It’s amazing how quickly entire life histories can vanish from view. Those of us who yearn to know from where – and from whom – we came need only to don our detective hats. Discover how fun, frustrating and fulfilling it can be to trace the stories of your ancestors.
Some of us have no curiosity about our ancestors. Some of us have curiosity but are too busy to spend time on research – at least for now. Others of us are obsessed by the thrill of the hunt. We stay up ’til wee hours poring through online records and travel to ancestral homelands. Sometimes we’re motivated by family mysteries that vex us.
Such was the case for Gail Lukasik. As she solved a family mystery, she also learned about the times, places and social pressures that shaped her ancestors. Some of it was shocking.
“I was 49 years old when I learned my identity is not what I thought it was,” says Gail, an author of mystery novels and a resident of Libertyville, who began tracing her roots in 1995. Her family was the subject of a January 2015 episode of “Genealogy Road Show,” a PBS TV series that uses history and science to reveal family stories.
“Everything I’ve learned about my family has given me a much more personal understanding of our country and its history,” says Gail. “After all, this is my family we’re talking about.”
In 1995, well before internet research was widely available, Gail took her first steps into family research at the Buffalo Grove Illinois Family History Center, which primarily serves Lake County and northern Cook County. She was determined to learn about her maternal grandfather. Why had her mother always been so reluctant to answer questions about him?
“I had just finished my Ph.D. and was between teaching jobs, so I had some extra time to do research,” she recalls. “All of my life, whenever I’d asked my mother about her father, who was named Azemar Frederic, she’d say ‘You have to understand my parents divorced when I was 6 years old, so I don’t know much about him.’”
Gail’s mother, Alvera, had no photos of her father and claimed she didn’t know his birth or death dates. But she was particular in making sure that Gail knew Frederic was spelled with a “c” – the French spelling – and not a “k” – the German spelling.
Gail was raised in Ohio but knew her mother had grown up in New Orleans. The Family History Center helped her to locate microfilm and Gail found her grandfather’s name listed on the 1900 Louisiana U.S. Census record as a 2-year-old. Then she looked closer. A letter “B” was listed after his name, and after all of his family members’ names, in a column titled “Race.” What? How could that be?
She next requested a copy of her mother’s birth certificate from Louisiana. It specified her mother’s race as “col.”
“I assumed that meant ‘colored’ but wrote to the state just to confirm it, which they did.”
Gail’s grandfather and all his family had been designated black. His beautiful, light-skinned, mixed-race daughter Alvera had moved to Ohio in 1944 and “passed” as white, never revealing her secret to her husband or daughter. Just four years earlier Alvera had been listed as “col” in the 1940 Louisiana U.S. Census. By 1944 she lived a life of white privilege in Ohio.
“My mother was a product of her times and knew what life was like for black people living in the Jim Crow south,” Gail says. “When she was born in 1921, the ‘one drop rule’ was still in effect. That meant that if you had just one drop of Negro blood, you were considered black. This had huge implications for people legally, socially, in employment opportunities and so on.
“In 1970, the State of Louisiana magnanimously replaced the one-drop rule to say that if you were 1/32nd black, they considered you black,” she adds. “Not too generous when you consider that Nazis during World War II had their own formula for what made a Jewish person Jewish, and it was 1/16th.”
She recalls little clues sprinkled through her childhood by her mother. Alvera had told Gail anecdotes about the cruel ways blacks were treated in the South and the importance of treating all people with respect. Alvera had never ventured into sunlight without wearing gloves and a wide-brimmed hat. And she always wore makeup, even to bed.
Ironically, Alvera married a bigot.
“Like my mother, my dad was a product of his community,” says Gail. “He grew up in a predominately white Cleveland neighborhood. He didn’t use the N-word, but he derided blacks for what he perceived as a lack of ambition and inherent criminality.”
He died never knowing that his wife was mixed race.
Shortly after her father’s death, Gail confronted her mother about the research she’d done.
“At first she denied it,” Gail recalls. “Then she got very quiet and it seemed like she was shrinking into her chair. She was very afraid and upset. She made me promise not to tell anyone for as long as she was alive. She was afraid of being rejected by her friends.”
Gail kept her mother’s secret for 17 long years. Then, just a few months after Alvera’s death, the Genealogy Road Show announced that New Orleans would be one of two cities featured in its second season, which contained the St. Louis Central Public Library episode.
