Obit of the Day: Cultivating Family Trees
Alex Haley’s novel Roots, and the mini-series of the same name, were cultural phenomena in the 1970s. Not only popular, Roots remains the most-watched mini-series of all time, it ignited an interest, especially in the African American community, in geneaology. For many African Americans their family trees stopped at the shores of the United States. Although the descendents of slaves, they could not or would not go further back. Adlean Harris ensured that they did.
Mrs. Harris, who died at the age of 88, left school at the age of 11 to help her grandmother clean homes in Mississippi. But her education never ended as her grandmother told her stories of her past, day after day. Mrs. Harris married at the age of 16 and moved, with her husband to Chicago. She decided then to finish her education, eventually earning a Ph.D.
Her love of the past bore fruit when people asked her to help uncover their family trees. Mrs. Harris obliged, tracking down records across the United States that would fill in the gaps in a family’s history. African American records were often poorly preserved, another byproduct of the racism and segregation of the South. To help herself and other black geneaologists Mrs. Harris founded three organizations: Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society (later the Patricia Liddell Researchers), the Afro-American Genealogical and Historical Society of Chicago, and International Society of Sons and Daughters of Descendants of Slave Ancestors.
Mrs. Harris’ efforts gave individuals the ability to trace an ancestry back hundreds of years, and, in some cases, across several continents. Once again illustrating that history is awesome.
(Image of an unknown African American family arriving in Chicago from somewhere in the South, courtesy of blackpast.org. The “Great Migration” was the movement of nearly five million African Americans from southern states to northern and western cities. Mrs. Harris, and her husband Roosevelt, were two among those millions. The Migration is one of the largest movement of citizens, by choice, within the United States and transformed northern urban life for whites and blacks alike. Mrs. Harris would have spent countless hours tracking ancestors as they moved from small towns in Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas to cities like her own Chicago.)