“There’s a pandemic now. They lived through pandemics,” Amika Tendaji, 39, said about her ancestors. She's pictured outside of her residence on Chicago's South Side | Photo by Darius Griffin [The TRiiBE]

The U.S. Census is primarily seen as a future planning tool for Congressional redistricting and apportionments, funding hospitals and health programs, the construction and refurbishment of schools, and placement of banks and grocery stores in local communities, among other things. 

For Black Americans, however, it’s become a tool for discovery — one with the potential to unlock generations of stories thought to be lost, reveal what’s missing from those left unfinished and even provide insight for the stories in-progress. 

Amika Tendaji, 39, is among the Black Americans who’ve been led to national census records to trace their ancestry. Studying her genealogy for almost five years, Tendaji’s three-times great grandparents arrived in Chicago between 1911 and 1918 after leaving Alabama during a time of frequent local lynchings.

They lived through the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918, which killed more than 8,500 Chicagoans in eight weeks. The following year, they lived through the Red Summer, a time marked by violent race riots across the U.S, with the deadliest being in Chicago. The city saw  23 Black people murdered, another 537 injured and 1,000 Black families left homeless as white residents destroyed their homes, businesses and physical records, according to reports.

As Chicagoans like Tendaji have been sheltering indoors to aid in the fight to flatten the curve of the current COVID-19 pandemic, some have been using this time to connect with ancestors for guidance during this time of uncertainty. 

“There’s a pandemic now. They lived through pandemics,” Tendaji said about her ancestors. She is an organizer with Ujimaa Medics, Black Lives Matter Chicago and STOP: Southside Together Organizing for Power. 

“It’s been nice to call on the ancestors for strength and see where they choose to reveal themselves in the present,” she continued. 

For many Black people, tracing previous generations of relatives has been particularly difficult due to intentional omissions as a result of past laws and attitudes toward African Americans, literacy and language barriers for both census takers and field workers, and nearly 250 years of slavery on American soil, which left Black families separated and spread out across the globe, with many never able to reunite. In many cases, names were changed and lives were wholly rebuilt. Coupled with the pattern of Black communities being undercounted in the U.S. Census tallies, completing a family tree can be a daunting task.

But participation in the 2020 Census now can help reduce these obstacles faced by folks digging into their past, providing future generations with a more complete picture than they would have had before — one that can rewrite inaccuracies or bury historical narratives around Black America, pre- and post-Great Migration.

Amika Tendaji holding photos of her ancestors | Photo by Darius Griffin [The TRiiBE]
Amika Tendaji's family, including her two-times great grandparents, three-times great grandparents and more | Photo by Darius Griffin [The TRiiBE]

In her Census research, Tendaji discovered her relatives weren’t displaced by either crisis, but instead, resided for decades at 23rd Street and Dearborn. Raised primarily by her great grandmother, she got to know her elders at a young age — primarily through stories and photos, though her great-great grandfather was a presence in her life, providing her with a deeper knowledge and understanding of her family tree years ahead of her ancestry search. 

In the early days of her research, websites such as Ancestry.com and FamilySearch, a nonprofit family history organization favored by noted genealogists, led her to local and federal Census records.

Historically known for undercounting people of color, the U.S. Census didn’t start listing African Americans by name until 1870. That’s 80 years after the first U.S. Census was conducted, in 1790. Even in the late 1800s, well after the end of slavery, properly and accurately recording the existence and movements of Black people was still not high priority for white historians and officials. Additionally, the majority of the 1890 census population schedules were destroyed by a fire in the U.S. Department of Commerce building in 1921.

“People taking records probably didn’t always understand [Black folks] or care. At the same time, people had their reasons to not tell the truth all the time also,” Tendaji says. “For some, there are families that pass down shame. There’s not much told so a lot is erased as far as trying to figure out who we were through these records.”

Tendaji’s experiences reflected those common among Black Americans researching their familial past  – tens of thousands of results for white folks, though she searched African American collections, various spellings of surnames for related folks and lack of specificity surrounding her family’s life in Alabama pre-migration.

