The Washtenaw County African American Genealogy Society, which meets monthly at the Ypsilanti District Library's (YDL) Michigan Avenue branch, has been helping local people learn about their family roots for years. But group founder Cheryl Garnett's story might be one of the most astounding to come out of the group: she found out that her friend of many years was also her cousin.
Ypsi Township resident Garnett and Superior Township resident Omer Jean Winborn had been friends for more than 40 years and have been running the genealogy group together for about six years, but they only discovered about two years ago that they were related.
"I was so in love with her family history. It was so interesting," Winborn says. "We pulled up these documents and started putting our families together, and (discovered) that, oh my goodness, we're related."
The two women started the group because African Americans face special challenges when tracing their family roots to eras earlier than the 1870s. They felt local African Americans' needs were not being fully served by existing genealogy groups.
"We call ourselves a resource, a place where people can come and learn how to do research and get together with people doing the same kind of research," Garnett says. "When they run into a brick wall and need help, or they find out something fantastic, it's a place they can come and share."
Detroit has a robust genealogy organization for African Americans, the Fred Hart Williams Genealogical Society. Winborn was a member for many years, and both she and Garnett are now board members for that organization. But there was nothing like it closer to home in Washtenaw County.
Garnett says the Genealogical Society of Washtenaw County is very active but it has traditionally been oriented toward resources for white residents to research their family trees. She knew not everyone could get to Detroit to attend the African American society there, and decided to start something closer to home about six years ago.
The group originally met at YDL's Whittaker Road branch but then moved to the Michigan Avenue branch, a more convenient location for some regulars. The group has a core of about 20 members, with about eight to 10 showing up at any particular meeting. They meet from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on the third Saturday of each month, taking a break in the summer. They also sometimes take field trips in conjunction with the Fred Hart Williams members.
Winborn says white genealogy aficionados typically don't understand the challenges of researching black family trees and aren't familiar with some of the resources needed to trace black families' roots back to the era of American slavery.
She says that part of the problem comes down to how people were named. Finding your ancestor through birth and death certificates is typically much more complicated for African Americans, she says.
"You can't always say they were named after a slave master, because that was not always true," Winborn says. "Some African American people just picked a name (after they were freed)."
Garnett says two brothers from the same mother and father might end up with two different last names, because one might keep the same name the slave owner gave him, while the other might end up changing his name.
African Americans often have to consult a much different set of documents to find their ancestors as well. Winborn notes that this is in part because her African American ancestors were treated as property, rather than as people.
"You might have to go through the wills of white folks and see if one of your ancestors was willed to someone," Garnett says. She says she's also found historical news records that indicated a slave being given away to another family as a wedding gift.
Migration patterns after the Civil War also prove challenging.
"Tennessee sent some of their enslaved people back to Africa, and there was an African American migration to Canada," Winborn says. "There was also migration from the American South to the North with the rise of the auto industry. All those things make it challenging."
Garnett's ancestors, in fact, were among the Black Loyalists who fought with the British in the Revolutionary War and ended up migrating to Canada.
Garnett and Winborn's blood relation is one of the group's more startling findings, but many other interesting stories have emerged over the last six years.
For instance, Garnett already knew that her third great-grandmother, Jane King, was a white woman, but her genealogical research changed her feelings about that particular ancestor.
Jane King's husband Daniel was a forward-thinking white man whose best friend was a freed black man named John. When Daniel died, Jane King and John fell in love and ran away together to Indiana with Jane's four children from her marriage to Daniel.
The couple faced powerful prejudice even in the north and eventually migrated to Canada, but the family history shows that Jane King made several more trips south to free several more slaves.
"I used to not acknowledge her," Garnett says. "I didn't pay attention when I was younger what it took for her as a white woman to give up this life of privilege and be disowned by her family. Knowing who she was as a person has been empowering. She could have lost her children, could have lost her life, but she took charge of her life. I guess I know now where I got my Irish temper from, too."
The recent availability of mail-order DNA test kits has also been a game-changer for all genealogists, but for African Americans in particular.
Garnett wasn't the only unexpected cousin that Winborn found during her research. Submitting a DNA sample and signing up with ancestry.com connected her to another cousin she had no idea existed, but the DNA was a match.
"She messaged me, and we've been friends and talking for three or four years now, and she gave me all this information that her side of the family had in a book they share at family reunions," Winborn says. The two cousins have only chatted online so far but she hopes to meet that branch of the family in person one day.
Charline Collier, a paraprofessional at YDL, is also a regular at the monthly genealogical meetings. She hasn't yet tested her own DNA but her husband has.
"DNA testing opens up a whole new world," she says. Her husband knew he was Bahamian on his mother's side, but DNA testing revealed he had Caribbean roots on his father's side as well.
Collier says she became interested in genealogy because she wanted to learn more about her father's side of the family. She knew he was originally from Mississippi, but his childhood home caught on fire when he was young and there are no pictures or records of her father and his family from that period.
Collier says she would have given up trying to do genealogy on her own out of sheer frustration, but the genealogy group has helped her "tremendously."
"I was able to find the original site of my father's home that burned down," she says. "I did a Google Maps search and got to see the land where the house was."
Collier has since learned more about her mother's side of the family as well, and was able to trace their migration north over the decades.
"They taught me to search for military records," she says. "That opened up a lot to me as far as researching my grandparents and great-grandparents. Those military records show who they were related to and who their children are, and gave me some definite answers that I had found the right person."
"I love African American history and genealogy," Winborn says. "Sometimes people don't know how healing it is to find out who you are. A lot of my history is painful for my family, but there's a good feeling too."
She says studying family history has made her proud of her father, who was illiterate and yet raised six college graduates.
"I'm so proud that my dad went back to school and did eventually learn how to read," she says. "I think about what a wonderful parent he was, and how he role modeled. Finding out exactly who he is was wonderful. He was from a family of sharecroppers and Civil War and World War I soldiers and Black Loyalists and school teachers and everything rolled into one. And that's who I am too."
Washtenaw residents with an interest in African American genealogy can keep tabs on the group's future meetings by checking the YDL's event page.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at email@example.com.
All photos by Doug Coombe.