Archives hosts family research expert for Black History Month

DOVER — Shamele Jordan knows where she came from, but she’s still not done searching for answers about her ancestry.

That’s generally how it goes with genealogy research. One is never considered finished.

“We laugh about that — whenever someone says they are done. How can you ever be done? If you’re really into it, once you get started, the questions never end,” she said.

“Our family tree will never be done. It’s just a continuing work in progress.”

As a genealogical researcher, lecturer, writer and podcaster, Ms. Jordan knows. She’ll bring her expertise to Dover today, with a free presentation on “Underutilized Records for African American Genealogy” at 10:30 a.m. at the Delaware Public Archives.

Genealogy researcher Mary Guy goes over materials at the Delaware Public Archives in Dover. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Ms. Jordan became interested in genealogy through her cousin, Floyd Riley, a charter member of the African American Genealogy Group  in Pennsylvania.

“He would come home from down south with these great stories. It seemed really exciting.”

At first she helped him with research, then she delved into her own work when the 1930s Census came out in 2003. She started researching her grandmother Maggie Delp’s branch of the family history and has traced it back from 1930 to 1870.

Ms. Jordan considers the census files as “foundational records” and urges people getting into ancestry research to start there.

“Every 10 years, we get a new census record available to us. So now we have 1940. You just start in the most recent census, find what you can find and then move on to the next census. You just keep working your way back in time,” she said. “That’s the fastest way you can grow your family tree.”

State and national archives, where people can access printed and online materials are great resources, she said, as are websites Family-search.org and ancestry.com.

Some of genealogy researcher Mary Guy’s materials at the Delaware Public Archives in Dover. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

“Just in the past 10 to 15 years the amount of information (online) has exponentially increased.”

While most of her information is from online records, Ms. Jordan said she enjoys getting out in the field. “I love, love, love to get out and do research. To me that’s where the fun is — going out and getting out of your house and going to where your ancestors lived.

Mary Guy, of Dover, spends hours at the Delaware Public Archives researching her ancestry. She’s well known at the building in downtown Dover.

“Every time they open the door, I am there,” she said. “It’s like eating potato chips — you just can’t eat one.”

As a child she was always asking questions about her family, especially after a woman showed up on the doorstep one day and asked for Ms. Guy’s father. The woman turned out to be Ms. Guy’s aunt.

“It was my father’s sister,” she said. “That’s when I found out we had family.”

A number of Delaware’s history-making women will be honored at the Delaware Agricultural Museum and Village today at the opening of “Black Women, Telling HerStory.” The annual quilt show is presented by A Stitch in Time Quilt Guild. Among the honored guests and speakers at the reception will be the first woman and first African American to represent the state of Delaware in the U.S. Congress, newly elected Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester. One of Delaware’s first female African American judges, retired Magistrate Marcealeate Stephens Ruffin also will be honored, along with educator and Vice Mayor of Milton Esthelda Parker Selby and educator and community advocate Ruth Shelton. The reception begins at 11 a.m., immediately followed by the opening of the exhibit, which will be on display until April 19. Music will be provided by volunteers from Delaware State University and a silent auction and free quilting take-aways will be presented. Admission to the museum, located at 866 N. DuPont Highway, is $6, but discounted for seniors, children, military, and students. Profits benefit the ag museum. For information, call 734-1618. (Special to the Delaware State News/Dee Marvin Emeigh)

The retired teacher made it a hobby about 35 years ago and began her research with the Latter-day Saints and the archives.

She’s traced her father’s side back to William Paca, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a governor of Maryland.

She’s got a collection of books, photocopies and photos. One red spiral-bound notebook is dedicated to one side of the family, with the last names written on the front in black marker. Inside are the variations of spellings — Paca, Pecco, Peco, Peaker — that she searches for in her research.  Sometimes those name variations are driven by dialect and how people pronounced them, others were dictated by the census workers who recorded them, she said.

Ms. Guy has followed her mother’s roots to the McComas Institute in Harford County, Maryland. That was a school where her mother, Alice Stafford, worked and where she met Ms. Guy’s father.

Through her research, Ms. Guy has discovered the many faces of her ancestry: German, American Indian, white, black, but she dislikes being categorized.

“We’re just humans,” she said. “It’s not race. It’s ethnicities. It’s the human race, that’s how I operate.”

Obstacles in research

Ms. Jordan and Ms. Guy noted that many people may not want to share their history because of family secrets or because they are concerned it isn’t finished or accurate, but they encouraged those pursuing ancestry to share their information to help everyone interested find their connections.

Ms. Guy likes to find names of people to give her angles for research, but she wants the stories of who they are and what they did — “good or bad,” she said. “I’ve got a bandit.

“I want the truth. You can’t rewrite the past.”

Another obstacle for African Americans is tracing one’s roots in public records.

“Once you get back to slavery, people might not have the same first names. They didn’t have last names. They were property,” Ms. Jordan said.

She encouraged people, when they find a source cited in research, to seek it firsthand.

“You always want to get back to the original record,” she said, noting that once after tracking a book that was cited in an index, she realized it had only provided information on those who were white.

“With African Americans, what happens sometimes, when people create those indexes, they leave us out,” she said.

County courthouses can provide records that will be “gems” for researchers, Ms. Jordan said. They include deeds, tax and estate records  and wills.

“When people were sold they had to be captured in deeds. When people died, slaves were listed in estate records. Same with tax — you had to pay tax on your property. Sometimes you see names of slaves and sometimes you see numbers,” she said, which creates another layer of research.

Ms. Jordan has been traveling and speaking about African-American genealogy since 2000. She gives free workshops at least a half dozen times a year at the Family History Center in Cherry Hill, N.J.

“Knowing who you are in any capacity is the most important thing you can do for yourself,” she said. “It makes me feel grounded.”

She has pride in the ancestors that she has traced to the 1820s, who worked on the railroad and served in the military.

“These people lived so I could be here,” she said.

Ashley Dawson is managing editor of the Delaware State News. Email adawson@newszap.com.

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