Black History Month: Searching for Ancestors

During Black History Month, some African American families are delving deep into their ancestry to pay tribute to their oldest ancestors. 

Stanley Blackburn's mission: to find and name them, and even pay them a visit.

"Any African American can trace their family far back into slavery," Blackburn said, having done so himself and successfully discovering the graves and final resting places of his distant relatives. 

Growing up in Cherokee County, Amabama, Blackburn said he heard vivid stories of his ancestors forced into slavery in Georgia, and was told about a remarkable escape by relative Ishmael Harkness to join the Union Army.

 "I would ask my dad about them, but nobody could actually tell me where they came from. I thought, one of these days, I'm going to actually find these people," Blackburn said.

With genealogy as a life-long hobby, Blackburn collected photos, birth, marriage and death records spanning back into the 1800s. His search led him to Georgia Archives' records, which document a dark part of our nation's history: inventories of slave owners and the names of people they listed as "property." 

"The key to it is finding out who owned your family," he said. 

Blackburn traced records to a man named Reuben Gay, a slave-turned-freeman born in 1828 who was his great-great-great grandfather and uncle. 

"I found Reuben Gay's grave in a cemetery here. Something said, go, get up in the morning and check that cemetery out," Blackburn said, attributing the urge to a nagging voice within. 

Blackburn made the trek to New Hope United Methodist Church in Fayette County, and after wandering around the cemetery, found the resting place of Gay and his other relatives.

Blackburn said the discovery changed him, and will change anyone else who makes that personal journey to find their lost relatives.  

"Personally, I think we were not whole. We were not whole people because there was part of our family that we didn't even know," he said. 

The search in that cemetery led him to meeting those who manage the cemetery and run the church; those caretakers turned out to be descendants of Reuben Gay.

Gay obtained his freedom, became a businessman, amassed an income and even built a home that still stands a short distance from his final resting place. 

His ancestors hope officials will designate that home as a historical site. 

Blackburn also connected with long-lost distant cousin, Donna Hann, who took up the task of finding the resting places of other ancestors in the Gay family.

Her search through records led to the cemetery at Antioch Baptist Church, which had a plot of more than a hundred graves of slaves. Most slaves were often too poor to afford any markers such as headstones.  

"There are family members there that we don't know, because there are unmarked graves," Hann said. 

Hann and other community members took up the task of placing crosses and a memorial at the site to honor their relatives' resting places. 

"It helps me to understand who I am. They are my family, and I have a duty to take care of them," Hann said. 

Hann is now helping others dig into their ancestry. 

On February 16, Hann will speak at the session called "Discover Your Roots" at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on 101 South Peachtree Parkway in Peachtree City. The event lasts from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

 On February 23, from 9 a.m. until noon, Antioch Baptist Church will need volunteers to bring tools and equipment to clean the grave sites. The address is 144 Brooks-Woosley Road in Woosley.