To Darius Gray, "family" is the important thing about family history and genealogy.
"It's the stories; it's the individuals; it's not about a name on a piece of paper, and a date," said Brother Gray, the keynote speaker at a Feb. 6 gathering at the Church Family History Library in Salt Lake City commemorating Black History Month. "For me, that's where you start, but it's what you find after that that brings genealogy and family history alive for me."
The event was co-sponsored by the Utah Chapter of the Afro-American Genealogical and Historical Society and by the Family History Library.
Brother Gray describes himself as a "shade-tree" (nonexpert) genealogist, but he has hosted a radio and television series produced by BYU Television called "Questions and Ancestors." He also co-directed the Church's project to organize and make available on CD the Freedman's Bank Records, a database of post-Civil War-era documents covering several generations of African Americans.
He said that on the subject of African-American genealogy, one question that often comes up is "Can you really do it?"
"What's the first thought that comes to mind? Slavery," he said. "And until you get back to slave periods, you use the same records, the same rules apply. You utilize the same tools as anyone else. You use sources like birth and death records, census, cemetery, church, city directories, land, obituaries, probate, tax records to find your family.
"So, just because we have slavery as part of our history, don't feel the door is closed and the road will be blocked, because it isn't."
Often, a search will uncover some poignant and dramatic details. In his PowerPoint presentation, Brother Gray displayed samples of what are called "search-and-reward" newspaper advertisements from the post-slave period in U.S. history, wherein former slaves would seek out family members and relatives from whom they were separated while living as slaves. One such notice sought the author's mother and two sisters who were sold away from him during the first year of the war. The sisters were about 2 and 3 years old at the time.
Another offered $200 to anyone who would bring to the subscriber his grandchild of about 5 years old. Soon after Gen. Tecumseh Sherman's march on Savannah, Ga., the mother and child had started for that city, but the mother had taken sick and placed the child in the charge of a man, identity unknown, who had promised to take the child to Savannah for her.
"Family is the fundamental unit of society," Brother Gray said, "the primary setting in which children develop virtue. Children learn about love, trust, loyalty, cooperation, service; they learn how to behave in a community based on those family relationships."
He encouraged listeners to "make time for your family. Those of you who still have young children at home, talk to them. Get to know what's going on in their lives. Know their friends. Don't be shy about saying no. The task is ours. Learn of your roots. Share with children and grandchildren. Build their self-esteem and self-respect. We have a history worth knowing."
Brother Gray's family history journey began with a piece of paper containing handwritten notations.
He had been invited by a friend to visit the Family History Library. Afterward, he called his mother in Colorado to verify what he thought he knew about his relatives, having looked at two shoeboxes of old photos in the home while growing up.
His mother told him she had a piece of paper that contained the birth and death dates of family members, and was in the handwriting of Brother Gray's father who had been dead for decades. He asked his mother where the paper had come from, as he didn't recall seeing it before.
"She said, 'I don't know; it just showed up here a couple of weeks ago.' So from that piece of paper that 'just showed up,' I was able to receive what I believe to be help from the angels giving me the information about my grandfather, James Lewis Gray."
He found that his grandfather had been born a slave in the state of Missouri a year before Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States and two years before the start of the Civil War. He later learned what he could about the town in which his grandfather had been born. He displayed a document giving the population of Missouri in 1860. It showed the number of slaves as 114,931.
"You see that one?" he asked, pointing at the last digit on the figure. "That's my granddad!"
He said such information "personalizes" family history for him.
Brother Gray told of going to the cemetery in Arkansas where his maternal grandfather Daniel Tuck Cotton was buried. He was with his sister and cousin, who elected to stay in the car because the day was hot. They pointed out the general direction of his grandfather's grave. Inexplicably, Brother Gray felt the urge to take a different direction. He noticed a headstone that had fallen down. It turned out to be the marker for the grave of his grandfather, who it was supposed did not have a grave stone.
"I contend our departed relatives want to be known," Brother Gray said. "They want us to know their stories. They want us to share those stories."