Black History Month: Researching roots through DNA

During Black History Month, historians and researchers encourage African Americans to research their genealogical roots and explore their ancestry to better answer the universal question: "Where do I come from?"

Technological advancements have aided those on personal quests to explore genealogical records as far back as the days of slavery, and even trace their region of origin through the use of genetic DNA tests. 

African American history Professor Samuel Livingston of Morehouse College challenges his students to embark on a personal quest to document and research their family history, and explore their familial origins on the African continent through a DNA test.  

"It's a normal human quality that we all try to explain, 'where do we come from?'" Professor Livingston said. 

42 million people in the U.S. identify as African American today. Researchers have estimated that 400,000 slaves from the African continent were brought to North America. 

"I think it's one of the worst forms of trauma, besides the physical violence that was a part of slavery, the trauma of lost roots, and [people] were not able to record some sort of origin story," Livingston said. His family's own oral history passed down through generations indicated his ancestry came from Timbuktu; he said a genealogical DNA test later confirmed that statement. 

"Before 1860, the only way we were able to find an enslaved ancestor is on a slave schedule," said Dr. Lisa Bratton of Tuskegee University, who is a researcher for the Metro Atlanta Chapter of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society.

Dr. Bratton has spent decades tracing her family's roots to Historic Brattonsville in South Carolina for her academic research. She's discovered records that indicate slaves from that region and her ancestors were possibly transported to North America from Barbados. 

She now helps others in Metro Atlanta dig through historical archives to discover their own origin story, which poses challenges to those searching for a country or region of origin prior to slavery. 

"There was such a lack of concern about that person's humanity. Africans were enslaved and brought to America, and no one was thinking about maintaining their family information, or making sure their descendants knew [where] the particular slave ship  [came from]," Dr. Bratton said. 

That's why thousands of people like Chantrise Sims Holliman have turned to increasingly popular ancestry and DNA tests to fill in the gaps about their family history. 

"If for some reason we all had to go back home, where would I go? All I knew is I was black and I was from someplace in Africa," Ms. Sims Holliman said, wanting to know more about her ancestry other than her family's limited oral history: her mother's family hailed from Sarasota, Florida and her father's family comes from Union Springs, Alabama. 

Growing up in Massachusetts, Sims Holliman said many of her friends and school classmates could pinpoint their family's deep Irish or Jewish roots, and hungered for the same knowledge. 

Sims Holliman requested results from companies 23andMe and Ancestry DNA. One test indicated she was 87.9 percent SubSaharan African and 11.6 percent of European descent. 

"That's where I'm from. My DNA comes from here," Sims Holliman said, explaining the results were a personal revelation. Another test indicated possible heritage from the countries of Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Togo and Benin. 

Various companies cite their particular sets of data for their consumers' results. Ancestry DNA states online on its website, "autosomal DNA testing... cross references your DNA to samples of populations worldwide across 150 regions." 

In a statement to FOX 5, 23andMe states the company compares your genome "to the genomes of 10,000 people with known ancestry and constantly update their data with DNA of different populations."

The results from various tests draw skepticism from theoretical population geneticists like Dr. David Cutler of Emory University, who states that although it's possible to pinpoint a geographical region one hails from, such as West Africa, there's an inherent difficulty to narrowing down one's DNA to a specific country or even a tribal group. 

"These things are usually accurate to roughly which continent you're from, roughly what percentage is from which continent, but not usually accurate down to tight percentages from various villages," Dr. Cutler said, stating how the human genome already doesn't vary much among the 7.6 billion people across the world today. 

But for Sims Holliman, her DNA test results provided more clues about her past than she had before. 

"If this is all that I have-- that's more than I had, and I'm okay with that. I absolutely want to go there," she said, hoping to travel to various countries in West Africa sometime in the future. 

For Black History Month, the Fulton County Library is featuring numerous books on genealogical records and researching one's ancestry, and provides free access of with a library card. More information is available on their website:

The Georgia Archive and the Metro Atlanta Chapter of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society also help people research their family's history and dig through historical records. More information can be found on their websites, below. 

Georgia Archive:

Metro Atlanta Chapter of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society:

This story was first published Feb. 22, 2018.