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However, Tony Burroughs, a renowned genealogist and former professor at Chicago State University, argues there are more misconceptions toward Black folks studying their genealogy than lack of documentation. Author of “Black Roots: A Beginner’s Guide to Tracing the African American Family Tree,” Burroughs also serves as CEO of the Center for Black Genealogy.

He suggests folks research the research process itself to avoid running into too many pitfalls. 

“Most people run into problems because they lack the skills in doing genealogical research, not because databases aren’t including African Americans,” Burroughs explains. “By skills I mean, how do you evaluate a website? How do you evaluate a database, a source? How do you determine a source includes African history or not? What happens if a source does not have African Americans, where do you go to find those people who were part of those cities, those records, those events?”

These skills extend into familiarizing oneself with census records, Burroughs argues. He admitted being disappointed in the brevity of personal information that would be useful in genealogical research requested by the 2020 Census. 

And while certain statistical findings and patterns from more recent counts are made publicly available, he stresses the existence of the 72 Year Rule — which holds decennial census records confidential for 72 years to protect the privacy of living respondents. Those wanting to obtain records ahead of time must follow online instructions and pay a fee to either rent or purchase copies. 

Burroughs agrees these factors create a barrier to entry for African Americans doing genealogy research.

“When you compare questions on the 1880-1940 census, they go into a lot more detail than the 2020 census,” he says. “These additional details help build more of the family history. [They] give us a better understanding of our ancestors and leave more clues to finding ancestors in other records.”

Armed National Guard and African American men standing on a sidewalk during the race riots in Chicago, Illinois, 1919 | Photo courtesy of the Chicago History Museum

While folks like Amika Tendaji would like to see the U.S. Census Bureau and National Archives dedicate websites, offices and services specific to Black genealogy tracing in order to make resources more accessible, Burroughs says expecting the breadth of information to be readily accessible digitally — especially for a populous city like Chicago — is unrealistic. 

A 2002 Utah Genealogical Association Fellow, Burroughs began seriously researching his own genealogy in the 1970s. He, too, discovered errors and ran into roadblocks while using the U.S. Census Soundex, an index organized by the sound of a name as opposed to spelling, and its name-coding system. This led Burroughs to search for the original instructions on how to properly use the index to obtain records.

Once found, he proved steps were omitted in the original process that made it more difficult for descendants of the diaspora, whose names often have various spellings and enunciations, to trace their roots. In December 2001, the National Genealogical Society Quarterly published Burroughs’ discovery, which forced a correction by the National Archives after 40 years.

Twenty years ago, Burroughs was asked to testify as the federal government and National Archives further addressed historical record keeping that disproportionately affected African Americans.

The Freedmen’s Bureau Records Preservation Act of 2000 called on Congress to preserve and transfer millions of field records kept by the Freedmen’s Bureau — which provided assistance to tens of thousands of former slaves making the transition to freedom after the Civil War— to microfilm that can be copied, purchased and shared. The bureau provided food and clothing, operated hospitals and refugee camps, established schools, helped legalize marriages, supervised labor agreements and more. 

Advocates of the measure argued the records created “during the course of these activities are a rich source of documentation of the black experience in the late 19th-century America, and are essential for the study of African-American genealogy and Southern social history.”

The National Archives announced the project was completed in March 2014.

Though frustrations are valid, in addition to often lengthy, complex and expensive processes, there are millions of electronic records available to African Americans tracing their roots. 

When asked what the Census Bureau could do to further ease access to data, Burroughs suggests digitizing the Soundex system for online, public use. But, he says, folks have to be willing to get off the internet and put in the legwork once COVID-19 is contained. In the meantime, he adds, the web can be used to get counted in the 2020 Census. He copied each page he filled out to save for his family.

“There’s a branch of the National Archives in Chicago. If you get off the web and go into museums, archives, historical societies and libraries that have manuscripts that have not been digitized, you have a huge collection of records you had no idea existed,” Burroughs emphasizes.

“But you don’t start genealogy by going to the internet,” he says. “The first two things you do are write down everything you already know about your family. Then you identify all your living relatives, prioritize the list by age and get to the older ones first. Interview them until you and them are blue in the face. Get all that old history from them. Is that on the internet? Absolutely not.”