For many African Americans, the 20th century began a long painful journey to becoming whole again. From Birth of a Nation and Jim Crow laws to the Civil Rights Movement and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, it took some time before many African Americans could turn their attention from the collective need to advocate for freedom and equality to the more emotionally difficult task of tracing familial separation. While some African Americans had been involved in annual family reunion traditions dating back decades, many other families had become separated over the years and lost track of their relatives and family members.
In October 1976, author Alex Haley’s release of his fictional account of his ancestor’s journey based on genealogy research debuted at #5 on NY Times Bestseller’s list – before rising to # 1 by January of 1977 – in less than 5 months. The novel, Roots: The Saga of an American Family would later win Haley a Pulitzer Prize and the adoration of the African American community and other communities of peoples of African heritage. With the critical success of the adaptation of the book to a nationally televised mini-series, “Roots” initiated an avalanche of researchers curious and excited to trace their ancestors’ migratory footsteps from the South.
In Philadelphia, the newly organized African American Historical and Cultural Museum at 7th and Arch Streets had been flooded with requests for genealogical information from people seeking information on their ancestors. Dr. Rowena Stewart, Director of the museum at the time, partnered with Archivist, Stan Arnold, to attempt to handle the massive amounts of requests. Despite his best efforts, he was besieged with calls for assistance in conducting genealogical research far beyond the museum’s capacity to help.
What happens next becomes the reason why the African American Genealogy Group exists today.