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What members in Tacoma did to open the family history center to the African American community


To help African Americans in their community connect to their ancestors, Latter-day Saint stakes in Tacoma, Washington, and community partners held a family history event titled “A Proud Heritage” on Saturday, Feb. 5. 

The free event offered several classes in person at the Church’s family history center in Tacoma and online via Zoom. 

Beverly Grant, retired Pierce County judge, was the keynote speaker. Other presenters included Thom Reed, FamilySearch director of African Heritage initiatives in North America and deputy chief genealogical officer, and Joe Price, director of Brigham Young University’s Record Linking Lab

Beverly Grant, retired Pierce County judge, speaks during “A Proud Heritage,” an African American family history event sponsored by Latter-day Saint stakes and community partners in Tacoma, Washington, on Feb. 5, 2022.

Beverly Grant, retired Pierce County judge, speaks during “A Proud Heritage,” an African American family history event sponsored by Latter-day Saint stakes and community partners in Tacoma, Washington, on Feb. 5, 2022.

Credit: April Hunter

“I was impressed with the sincere interest expressed by those who attended, many of whom were local Pierce County people of African American descent,” said Elder Gary F. Gessel, an Area Seventy. “I would love to see this event repeated annually because I believe there is a great benefit there for all. The theme of the conference was ‘A Proud Heritage.’ I feel that all who attended, especially those of African American descent, left the conference feeling greater pride in their own personal heritage and seeking to find out more.” 

Read more: Black History Month — 10 steps to reclaiming your African roots

Alisha Chang, event director and member of the Lakewood Washington Stake, said the motivation behind the event was to help the community know that the family history center in Tacoma is not just for members of the Church. “We’re here to serve everyone and to help everyone with their family history,” she said.

Classes and projects

Throughout the event, attendees could sign up to meet one-on-one with a family history consultant at a Connection Station. Class topics included researching Freedmen’s Bureau and Freedman’s Bank records; using DNA kits; interviewing family members and preserving photos; and searching county historical records. 

A woman receives one-on-one family history help at a Connection Station during “A Proud Heritage,” an African American family history event sponsored by Latter-day Saint stakes in Pierce County, Washington on Feb. 5, 2022.

A woman receives one-on-one family history help at a Connection Station during “A Proud Heritage,” an African American family history event sponsored by Latter-day Saint stakes in Pierce County, Washington on Feb. 5, 2022.

Credit: April Hunter

The Tacoma family history center has been collaborating with the BYU Record Linking Lab for the Tacoma Pierce Records Project, which involves adding county records to FamilySearch. 

“Our goal with that,” Chang said, “was to help facilitate some gaps in our local records — Pierce County records — so that when individuals came to our events, if they had ancestors who were from our county, that they would have a greater chance of going in and finding their people.”

The family history center also partnered with the Tacoma Public Library and its new Community Archives Center. The center sponsored a storytelling contest during the lunch hour, which Chang said was a big success. 

“My impression listening to some of the stories that were shared was that it was another opportunity for people to connect, to connect with like-minded, like-hearted individuals that were in the room,” she said. 

Chang estimates there were about 90 to 100 attendees in and out of the family history center throughout the day, with another 40 to 50 on Zoom. 

Planning and executing the event

Reed, who participated virtually from his home in Utah and presented the class on the Freedmen’s Bureau and Freedman’s Bank records, commented on the benefit of local family history events like this one.

“I think it allows people hands-on experience in a way that they’re guided and supported with somebody right there. … It allows for a deeper discovery and a better kind of learning experience for someone who is new,” he told the Church News. 

Chang said the idea for the event started in 2020 when local Church leaders felt inspired to foster more love and connection in their diverse community. They organized a committee to start planning an African American family history event. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic delayed the event and ultimately prompted creativity in creating a hybrid approach. 

Christina Abby, an author and poet, participates in a storytelling event during “A Proud Heritage,” an African American family history event sponsored by Latter-day Saint stakes and community partners in Tacoma, Washington, on Feb. 5, 2022.

Christina Abby, an author and poet, participates in a storytelling event during “A Proud Heritage,” an African American family history event sponsored by Latter-day Saint stakes and community partners in Tacoma, Washington, on Feb. 5, 2022.

Credit: April Hunter

In working with Reed in the planning stages, Chang said she appreciated this advice he gave: “Keep it small. Keep it simple. Give it time.”

Reed attributed the timeless counsel to former Young Women general presidency member Virginia H. Pearce’s 2011 BYU Women’s Conference address

These events are about helping the community recognize the value of resources at local family history centers and FamilySearch, Reed said. “There in the African American community, I think that this is an untapped resource in many instances.”

Chang said she hopes this event in Tacoma continues to grow, “and that individuals will be able to feel like the family history center is a resource to them, and that they can come and get help and have opportunities to connect with their ancestors.”

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