“I’ve never really known my father’s side,” a Philadelphia visitor going by the moniker Alsmoov explained after his session. “It was a mission of mine to get to the museum, and since the service was available, I thought I would take advantage of it.”

“I got a little bit of confirmation of what I thought I knew,” he added, though he admitted his family research might not be over yet. “I have to tell my wife, I might just dig a little further. Just to find out a bit more.”

Observing the center’s visitors is like watching people discover they’re wandering into their own personal libraries. By the afternoon, all of its session slots are typically full, though visits for latecomers are hardly a missed opportunity. Some consult center staff, who hand them leaflets with reading suggestions and websites to jumpstart their searches at home. Others linger in the center of the room to scroll through an interactive display called “Transitions in Freedom.”

Lining the far wall of the center are computers, the sources of modern-day treasure hunts. I watched one family of six trace its lineage, though the youngest members didn’t realize they might be striking gold. Rather, the children stared out the glass window that faced the National Mall. “I wish I had brought my tablet,” a girl complained. “I don’t have anything to look at.”

Visualizing History
Popular demand has expanded the number of sessions and brought additional programming. Doretha Williams, a program manager for the Robert Frederick Smith Fund, oversees the center and calls it a crucial fixture of the museum to capture the breadth of African-American history.

“The experience of African-American and black people in this country has long been muddled in history books,” Williams explained. “The experience of going through the exhibits – whether it’s on slavery and freedom, whether it’s on the power of place – all these experiences become very personal.”

“Everyone,” she added, “regardless of race or gender, has some experience, some part to play in this story … and [the center] provides information that is long overdue to be examined publicly.”

Visitors who sign up for a session receive preliminary guidance by a genealogy reference assistant, who explains recommended websites and best practices for locating family members. Online sessions are particularly effective when tracing lineage as far back as the Reconstruction era, though visitors looking further back could discover gaps in their history. Before the Civil War, up to 90 percent of the African-American population was not registered on official censuses because their status as enslaved persons legally reduced them to chattel. Centuries later, descendants of slaves might find traces of their ancestors in state libraries, church records, courthouse documents or perhaps through historical societies. 

Preserving the Spirit of Anacostia
These gaps present problems when comprehensively documenting African-American history across the nation, and DC is no exception. In order to record and preserve the history of DC’s African-American communities east of the river, historians like Dale work with the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum to collect primary resources from community members.

“From the very beginning of this museum, we have worked to document family history,” said Samir Meghelli, the museum’s chief curator. “Families are what really made up this community.”

In the 1970s, following urban renewal displacement of up to 20,000 Southwest DC residents in the 50s and 60s, the Anacostia Community Museum conducted interviews with the area’s longstanding residents, including Dale’s grandfather. Through stories captured on the recordings, museum curator Alcione Amos was able to reclaim undocumented pre-Civil War history and retain the essence of a disappearing community.

“There is very little information before the Civil War online, but these interviews in the 1970s that the museum did, people still remember where the families had come from and some of the history,” Amos said.

In fact, as families were displaced and migrated over the years, Amos says, it’s clear that most of Anacostia’s current residents do not descend from the inhabitants of the historic Barry Farm, a creation of the Freedmen’s Bureau and one of Southwest’s first black neighborhoods. Barry Farm’s roots and other stories from east of the river are often unknown to the area’s current residents. “I have given several lectures … but the best lectures I have given are for the people in the community of Ward 7,” she reflected.

“And they say when I finish the lecture, they always say, ‘But why is it that we don’t know anything about this?’”

The Explore Your Family History staff have noticed the local interest, too. According to genealogy reference assistant Kamilah Stinnett, preliminary visitor data reveals that five percent of guests are DC-based, though bimonthly weekend genealogy events draw larger crowds of locals.

Whether families stayed in DC or moved elsewhere, illuminating their histories helps unravel the larger narrative of the African-American experience. Like Dale, Baltimore resident and Explore Your Family History visitor Chiquita Lanier recognizes how family history empowers a community to tell its own story. “If you know our history, it’s important for us to find it,” she told me. “Because we didn’t have one.”

“Knowing the detailed history is sometimes inspiring, sometimes tragic, sometimes a mix of both,” Meghelli reflected. “Self-knowledge, this idea of self-knowledge, is important in trying to understand where we came from so that we can move forward.”

Thus the saying, You have to know where you came from to know where you’re going.

Dale’s advice? A genealogy session might inspire more people to look at what’s in their attics.