ARLINGTON – Kenyatta Berry, host of the Genealogy Roadshow on PBS and a lawyer with over 15 years of experience in genealogical research and writing, is the keynote speaker at this year’s NW Genealogy Conference Aug. 16-19 in Arlington.
The Stillaguamish Valley Genealogical Society invited The Arlington Times to interview Berry over Skype. An audio version of the interview is available at Soundcloud.com. Here are excerpts.
Time magazine called Genealogy the second most-popular hobby in the U.S. after gardening? What’s behind that growth?
The biggest catalyst would be online access to records. With ancestry.com and Familysearch.org, MyHeritage.com and Findmypast.com, people have been able to do research online, although not all the records have been digitized, I think that was the big wave that opened up genealogy because it made it more accessible.
The other part is genealogy TV shows like Genealogy Roadshow, Who Do You Think You Are, Finding Your Roots, Long Lost Family, genealogy has become a TV genre.
How did you get interested in genealogy?
I started doing genealogy when I was in law school. I was studying torts and contract law in my first year, kind of tired of looking at law books, so decided at the time I had a boyfriend who had an unusual surname: Dwelle. I decided to look at his family history one day at the Library of Michigan, and found some information about his third great aunt. She was a really prominent doctor in Atlanta, so from doing that research I uncovered information about his second great grandfather and all of his ancestors, so that kind of got me started in genealogy. I was able to find a ton of information on his family, and then I was hooked.
What are your family roots?
My family were slaves in Virginia, in a place called Madison in Culpepper County, where I have family today as well. And then they migrated to upstate New York near Rochester, then from there my great grandmother moved to Detroit, which was where I was born, and my grandmother was born as well.
What else did you find out about your family?
My maternal side, when you do genealogy, you have kind of what I call genealogy mavens. There are people who help you find your family, and I’ve been fortunate to find a lot on my mom’s maternal side. On my dad’s side, they resided in Arkansas then moved to Detroit, so were part of that great migration of African Americans from the south to the north.
One of the interesting things I found out on my mom’s side is that half of the family in Culpepper County, Virginia, stayed, and half moved to a small town in upstate New York called Caledonia. The family has been living there since 1886. It was one family from upstate New York saw a lot of African Americans that needed work after slavery, after emancipation, and the men moved to upstate, then brought their wives and children with them later.
Talk a little about the Genealogy Roadshow on PBS.
Genealogy Roadshow started in 2013. We are now in Season 4. The show was actually started in Northern Ireland, and we’re the American version of it. It’s very similar to Antiques Roadshow: people apply. You go to genealogyroadshow.org, you apply to be on the show. In Season 3 last year we had 10,000 applications. We only do three to seven stories per season.
The concept is we want to do genealogy for everyday people. We have a team of researchers so we do the baseline research, and then hosts Josh Taylor, Mary Tedesco and myself we do the research based on our expertise and second level research. I also have a full-time job working for a software company, so there’s no way that I can even think of reviewing 10,000 applications.
Your research is African American and slave ancestral research. What are some of the challenges to that type of research?
There’s so many, but one of the biggest challenges is just in name. When you think about our name, that identifies us. And for African Americans, a lot of the biggest myth is that your last name is the name of the land enslaver. For my example, Berry, someone would say, oh well then your family must have been owned by the Berry family, and that’s not always the case.
The last name could be based on the name of a previous enslaver, the name of a parent, a name they just picked, or a name like Freeman, because I’m a “free man.” That’s something that is challenging because once you get to that 1870s brick wall, what that is is really, 1870 was the first federal census that enumerated formerly enslaved African Americans. Because of that, most African Americans get back to 1870, and they can’t go back any further because of that name.
In doing slave ancestral research, most of those records are in the courthouse. With African American genealogy, once you find the documentation, follow the paper trail and then you’ll get to finding your ancestors. It’s very long, complicated, complex research but it’s very rewarding.
Can you give us a preview of what you’ll be presenting as keynote speaker in August?
What I like to talk about is what goes on behind the scenes at the Genealogy Roadshow. The thing that they always say in production is genealogy and TV is kind of a strange marriage. We didn’t set out to be actors or actresses. We just happen to be genealogists who are on TV. I think people get a kick out of what it takes to do a TV show, what it means to have folks that typically work on a reality TV show be a part of our production team, and how we ended up here doing what we love.