A Process of Discovery

Uncover Your Ancestry With Houston's Genealogy Library

Explore your roots, from digitized records to oral family history

By Geneva Diaz November 2, 2021

Have you ever wondered why your eyes are green? Or have you ever been curious about how to trace your curly hair texture? Houston’s Clayton Library Center for Genealogical Research wants to help fill the gaps in your ancestry. 

The reason behind finding ancestors depends on whom you ask, because the answer is always different. Some are curious about their medical history, and what possible inherited diseases they may carry, while others may want a deeper understanding of their ethnic backgrounds and the origins of their family traditions.

Susan Kaufman, Senior Manager of Clayton Library has been helping people with their family history for over 30 years and says that it’s no easy task to explore your roots, but all it takes is learning how to use the tools to get results.

“When you come into a library that has genealogy specificity, your job is to come in with the questions and our job is to teach you how to get the answers and expose you to the records,” Kaufman tells Houstonia.

Digitized records have made digging into the past a quicker and more accessible experience, which Kaufman calls “fast food genealogy.” 

Clayton Library honored Family History last month by hosting a series of workshops on how to find your ancestors. Although each workshop focused on a different topic, like finding your female ancestors or how to use death certificates, the basic steps in getting started were the same. The first and easiest way to start is at your own home by collecting photos, talking to elders and gathering as many clues into the past as possible.

Next, you can visit the library in-person to access all databases and publications, or from home with a valid MY Link card and PIN, which has a limited number of databases available. Records you may find include death certificates, marriage licenses, wills, church records, land deeds and court documents.

When sifting through documents Clayton Library suggests a clear and concise question to guide your search. Finding a specific relative or lineage is easier than tackling your entire ancestry at once and “one step always leads to another journey,” Kaufman said.  

If you reach a dead end, Kaufman encourages a return to oral histories.

“When I first started, I just talked to my aunts who are the oldest living people in my family and asked, ‘What do you know about my folks and what have you heard?’ and they just told me stories that I would have never found in a record,” Senior Library Services Specialist Rodney Sam says.

While records can give solid evidence into the past, Sam encourages a healthy degree of skepticism, and after studying his family history for over 20 years says it’s a constant process of questioning.

Researching African-American Genealogy

“Everyone who created a record had a motivation or reason to do it. Don’t completely distrust them, just know the limitations of it,” Sam explains. “If your family’s African American, a lot of times you can rely more on oral history, than records because a lot of people were illiterate and they didn’t really write their stories down on paper.”

Researching African American genealogy can be challenging, particularly as you work through pre-Civil War records. The good news is that Clayton Library’s genealogy databases are always expanding, which can benefit people with more diverse backgrounds.

“We started to gather from different regions of the world to accommodate people that are from all different backgrounds now. There are also more genealogists of color who are researching the records of people of color,” Sam says.

When you consider 1 in 4 people in Houston are foreign-born, sites like FamilySearch.org that look at records from different countries can also be an invaluable resource. In addition, the Freedmen’s Bureau Records can be found on Family Search which contains a wide range of data about the African American experience during slavery.

“Basically, [it was] just a process of understanding who I am as a person, all the ingredients that came together that made me who I am, and to learn about what kind of people my family were,” Sam shares. “And plus, me being of African American ancestry was important to me, I wanted to find out which ancestors were slaves.”

For Sam, history is informative and if we want to understand our present-day conditions, it’s important to look at the past. 

“A lot of times people forget that everything has a foundation and a context. When I do genealogy, to me it’s a personal version of history and everything that’s happened today has some sort of historical precedent, and I don’t take it for granted, ” Sam says. 

You can visit the Clayton Library in-person Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. or visit their website for more information https://houstonlibrary.org/clayton.

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