“My husband urged me to apply, and I did it almost as a lark,” Gail recalls. “I didn’t think I’d be chosen, but I was. It was so strange – I felt almost like my mother was guiding it.”
When the show aired in January 2015, many surprises were revealed to Gail and many things she’d learned on her own were confirmed, including a story about her great-great-grandfather, Leon Frederic. He was one of the first volunteer black troops mustered into the U.S. Army as part of the Union Army’s First Regiment of the Louisiana Native Guard in 1862 – the first black regiment in the history of the United States Army. Gail had once told her mother about him, hoping to stir some family pride, to no avail.
Three days after Genealogy Road Show aired, Gail was contacted by her cousin Stephanie Frederic and soon found herself attending a “welcome home” party hosted by Frederics in New Orleans. A second one followed, in Philadelphia.
“It was absolutely wonderful,” says Gail. “Among the Frederics were people with ebony black skin, the whitest of white skin and everything in between.”
Temporarily setting aside her mystery fiction writing, Gail authored a book titled “White Like Her: My Family’s Story of Race and Racial Passing,” available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble. It not only tells Alvera’s story but also reflects on the wider implications of being of mixed-race ancestry in America.
Testing revealed that 9 percent of Gail’s genetic makeup is African, something she could easily have lived a lifetime without knowing. The experience has caused her to wonder how many other people of mixed race have had their stories suppressed. In a column she published in the Washington Post this past November, Gail reflects on her mother’s secret.
“I bear no rancor toward her for not telling me of her mixed-race heritage,” she writes. “I feel only sorrow that, even after I knew, she was unable to share with me her feelings about who she really was and the life she had lived. Even so, I find solace and pride in finally knowing the truth of my own heritage and the mixed-race family of which I am a part.”
Bitten by the Family Research Bug
Our region is loaded with genealogy experts who can help anyone trace their roots, whether or not they hail from Chicagoland.
“People often get started on their own, find a lot of low-hanging fruit on the internet, then hit a brick wall pretty quickly,” says Kristen McCallum, reference librarian at Algonquin Area Public Library and president of the McHenry County Illinois Genealogical Society (MCIGS), based in Crystal Lake. “To get past the wall, they probably need to devote a little time to learning how to research. We help them with that.”
The genealogy bug bit McCallum in 2000, when the Palatine library where she worked began testing a family research software program.
“That got me hooked, and then I started talking to my grandmother, which really sparked my curiosity,” she says.
MCIGS hosts speakers and classes year-round for family researchers at all levels of expertise. It also hosts an annual summer conference with genealogy experts from around the U.S. This year it’s on July 7 at McHenry County College, in Crystal Lake. Find the lineup of speakers at mcigs.org/activities.
Why is McHenry County so well known for its active genealogy group and conference?
“A few years ago we received a trust donation for MCIGS that allowed us to bring in some big, nationally known speakers in the field, and things have snowballed ever since,” McCallum explains.
The rise of the internet and TV shows focused on ancestry, plus evolving DNA technology, have led to an explosion of interest in family research, says Thomas Hillier, research librarian at McHenry Public Library. He’s traced his family roots and his wife’s back to the 1700s.
“We help people get started by telling them to write down what they know about all members of their family and then work backward,” he says. “If you’re lucky enough to have grandparents or other relatives who know some family history, talk with them and write down what they know.”
The oral anecdotes passed down by family members often enrich a family’s story beyond mere dates of birth and death, he says. “Get them from people while you can. Future generations will thank you.”
The countless family trees posted on the internet today can be a great help in piecing together your own story.
“But don’t just accept other peoples’ information without independently verifying it,” Hillier cautions. “Going down that rabbit hole can really waste your time. Instead, verify information by using public records and other tools. If you don’t know how, we can teach you.”
One of the most important resources available to genealogists is Familysearch.org, run by the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City, Utah, which maintains affiliate Family History Centers throughout the nation. You don’t have to be Mormon to use this database of more than 3 billion deceased people. While genealogy is a hobby to most people, it’s an extension of faith life to Mormons. They believe family members can be together in the afterlife and should therefore strengthen current relationships with all relatives, living and dead.
