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History Matters: Reconsidering Alex Haley's Roots, and its Relevance today

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On the night of January 23rd, 1977 – and for eight consecutive nights after – a TV mini-series based on the number 1 selling African American novel of all time – Roots – aired on ABC.

It went on to become the most-watched series in TV history – with people across the country and around the world cancelling meetings and prior engagements to watch the story of Kunta Kinte from the comfort of their homes.

 

Roots was – and still is – about identity for many African Americans. This year, as part of Roots’ 40th anniversary, the History Channel is airing a 4-part re-make of Roots.

 

African American Historian Kellie Carter Jackson recently shared a lecture at the Delaware Historical Society called Reconsidering Roots, also the title of a book she’ll be releasing in April.

 

For this month’s History Matters, produced in conjunction with the Delaware Historical Society, we offer pieces of that lecture along commentary from local genealogy researchers Shamele Jordan and Erwin Polk about the impact of Roots in 1977, and how it’s still relevant today.

 

Not only did it spark a cultural revolution – with people purchasing Roots memorabilia, and even naming children after characters in the film - but it also spurred an interest in genealogy, especially among African Americans including Jordan and Polk wanting to dig into their own African ancestry.

 

Polk uncovered documents like the will of his ancestors’ slave owner – who granted freedom to Polk’s great, great, great grandmother Sarah Polk and her children upon his death.

 

“My family has been in the United States – on my father’s side – since before 1778," Polk said. "We got our freedom initially, started getting our freedom in 1809.”

 

In 2019, his family will have been free in America for 210 years.

 

Polk also helped start a Delaware chapter of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, which meets at area libraries to help Delawareans dig into their roots.

He’s excited for 2022: when the 1950 census will become eligible for public viewing, and expects it will spur more interest in genealogy.

 

Jordan has been digging into her family’s ancestry for over a decade. Her cousin Floyd got into genealogy when Roots came out 40 year, and Jordan followed suit.

The pair has unearthed some fascinating finds – including an 1858 deed from Houston County, Georgia that showed the transfer of her enslaved ancestors - including her great, great, great grandmother, her siblings and mother - from their owner to his brother.

“When you think about it, African Americans were property when they were slaves, they were owned," Jordan said. "So just like a house just like horses or cattle, when they were sold from one to another they had to have a transaction of it, so they would be in these large ledger books – they would write them at the courthouses.”

 

They’ve also used records from the Freedman’s Bureau - created during the Reconstruction Era, right after the Civil War - to find information about family members.

“You have all of these freed people, you know over a half a million people are now free," Jordan said. "They have to figure out work - where you’re gonna work, where you’re gonna eat, how you’re gonna clothe yourself, education. Before and during slavery, it was illegal for them to be educated, now you have to educate folks. During slavery it was illegal to get married, now you need to solemnize all of these marriages.”

Jordan will share more about African American genealogy research - and the vast array of records now available online - in a talk at the Delaware Public Archives on Saturday February 4th at 10:30 a.m.

 

The Delaware Historical Society will also be hosting screenings of the History Channel re-make of Roots starting Saturday January 28 and throughout February. Learn more about their Sharing Roots programming here.

 

Resources for African American genealogical research:

1. Delaware's Afro-American Historical & Genealogical Society, Inc.

 

2. FamilySearch.org

 

3. Ancestry.com 

 

4. Freedmen's Bureau

 

5. Freedman's Bank

 
 

 
 

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