Sunday, January 30, 2011

From - LI genealogy sleuths trace personal black histories

I don't normally pick up an actual newspaper - I usually read it online. But today I picked it up and on the cover of the Life section was a story about a couple from my own village of Freeport who are genealogists and who help others by offering classes at our local library. I think my grandmother, who is my family's original genealogist, is friendly with Julius. Anyway, it was really interesting and it's always heartwarming to see people who know how to do this research correctly sharing their skills to help others - we're all in this together!! Enjoy!...

By Sylvia E. King-Cohen

Julius Pearse has traced his ancestors back to his great-great-great-grandmother, Celia, who was listed among the property in the will of the landowner, William Davis, filed in 1862. That landowner was Julius' great-great-great-grandfather.

His wife, Joysetta Pearse, has learned about both sides of her ancestry - the side she grew up with and the Irish side that cut off the son who married a black entertainer.

The Freeport couple made the discoveries by using Census, immigration, birth and death records, and they've been helping others find evidence of their ancestry.

The Pearses are the founders of the African-Atlantic Genealogical Society, which they launched in 1990 after learning about the process in the search for their ancestry. They offer free genealogical assistance at the Freeport Memorial Library each Wednesday (11 a.m. to 2 p.m.) and at the African American Museum of Nassau County in Hempstead each Saturday (1 to 5 p.m.).

During the sessions, the two advise how to get started, what tools will make the job easier and how best to organize and store information. Then, the interesting part begins as secrets are revealed: What did my ancestors do for a living? Did my family own slaves? Were our ancestors slaves? Sharecroppers? Are we part American Indian? What was Cousin Ted doing when he disappeared for all those years?

Lorenzo Rochester, 72, a retired Freeport police officer, sought their help because he knew little of his father's family.

"With Julius' help, we've been able to trace my family back to Maryland in 1801," Rochester said, his voice filling with emotion. "When you see that Census report, it's like you're in the room with them. History comes alive."

Rochester compiled a book about his ancestors and shares it with relatives. "I found out my father's real name was Franklin, not Frank like I thought because that's what they called him," Rochester says, and he learned that a female relative was one of the first African-American women to own a business in Freeport.

Joysetta said it's not unusual for people to become emotional when they learn about the people of their past. "They cry, laugh, scream when they see the Census report, military records or other information on the computer screen," she said.

Julius, 77, and Joysetta, 72, weren't always interested in tracing their histories. He was a retired Nassau County police officer, and she was a staff director in the New York City office of NYNEX, now Verizon. In 1986, as they were planning a trip to his family's hometown in North Carolina, they decided to learn more about their pasts.

"Julius knew a lot about his past because he had spent time with his grandmother, who used to tell him stories," Joysetta says. By contrast, she knew little about her own, in part because her grandmother and grandfather's families were estranged because of the couple's interracial marriage.

Joysetta attended a lecture by historian James A. Rose at Hofstra University in 1986. Rose is known in genealogical circles as "Dr. Roots" because of the many genealogy books he has written and for the help he provided author Alex Haley on the "Kinte Library Project," the forerunner of Haley's novel "Roots: The Saga of an American Family" that was published in 1976 and became a prizewinning television miniseries.

She left so excited that she launched a search for documentation about where Julius' family members had lived, their livelihoods and who was still alive.

It didn't go well. "I didn't find anything," she said.

The couple was searching for information on a long-dead relative by the name of Harm. When they couldn't find anything, they called Julius' mom again. "She told us 'His name's not Harm, it's Hiram!' There's that North Carolina accent for you."

Their efforts paid off when they sought Rose's help: Joysetta was able to find out about the background of her comedian father as well as her jazz singer mother. The effort led to the discovery of two recordings by her grandmother, an early photo of her on the cover of the Black Swan Records catalog and information about her singing career in Europe. They also were able to trace Joysetta's grandmother's ancestry to the 1840 Census and a woman who had escaped from slavery in Virginia and settled in New York.

The couple, who owned a private investigation business, got more involved with genealogy when Rose moved away and turned over his caseload of paid searches.

Joysetta has since become a certified genealogist through the Board of Certification of Genealogists in Washington, D.C. In addition to volunteering their time to help others trace their roots, they have a business that charges a fee, typically $50 per hour, for searches related to legal issues such as wills and contested family trees.

They didn't have many takers when they started offering free help at the library once a month. "After awhile, Julius complained that he didn't want to go anymore, so we started taking turns," Joysetta says. "Then one day, I was listening to the radio, and this female deejay asked about whether blacks could trace genealogy before slavery, and I called up and said that you could.

"I explained that there are doctor's records where slaves were treated, bills of sale and other documents," Joysetta explained. "You just have to dig around. She then had me come on for an hour to talk about genealogy."

And interest in their work took off.

Lillian Dent, co-owner of LL Dent Restaurant in Carle Place, last year turned to the couple to fill out her family tree. "We didn't know anything about my father's family," says Dent, who declined to give her age. "My father was raised by a great-aunt, and we didn't know much about his life."

She said they found "his Social Security application that told who his parents were and even found out how old he was when he moved in with the great-aunt. We found out that his mother died in childbirth, and that's why the aunt took him to live with her . . . It is amazing what they can find out. A friend of mine found out who his [birth] father was."

While the couple can help individuals learn about their heritage, they don't want to stop there: Their goal is to set others on independent paths, to teach them how to discover their ancestry on their own.

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