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Ancestry and Genealogy

Karren J Pope-Onwukwe


  • Karren Jo Pope-Onwukwe reflects on her journey into genealogy during the COVID-19 pandemic, sparked by gaps in her family's knowledge about ancestors.
  • She shares her experience with DNA tests, building family trees, and the excitement of breakthroughs.
  • She highlights the emotional impact of discovering her great-grandfather's family surname listed under the list of the largest slaveholders and not necessarily wanting to continue the research.
Ancestry and Genealogy Chernetska

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During the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown many people began to research their ancestry. My personal interest in this type of research was sparked by my family initiating a family Zoom call at the beginning of the pandemic where we just sat around and talked. I began to ask questions and found that many of our ancestors were virtual strangers to our family. For example, when I asked about my biological great grandmother’s maiden name, no one knew the answer.  Nor did anyone know exactly when she was born. After locating a copy of my great grandmother’s funeral program, we realized that my grandmother did not know the names of her parents either because they were not listed. I was intrigued. I was now very concerned that I knew so little about my great grandmother that I called “Big Mama” who died my freshman year in college.

I decided to take a DNA test.  I was not alone, according to an MIT report, the number of DNA tests sold doubled in 2021 for the fifth year in a row. I was attracted to the DNA tests because during the pandemic it seemed the only real avenue that could provide a family history as opposed to traditional genealogy research that might involve going to a library or researching public documents in person. DNA tests can also identify your ancestry and tell you where your family came from. The tests can also help you identify with a high degree of certainty people that are related to you; if they have taken a DNA test from the same company that you use. Some people discover health information that they did not know. All this information may open doors to help you connect with your family or for some people it may open a pandora’s box.

I took advantage of a marketing campaign and bought DNA tests for my family members and gave them as gifts. I did this because I had heard the stories of people’s DNA tests revealing surprise results. Everyone was not as intrigued as I was, and I had to badger them to take the tests and submit them to the company. Finally, I had to personally go to some homes to ensure that they took the test and returned the information to the company. Once I received my results, I was like a new parent, I would show my results to anyone that would look at them. The companies associate your DNA with regions of the world, I was associated 34% with regions that encompass what is now known as Nigeria and 13% with regions now known as the Ivory Coast and Ghana and 10% with other regions such as Ireland, Sweden, and Denmark.

The genealogy company websites encourage you to create a family tree and begin entering information about your relatives. It is very addictive. I would spend days and nights adding to the tree. Then once I had created a basic family tree, I studied my missing information. The company would provide you with hints to fill in the blanks, and also encourage research of public records such as census data, marriage, birth, death, land records, military records, immigration, and travel records.  Many searches led to a dead end and a stop to the search for a while until some random thought would give you an idea for a new way to pursue. And, of course, the DNA company continually sends you “hints” to get you to revisit their website to conduct more research.   

One day I decided to search my great uncle’s name and lo and behold I found a marriage license that he had completed which provided the maiden name of his mother (Big Mama) and the name of his father (my great grandfather) – names I did not have on my family tree! I now have the names of all my great grandparents on both sides of my family.

I will not be able to rely on DNA on the next leg of my ancestry research because I will have to do more traditional genealogy research. Using U.S. Census data, I have identified the county in Alabama (Russell) and Georgia (Muscogee) where my ancestors lived.

I located a website that discusses Russell County, Alabama, genealogy research ( ). It suggested that this research begins by searching the 1860 slave census microfilm of each county to see if my ancestor’s surname appears with the slaveholders in the county. If the surname is found the next step is to review the census data for the sex, age, and color of the slaves that slaveholder owned. Next, the 1870 census would have to be searched to see if the individuals listed as slaves in 1860 had taken on the surname of their former slaveholder. Then one would work forward to see if a link to one’s ancestors could be established. When I searched the list of the largest slaveholders in Russell County, Alabama, I found my great grandfather’s family surname (Anderson) listed under the list of the largest slaveholders. The website then suggested that due to the poor quality of the microfilm and the handwriting of the enumerators it would be wise to view the microfilm in person to try and establish the link.

The discovery of this information was very sobering. I have not felt compelled to read the listing of the slaves and compare the 1860 slave listings to the 1870 census of free African American surnames in Russell County, Alabama. I have no doubt that I will eventually follow through with this research hoping that I am not opening my own personal Pandora’s box.