I remember when the original Roots first came out on TV, and it suddenly seemed as if everyone—black and white—was interested in genealogy. Those were pre-internet days, of course. Today companies like Ancestry.com put powerful family research tools at our fingertips. But not everyone wants—or can afford—to make a big commitment to family history research. I thought Black History Month would be a good time for this post about twelve easy projects you can do, even if you’re a beginner, to explore and preserve your family’s history.
There are a gazillion books and websites to guide you in heavy-duty genealogy, but this is a list of just-dipping-a-toe-in-the-water projects. And most of them can be group activities. They’ll be richer if you share them with family members.
1. Write down (or record) what you know.
This is so basic, we forget how valuable it is. You have knowledge. Write down the family tree, as much as you know: your parents, siblings, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and so on. You know stories! Write them down, or record them, or ask someone else to help you to do that. The first principal of genealogy is start with yourself and work back. (Afterwards, share copies.)
2. Interview your older relatives.
They get older every day, and one day they’ll be gone, along with all the precious knowledge they have. When I started doing my family history seriously, one of the most valuable documents I had was a pair of twenty-year-old family trees that my cousins had made in eighth grade, as an assignment. They’d called up our grandparents and interviewed them about who our ancestors were. By the time I was doing genealogy, our grandparents were gone, but I had that record of their knowledge. I’m ever grateful.
3. Talk with younger family members about your family history.
Make sure they know where your people came from. Don’t assume kids just know that stuff—they won’t know it unless someone specifically tells them. Pass on the family stories. Show them pictures, if you have them. Speaking of which…
4. Label some old photographs.
If you have family pictures lying around, are they labeled? Or are all the backs blank? Sure, you know who all those people are, but when you’re no longer around, will the next generation know? Label pictures of people with first and last name, date (or approximate date), and a place if possible. If you can add information like “Tina’s confirmation” or “Maurice was her second husband,” so much the better. Don’t let this overwhelm you; even labeling a few is better than nothing.
5. Print some family photographs.
Are all your photos on your phone or your computer? Is that going to work well for passing them on to future generations? I don’t know for sure, but maybe print some out and label them.
6. Pass old photos/papers/heirlooms along to younger relatives.
As I get older, I think more about this. My family has given me a lot of family stuff over the years, because I’m “the family historian.” But history has to be kept by all the generations. If a younger relative is interested, they might be receptive to some family photos and papers.
This goes for heirlooms too. We hear a lot about how young people today don’t want old stuff, and it may be generally true. But be selective. A young cousin of mine who cooks seriously was thrilled to receive our grandmother’s recipe box, and my nephew who does metalworking and carpentry was the right recipient for my grandfather’s drafting tools. Maybe include a picture of the ancestor along with the heirloom.
7. Gather things together.
Is all your family history stuff (photos, family papers, small heirlooms that are packed away) in one place? You could do good work by just gathering it into one box. Or several boxes. But labeled, in one place.
8. Make copies.
Got some precious family papers like old marriage certificates, baptismal certificates, and so on? If you make copies (or digitize them), you can store them in more than one place. Also, you can give copies to family members or other people (see #10 below).
9. Make a file for the local historical society.
Is your family documented at the local historical society? (If your family is African American, I’m betting it isn’t.) If not, you can fix that. Collect some information, put it in a folder (or an envelope), label it (for example, “Willis Family Information, for family history files”), and send it or carry it in to the local historical society, specifically for their family history files. Some items to include if you have them: a family tree, copies of photographs, copies of family documents if you’re willing to share them (but obviously not anything with Social Security numbers, and perhaps not birthdates of living people), and anything you’ve written about the family history. (You might want to check with them first to make sure they do have family history files.)
10. Make a family calendar.
This was the first family history project my cousin and I did; it was a Christmas surprise, and it made my mother cry. Big success! (They were happy tears.) We made a calendar for the coming year, with an old family photo for each month, and gave everyone a copy. Back in the ’90s, we made it in MS Word and printed it ourselves, but companies like Vistaprint make this easy nowadays.
11. Take a trip.
Invite a younger relative along, and go show them the house where you grew up, or track down the house where your grandparents lived. The place will prompt stories. Don’t forget to ask them about their lives too. Which brings us to…
12. Interview your younger relatives.
History isn’t just about the old folks. The experiences of young and middle-aged people are important, too. Inter-generational interviewing can have all sorts of benefits. For examples, listen to some of the stories at StoryCorps.
Now, will one of these projects inspire you to do more? Maybe! If you’d like to try an online genealogy research site, there are free ones like FamilySearch.org (you have to register for a free account), or your public library may provide free access to Ancestry.com or another commercial service. Ancestry offers a free two-week trial. Some libraries and historical societies offer help with genealogy. The Washington County Historical Society in Hagerstown has the kinship Family Heritage Research Center, a genealogical library. If you live near a Family Research Center of the LDS Church (there’s one in Frederick), they provide free, knowledgeable volunteer help to anyone doing genealogical research.
But don’t feel pressured. Even if you just do one of the twelve easy family history projects listed above, you’ll be playing a part in preserving your family’s history. Pass it on.