Bill Edmundson of Machesney Park, Ill., and Marsha Hosfeld of Rockford, are among officers of the Winnebago & Boone Counties Genealogical Society. Hosfeld’s journey began more than 10 years ago, after her dad retired.
“We took some trips to Wisconsin together to places with family connections,” she explains. “I got hooked on learning more.” She’s traced family lines back hundreds of years to Germany and Ireland.
“When I was in school, I thought history was blah,” Hosfeld says. “But later in life, maybe because it was more personal, I started to think the history of my family was pretty interesting. I started looking at old family photos and wondering what their lives were like. There are so many questions I wish I had asked my grandparents.”
When she put her ancestors’ stories into the context of U.S. and world events, those events became much more interesting and relevant to her.
When Hosfeld began her research, the internet was already an invaluable tool.
“I really admire genealogists who worked before the internet age,” Hosfeld says. “They saved up their money and vacation time to travel and physically track down the information they needed from all sorts of places.”
Edmundson remembers those days well. He spent decades sleuthing paper trails the hard way, carefully recording each bit of information on index cards. In the 1990s, he published a book about one line of his ancestry.
“Our family tradition was that we were related to William Edmundson, the forefather of the Quakers in Ireland,” he explains. “He was English and ended up in Ireland because his brother was in charge of Captain Cromwell’s army in Dublin. As it turned out, we really did descend from William Edmundson, but through a different son of his than our family had always believed.
“I learned fascinating things along the way, like the fact that Quakers once owned slaves. But they saw the error of their ways early on. Our ancestor William Edmundson came to the U.S. and preached abolition up and down the East Coast, well before the abolitionist movement really got going. He was a pioneer of the Quaker movement here, and his entire family was persecuted for it left and right.”
Until Edmundson researched his namesake, the story about this impressive ancestor was merely a jumble of puzzle pieces.
“All of the pieces were lying around in different peoples’ homes,” he explains. “Putting it all together was quite a journey of discovery.”
Sometimes these discoveries are so profound that people describe them as nearly spiritual.
Such was the case for Donna Kjendlie, of Monroe, Wis., whose many years of family research culminated in a two-week stay with her German cousin, Hans, in Gingst, Germany, on the island of Rugen, her ancestral home.
Hans escorted Kjendlie to places he knew would interest her, including the family’s church, which dates back to 1248. She sat in the family pew originally purchased by her ancestors and held in her hands church family records dating to the 1500s.
“It still brings tears when I think about that moment,” she says. “I’ve always felt a connection to those ancestors and – I know this sounds odd – but when I was over there, I felt like I had come home.”
A tight-lipped German-American grandmother inadvertently fueled Kjendlie’s curiosity about her roots.
“When I was 15, I asked her a simple question: What was her birth country of Germany like? She wouldn’t discuss it,” Kjendlie recalls. “She simply said, ‘I’m an American now.’ Looking back, I suppose not enough years had passed since World War II for her to feel comfortable talking about her German roots. Years later, I worked for a woman who did genealogical research. She pulled out a county history book and pointed to some information and said, ‘These are your ancestors.’ I was hooked.”
A Few Tips from the Experts
• Be prepared to discover the good and the bad. You may trace your way back to the Mayflower, but you also may discover horse thieves, slave owners, great-grandmas who worked in brothels or fathers who abandoned their families.
• If you’re interested in family research but don’t have time for it right now, think ahead. Make it a priority to talk with living elderly relatives and take good notes. Store them carefully for future use. Likewise, go through old family photos with older relatives now and label them.
• If you can’t get an older family member to talk about family history, try asking specific, non-threatening questions to get the ball rolling, like “What was the first car your dad drove?”
• Know that spelling errors are rampant. “I once found a family name spelled five different ways in the same document!” Kjendlie says. Many older records are handwritten. “Marilla Cowen” might easily be transcribed as “Manilla Carrer” by mistake.
• Note where you find each piece of information. “It’s very easy to forget where you learned something,” cautions Edmundson.
• Back up everything! Losing research to computer malfunction is both heartbreaking and preventable.
• Don’t stop with direct ancestors. Their relatives may provide clues about them. “For example, I learned about my grandfather’s life working in Oklahoma oil fields by reading an interview done with his brother, who did the same work,” Edmundson says.
• Make good use of newspaper databases and county history books. They often add color and anecdotes beyond mere names and dates.