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Why tracking down family history isn't as easy as it seems for some Americans

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Posted at 12:41 PM, Sep 30, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-30 17:18:24-04

Genealogy has been a big hit during this pandemic. Ancestory.com reports a 37% increase in web traffic since the COVID-19 crisis started. But did you know the likelihood that information is easily accessible to you might come down to your race?

The fight to preserve history isn’t just about monuments and murals. It’s about pieces of paper.

Tamika Strong is an archivist.

“It’s just humbling to know that these people lived such rich and full lives in many cases and that their lives are captured by a single document,” said Strong.

Strong has gathered a collection of more than 3,000 funeral programs from Black communities. The documents amplify voices too often unheard.

“It’s capturing the history and culture of an underrepresented group,” Strong said. “We’re having this movement now where we’re reclaiming the narratives.”

So often, we turn the lens of race on health, jobs, and opportunity, but there is also a disparity in genealogy. It’s a document desert.

According to Strong, because of Jim Crow, African Americans had limited access to research institutions compared to white Americans.

“There wasn’t a colored section for obituaries in the newspaper until about the 1920s,” she said. “The 1870 brick wall is the transitional period from when African Americans were considered individuals to the time when they were considered property.”

These bricks formed not a wall but a foundation. Strong’s collection covers Atlanta. Many more fill America.

“It’s always been my hope that people would hear about our project and, like me, be encouraged to do one for their local area. And there have been at least two other people who have expressed that interest,” Strong said.

In the documents are links for families tracing roots, but they also deliver details that paint portraits of communities.

“Despite what was going on in a national level, despite the environment that these people grew up in and lived their lives, there was still joy. They still made a life,” Strong said.

She says each generation tries to leave something good for the next generation and this is our gift to the next generation.

Strong says if she doesn’t keep collecting, the narrative will be lost in history.

"There is so much history that has been lost over time due to neglect, due to suppression,” said Strong. “We need these records because generations after we are going to need access to it.”