His last name was common in South Carolina - maybe not as plentiful as "Smith" or "Jones," but it certainly wasn't unique. Then in John R. Gourdin's travels with the Marines, he began to realize he was meeting fewer and fewer people of the same name.
For the next 15 years, he scoured phone books in search of other Gourdins, making contact in person or over the phone to trace their history.
"Without exception, all of the Gourdins I've met, that I've run into, I've been able to trace them back to South Carolina," he said.
The experience would send Gourdin, a tax manager for Northrop Grumman, down an unexpected path - discovering his roots, researching the history of black soldiers in the Civil War and writing several books.
Gourdin, 57, is scheduled to speak at 7 p.m. today at the Miller branch library in Ellicott City (registration is required). He is to discuss his experiences and the importance of understanding the past, something he believes is becoming increasingly important for young African-Americans.
"I believe they perceive the start of African-American history in the U.S. as during the time of Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.] and the Civil Rights Act," he said. "They know very little beyond the '60s, and hardly anything prior to 1950. If you ask them about the Civil War, they'll say that's when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
"I want to bring to the attention of my audience that, more than likely, the African-Americans in attendance are descendants of these soldiers. There are means of determining their ancestry," he said.
With no formal background in history, Gourdin's curiosity about the origins of his last name led him to trace his family to a South Carolina slave owner, and the discovery that one of his ancestors had fought in the Civil War.
Since then, he has joined numerous historical and African-American societies, taught a genealogy class at Anne Arundel Community College and lectured at colleges and at the annual conference of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society in Washington, of which he is chapter president for Central Maryland. His local speeches - he gives about a half-dozen each year - center on the seven military regiments organized in Maryland.
'It's his life'
Gourdin's wife, Gloria, said she has seen her husband's curiosity about his last name evolve into a passion.
"It's his life," she said. "Having been in the military, he began to research which of his family members was in the Civil War, and then came the re-enactments - it just seemed to put a drive in him. He just kept going."
Gourdin's latest book, First, Last, Etcetera: Black Soldiers During the Civil War Era, 1861-1867, is a collection of more than 125 entries about the participation and accomplishments of the 180,000 black soldiers who served in the Union Army, 17 of whom earned the Medal of Honor - including Decatur Dorsey of Howard County. Using pension records from the National Archives, Gourdin was able to collect the information in the soldiers' own words - "voices from the past," as he calls them.
His efforts are appreciated by Louis Diggs, another self-made historian, who has written several books on Baltimore County's African-American communities.
"I feel that anytime anyone does research on African-Americans in the past, it's just a tremendous help," he said. "It may not be of help to someone immediately, but somewhere down the line - finding a relative who actually served in Civil War. It's really significant."
Gourdin participates in re-enactments with the District of Columbia's company of the Massachusetts 54th regiment - the first African-American regiment to fight with the Union during the Civil War and made famous in the movie Glory - and he hopes to appeal to the younger generation. Almost all participants in re-enactments are older than 40, Gourdin said.
"What we try and do is instill in them an interest in what their ancestors went through and how important and significant they were to the freedom of African-Americans," he said. "That's the thing that's brought them the most excitement - the fact that their own family members served under President Lincoln."
Along with his wife and a cousin, Marvin W. Greene, Gourdin runs a business called Black Camisards, which commissions local black artists to create original paintings of black soldiers. Among them is pencil artist John Nelson, whose work has been displayed in the White House and Executive Office Building in Washington and the Maryland State House in Annapolis.
Nelson counts Bill Cosby and Eddie Murphy among his collectors.
Gourdin has a bachelor's degree in economics and business administration and master's degrees in management and public policy, and he hopes to enroll at the University of Maryland to pursue a third master's in the field that has consumed so much of his energy - history.