The Indiana African American Genealogy Group will host its annual conference, titled “The Journey to Our Ancestor’s Stories,” on Sept. 19 at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art.
This year’s conference will feature lectures and workshops from writer Robin Foster and author Michael Henderson, two of the leading figures in the growing field of African-American genealogical research.
Foster, a social media consultant and columnist, said her fascination with her family’s history began when she was just a curious child, listening in on the conversations of her older relatives.
“Back then you couldn’t interrupt adults,” she said. “So I used to sit at their feet quietly and listen to them tell stories about our family. Then, when I was sure they were finished talking, I would ask a few questions and they would answer me.”
As Foster grew older, her curiosity continued. She eventually enrolled in an oral history class at Chicago State University. During that time she began to strategically document the oral history of her own family and conduct research to back up their claims, most of which checked out.
Today, she uses her extensive knowledge to help others begin their own genealogical journeys.
“I help all ethnicities of people,” said Foster. “I always heard about slavery from my own research, but over the last couple of years, I started helping people who were looking for Confederate ancestors.”
She shared that she was surprised when she received her first few requests for this sort of work.
“The people were almost a little bit embarrassed to ask, but I felt compelled to tell them, ‘You don’t have to worry about it, it’s the past,’ and help them because it’s my profession. I have made very good friends and have learned that in family history we all have different backgrounds, but we can be related easily or closely associated.”
Foster, who resides in South Carolina, said she has noticed a great amount of acceptance and tolerance among people who are involved in this particular field of work. “It’s really surprising, especially given everything that’s happening in the world right now, that we are having these experiences, especially in the south.”
As a part of the IAAGG conference, Foster will present two talks, one on locating relatives via the Freedmen’s Bureau records and another on how social media can be a very valuable tool for budding genealogists. In 2014, she was selected as one of Family Tree Magazine’s 40 to Follow Social Media Mavericks. She is also the co-owner of genealogyjustask.com, where she helped build a Facebook genealogy research group of over 9,400 members and groups.
“There is a great movement of people finding their cousins on Facebook and people furthering their own genealogy businesses via Twitter,” she said. “Twitter is one of the sites where you can learn a lot about what’s going on in the field and what conferences to go to.”
Henderson, author of Got Proof! My Genealogical Journey Through the Use of Documentation, will be taking conference attendees through a riveting account of his own ancestral expedition, which began more than three decades ago.
The retired U.S. Navy Lt. Commander successfully traced his family’s Native American, French, French-Canadian, African and German-Swedish lineage back as far as 1657. His efforts have garnered him membership into several prestigious organizations, including the General Society of the War of 1812; Order of the Founders of North America, 1492 - 1692; La Société des Filles du Roi et Soldats du Carignan, Inc.; and National Society, Sons of the American Revolution, of which he is the first and only African-American member in the state of Georgia.
His work also led to a feature on PBS’ documentary series “History Detectives,” where he presented research that revealed a connection between his fourth-generation great-grandparents and Spanish Gov. Bernardo de Galvez. The segment can be viewed on his website, michaelnhenderson.com.
Henderson said this ongoing process of digging, uncovering and resolving has been a constant learning experience for him. “Each time I learned a bit of information, it opened up or added some additional questions — it created a cycle of wanting to know more.”
“I tell people all the time that there are three phases you as a genealogist or family historian will go through, and I think my journey has given me the opportunity to see those three phases come together,” he said. “The first being the curious phase, the second is the phase of gathering or collecting information — this is where you become a secret sleuth or historian — and finally there is the storytelling phase, where you ultimately become the go-to person for family information.”
Henderson said conference attendees should come prepared to learn and inspire. “You should take an interest in your family’s history that you should want to document it in such a way that future descendants or future persons in your line will find a resource in that which you have done,” he said. “If it is to be done, it is oftentimes up to you to do it.”
Tickets to IAAGG’s annual conference are still available. For more information, call (317) 969-7668 or email Info@iaagg.org.