Learning about history doesn't have to be a dry classroom assignment, especialy during Black History Month. For man black Americans, the search for family roots and the revival of storytelling traditions provide a more personal approach to the past. On visits to relatives in South Carolina during her youth, Catherine Taylor McConnell would always stop by the cemetery with her parents to pause at the graves of departed ones.
"It was a family ritual," she recalls while sitting in the sun-filled living room of her home in northeast Baltimore. "You were constantly reminded of your ancestors."
Along with the cemetery excursions came lengthy reminiscences by elderly relatives about those who had preceded them. All this fired the imagination of the young girl, fostering a lifelong interest in her family's past.
Now retired from the Baltimore City School system, where she last served as assistant principal at Northern Parkway Junior High School, Ms. McConnell takes her place among a growing number of African-Americans delving into genealogy.
Blacks have a compelling psychological need to learn of their family history to "help us define who we are," says Walter Hill, archivist at the National Archives and an authority on black genealogy.
The story Ms. McConnell pieced together with the help of family members involves British African traders, plantation owners, French Huguenots, Irish immigrants, black Cherokees and others.
Experts advise people attempting genealogical research to draw on family reminiscences as a first step. Ms. McConnell was fortunate because of the oral tradition on her father's side. She traced one line back to a Catherine Cleveland, who arrived in the American colonies in 1764 with her aunt, Elizabeth Cleveland.
Both women were born of racially mixed parentage on the Banana Islands, part of Sierra Leone on the west coast of Africa. Educated in England and possessing considerable wealth, they lived as "free people of color" on lands Elizabeth purchased in a remote swampy region, that is now Berkeley County, S.C. Elizabeth married a white naval doctor; the couple had no children and on her death in 1808, the 2,400-acre estate passed to the niece.
Further light was thrown on the family's history in the 1960s, when Ms. McConnell's cousin, Mabel Smythe, later to become U.S. ambassador to Cameroon, learned that the two Cleveland women shared a common ancestry with the Corker family, prominent today in Sierra Leone.
The key figure in the relationship was Thomas Corker, a British trader from the port of Folkestone, who went to Sierra Leone with the African Trading Company in 1684. While there, he married a woman of the Ya Kumba family. The daughter of one of their descendants married William Cleveland, a young Englishman who came to Africa to work for the Corkers.
Discoveries like these intrigued Ms. McConnell, a woman with a strong sense of family. She majored in history while earning a bachelor's degree at Howard University. A native of Asheville, N.C., she moved to Baltimore in 1962 to be with her husband, Roland C. McConnell, now professor emeritus of history at Morgan State University.
In the years that followed, she carried out family research whenever she visited South Carolina, poking through dusty files in state archives and courthouses. Many of the documents she examined had been signed by Moreau Naudin, at one time the Kershaw County clerk and her great-great-grandfather on her father's side.
The Naudin-Dibble clan held its first family reunion in 1979 in Washington, with five generations present. Among the 120 PTC people there were five Catherines. For the event Ms. McConnell and her sister created a detailed diagram of the family tree, extending back to Thomas Corker and his African bride. They also started the Naudin-Dibble Newsletter, issued every other year, with news of the family, past and present.
To further her research on the Corkers and the Clevelands, Ms. McConnell traveled to London in 1985 to examine reports and documents of the African Trading Company in the British Museum. Despite the effort, she was never able to establish why Elizabeth and Catherine Cleveland settled in the New World.
A few years ago, a cousin living in Britain located Thomas Corker's grave at a church in Folkestone. He also tracked down the family motto, "A contrite heart is a sacrifice for God," along with a coat of arms dating to the 13th century.
Tracing her mother's line has proven more difficult and has yielded fewer results. The record stops with her great-grandfather, Foch Allen, who was born in the 1820s and lived into the early part of this century. A black Cherokee, the offspring of black slaves and Indians, he spent his life in an isolated section of western South Carolina, an area largely ignored by census takers and record keepers until the 1900s. He married Martha Ogelsby, an Irish woman, whose origin is unknown.
Eva Slezak, an expert in genealogy who is in charge of the Afro-American collection at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, believes that once one begins researching family history, it often becomes a passion. She likens the impulse to a "virus that never goes away."
Ms. McConnell, who is still researching, agrees. "You never conclude," she says. "There's always more to find."
Where to look
* Enoch Pratt Free Library, 400 Cathedral St. 396-5468.
The Pratt's Central branch is the first stop for many people as they start to research black family history. Eva Slezak, head of the Afro-American collection in the Maryland Room and a specialist on black genealogy, offers advice and encouragement. The library also schedules occasional one-day workshops on black genealogy.
Pratt holdings include U.S. Census data from 1790 and early city directories. Particularly useful are special lists of names, such as "Baltimore Free Black Households With Slaves, 1820-1840" and "Some Black Baltimoreans of 1808."
* Maryland Hall of Records, 350 Rowe Blvd., Annapolis. 974-3914.
Author Alex Haley struck pay dirt here while researching his family background, resulting in "Roots." Records relating exclusively to blacks include manumissions (the legal documents freeing slaves), certificates of freedom, the 1832 census, slave statistics and military records. The booklet, "Researching Black Families at the Maryland Hall of Records," provides a useful introduction.
* National Archives, 8th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest, Washington. (202) 501-5402.
This federal repository contains the records of more than 140 non-military U.S. agencies, among them the Justice Department, the Commission on Civil Rights and the Office of Education. The 379-page book, "Black History: A Guide to Civilian Records in the National Archives," provides information on how to use the wealth of data.
* Maryland State Law Library, 361 Rowe Blvd., Annapolis. 974-3395.
Although primarily a law library, this has an important collection of genealogical materials going back to Colonial times, including extensive military records.
* Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, Baltimore Branch, offers how-to sessions at the National Alliance of Postal and Federal Employees Building, 2025 E. North Ave. Call Agnes Callum at 235-6697.
* Maryland Historical Society, 201 W. Monument St. 685-3750. Holdings include census records, city directories and family histories.