Exploring the History in Our Blood
BU program helps answer questions about family| From Commonwealth | By Robin Berghaus
Desa Larkin-Boutté knows her mother’s family well. Growing up, she would listen to stories about how her great-great-grandmother danced around a fire to celebrate her emancipation from slavery. Or how her great-grandfather, from Coffeeville, Miss. — a town whose main attraction is the Piggly Wiggly — sent his children to school by renting land to sharecroppers.
But she never did learn much about her father’s side.
That changed when Larkin-Boutté (COM’10) enrolled in the Family History Project, developed by the Howard Thurman Center and New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS), the oldest and largest genealogical society in the country.
Larkin-Boutté, who has lived with her mother since her parents divorced when she was five years old, saw the project as an opportunity to reconnect with her father and his family. Mainly, she was interested in uncovering some of her multicultural roots. “Although he’s fair and could pass as white, if you ask my dad about his race and roots, he identifies as black-Creole,” says Larkin-Boutté. “So I found it compelling that I was never able to trace his family back to Africa. Through DNA tests and historical documents, the furthest back I traced was to Scandinavia.”
The semester-long project includes a series of research trips, classes, and workshops, led by scholars such as John Thornton, a College of Arts & Sciences history professor, Linda Heywood, a CAS professor and director of the African American Studies Program, and Harvard University’s Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who produced the PBS series Faces of America. The scholars help answer questions about family history and explain the origins of people and world events that shaped migration, including conflict, genocide, slavery, economics, and political and religious persecution.
Each student is paired with a NEHGS genealogist, who helps navigate the center’s resources, including Ancestry.com — the world’s largest online family history database — and off-line resources, such as compiled genealogies, birth and death certificates, census records, marriage licenses, and immigration and naturalization records. For documents unavailable on site — as is common with international records — NEHGS orders them through the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, which contains more than 2.4 million rolls of historical records on microfilm.
Before the first meeting with the class, NEHGS genealogists did some digging, which revealed, among other things, that Brandon Stinchfield (CAS’10) was related to Microsoft chairman Bill Gates. The name of the Stinchfield family, which has lived in Massachusetts for at least 12 generations, was immediately recognizable to NEHGS genealogists, who tracked Brandon and Gates to a common ancestor, Thomas Tupper (b.1567), founder of Sandwich, Mass.
D. Joshua Taylor, NEHGS director of education and programming, says tracing names and dates is only the beginning of a genealogical quest. “Genealogy connects people to the historical past by discovering how their ancestors lived during pivotal events like World War I and the Salem witch trials,” he says. “It makes history come alive.”
Raul Fernandez understood that well when he discovered that one of his ancestors, Antonio Fernandez, immigrated to Puerto Rico from Mexico. “Before I discovered Antonio, my connection to Mexico was intangible,” says Fernandez (COM’00), assistant director of the Howard Thurman Center. “Afterwards, I began caring more about its culture and current events. As I continue researching, I want to answer questions about my ancestors’ motivations, like why did Antonio have to leave Mexico?”
The TV show Who Do You Think You Are? , which concluded its first season last Friday, has helped to make it cool to trace family roots. The NBC series took seven celebrities — Sarah Jessica Parker, Emmitt Smith, Brooke Shields, Susan Sarandon, Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Broderick, and Spike Lee — throughout the world, tracing their family histories. Sarah Jessica Parker stopped at NEHGS in the show's first episode and, with help from Taylor, found an ancestor who was spared from being tried as a witch in 17th-century Salem.
“Genealogy is no longer just an old person’s hobby,” says Taylor. “It has been refreshing to work with students who are overflowing with questions, rather than being stopped at a brick wall for 30 years. They help us see how research is evolving with the new generation.”