Black Nevadans reconnect with family trees that were ‘extremely interrupted by slavery’
On a recent Friday evening, Southern Nevada Minister Stretch Sanders convened a group of 10 people at a North Las Vegas church for a workshop on genealogy.
Sanders, who founded the Stretch for Change Foundation, warned attendees that the process of tracing roots would look a little different for Black families than it would for those of European or Latin descent.
“For us, prior to 1865, we were listed in a person's will as property … ‘like, I leave my son, my house and three slaves,” he said.
During Sanders’ 10-year journey of investigating his ancestry, a relative in Indiana connected him to Kizzy Jordan – his fourth, or fifth, great-grandmother, who was born enslaved in 1810 on a Virginia plantation. Jordan gave birth to 11 children while enslaved and later moved to Pachuta, Mississippi, a rural town of 207 residents as of 2020, where many grandchildren of her offspring remain. They also connected her ancestry to the Tikar people, a tribe that originated in what is modern-day Sudan and ruled in what is now called Cameroon through small kingdoms.
Together with Leslie Ann Turner, co-director of the nonprofit Mass Liberation Project, Sanders hosted the Black History Month event called “Discovering Your Roots: Family Ancestry” to launch a movement that aims to increase involvement in African American genealogy.
He considers the study of Black families to be a form of liberation.
“I haven't heard one Black leader … stressing this as an important piece of liberation work in our community,” Sanders said. “We quote Frederick Douglass … but Leslie said, ‘can you quote your auntie?’”
Sanders said after discovering relatives who have been researching their family since the mid-1990s, the Jordans are organizing a national family reunion in 2025, in Pachuta, for all of the relatives of Kizzy Jordan. They are expecting at least 600 people who descended from the 9 children who gave her 64 grandchildren.
In the 1800s, the newly freed used advertisements in newspapers to immediately begin searching for relatives who were sold, traded or left to reproduce on breeding farms.
Today, Nevadans of African ancestry are using several resources in their search, including the U.S. Census Bureau, property deeds and wills, websites such as Ancestry.com and Africanancestry.com or nonprofit organizations, including the Nevada African American Genealogy Society.
“We see movies like Poetic Justice and the family reunion scene, or Madea’s Family Reunion,” Sanders said. “Reunions have been kind of commercialized … but the first [mass] reunion was literally after Emancipation. These people were eager to find their relatives.”
Ella Harvey, 87, and her daughter Constance Harvey-Morton, 61, who attended the genealogy event, said they discovered that the legendary civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was a relative while investigating their heritage.
But not all discoveries are pleasant. Turner said the despair that can come with the journey sometimes pushes people away from researching their family history to avoid opening “deep wounds” about the transatlantic slave trade and the terror that followed. During her journey, Turner learned that three of her uncles were lynched and killed.
“It does open up the conversation to talk about reparations, talk about the Black family, talk about the healing of the nation,” Sanders said. “This subject wasn't the most talked about because people knew that it was going to open up a broader conversation that many are not comfortable with having.”
Sanders said reuniting with family is a way to be empowered, although, over the years, he often felt like an outcast while documenting his family history because it wasn’t common practice among the Black community.
Turner, Sanders and attendees have called the experience a spiritual journey of self-love and liberation rooted in self-discovery, despite the heartache they sometimes felt from learning new information about their families, such as lies about father figures, slaveholding relatives and marriages between cousins.
“With ancestry … it’s not like you get to a point where you have arrived,” Sanders said. “There's always more. As African people, our history was extremely interrupted by slavery.”
Healing and spirituality
Turner said a crucial part of genealogy is healing and closure that Black people require and deserve after being violently ripped away from African traditions, rituals, spiritual systems, language – “everything.”
She said tracing ancestors is a metaphysical conversation or activity that shows respect for ancestors.
“Doing the work of tracing your lineage is an act of ancestor veneration,” Turner said. “Just that act of connecting to their stories … it's also like being in spiritual communion with your ancestors.”
Turner believes that liberation for Black people comes in many forms, including reconnecting with the cultural past.
She said she has longed to know the spirituality of her ancestors and through reconnecting with elders, Turner discovered her great-grandmother was a “medicine woman” who practiced Hoodoo, a version of African spirituality that survived enslavement.
“[Liberation] is also going to come from us knowing who we are, tapping into our elders, tapping into our ancestors … returning to our original ways of being and knowing,” Turner said.
Turner and Sanders said there are three parts to African American genealogy — history in Africa before enslavement, history in America following enslavement and DNA testing. A similar three-way approach can provide insight for groups such as some Afro-Latinos who were taken to the Caribbean from Africa during the slave trade.
Using the Black-owned African Ancestry DNA service, Turner learned she is 99 percent Tikar. She is most passionate about the DNA portion because people can learn their tribal roots, which is different from other services that trace people back to “geographical markers” or countries. Turner said this is important because tribes move.
“My great-grandfather was lynched in Mississippi,” she said. “And for me, healing is being able to say — at least I know that [my family] story started somewhere on the [African] continent.”
Tracing Black roots
Sanders said people should begin their journey by filling out a standard family tree on a piece of paper and keeping a journal to document the findings so they can be passed down.
He encouraged the group to start at the top of the family tree and work down, to gauge how many generations they can trace back before beginning the investigation process. The next step is uploading the information to an ancestry website.
The legacy of slavery and racism left enslaved Africans informally documented before the 1870 U.S. Census – the first report that included the names of African Americans. To dig deep, Sanders said people should research as many records as they can access, such as the Smithsonian database for slave records, church and county records in towns where relatives have lived, and the Freedmen's Bureau archives.
The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, or Freedmen’s Bureau, was a government entity started during the American Civil War by the War Department to provide food, shelter, clothing, medical services and land to displaced Southerners, including “indigent and freedpeople." The Freedmen's Bureau also supervised work contracts between "freedmen" and employers.
“You may see a name you recognize,” Sanders said about Freedmen’s Bureau records. “You may be looking at a record of your ancestor and not even know it.”
Sanders said there are many ways to gather “clues” that can lead to big discoveries in a person’s family tree, including talking with older relatives who can tie up loose ends, attending family reunions and cold calling people who appear to be related or connected to family members.
Turner said sometimes spelling names phonetically while searching databases, especially around the late 1800s and during enslavement, can turn up records because names were commonly misspelled because the enslaved were forbidden to read and write. Names are also sometimes expressed with initials.
The Harveys, whose family has been holding “family-community reunions” or homecomings since 1979, said names play a large role, as many of their relatives recycled the names of family members, mainly matriarchs, as if they “wanted to leave markers.”
“Once you get started, ancestors just start showing up,” said Harvey-Morton.