CRYSTAL LAKE – In 1977, Patricia Bearden began following the branches of her family tree in hopes of finding her enslaved ancestors.
In the years since, she has discovered a document identifying her great-great-great-grandmother from 1799, 13 photographs of her enslaved relatives, and countless other documents providing valuable insights into Bearden’s genealogy.
“The goal is to trace it all the way back to Africa,” she said.
Bearden, the co-founder of Chicago-based International Society of Sons and Daughters of Slave Ancestry, spoke Tuesday to a group of students and faculty at McHenry County College about the importance of researching genealogy, especially for those who are African-American. The presentation was the latest event during the college’s Black History Month series called “Overcoming: The Journey Continues.”
“It’s important for us to reach back to do our genealogy and family history,” she said. “To know who you are, where you come from, how you came to be, who you are today. And once you know this, you’re never the same.”
Bearden said the research begins with talking to your living relatives, then finding as many photos and documents that can connect you through your family’s history. Obituaries, marriage documents and census records are often good places to start, she added.
“If you really want to find the information, you can do it,” she said. “There’s really no excuse.”
Finding information about enslaved ancestors often unearths the ugly details of one of America’s darkest periods. But Bearden said learning the information will help African-Americans learn about where they came from and the strength their ancestors possessed.
“We’re here to celebrate the people who endured,” she said. “We’re going to celebrate their lives. Their survival. Their resiliency. The courage they had to endure … It gives us inspiration to move forward in our lives no matter what’s going on.”
Sonia Reising, coordinator of multicultural affairs at MCC, said the presentation was valuable to all cultures, regardless of where you come from.
“It inspires you to move forward and know what your background is,” Reising said. “It inspired me personally. My parents are from Mexico and I’ve always thought there was some Aztec in the family, but I didn’t know for sure. I think this has allowed me to say, ‘You know, I’m going to do this research on my own now.’”
The remaining Black History Month events at MCC include an Open Mic performance of African-American music on Thursday and a showing of the movie “12 Years a Slave” on Feb. 26.