By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
When Chicago native Gwen McArthur Holland was 5 years old, she would ask her grandmother to tell her stories about their family history. Every story was like a piece of treasure that Holland would lock away in her memory.
Over the years, Holland’s desire to delve into her family’s history grew and these days, Holland is full-fledged genealogist.
She is the co-founder of Freedom Walk America Family History Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to “promoting, documenting, preserving and encouraging the study of African American family history” according to the website. She is also a member of several genealogical groups including the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society and she teaches genealogical workshops at the Chicago Public Library and churches.
Growing up Holland continued to ask her grandmother, mother and relatives for stories of their family, but it was Alex Haley’s novel “Roots: The Saga of An American Family” and ensuing TV show “Roots,” which encouraged Holland to take her search to the next level.
Through “Roots” Holland learned that she could trace her family’s history in other ways. She took a trip to the national archives, and it was there that Holland’s journey to the past truly began.
“I started out doing just the paternal side but then I did the maternal side as well,” Holland explained. “I was just hungry for every bit of information that I could get about my family.”
When Holland began working for a telecommunications company, her days off were spent at the Newberry Library and Chicago’s Family History Center and her vacations were spent in the probate offices in Alabama. While her sister accompanied her on a few trips, Holland quickly became the keeper of the stories.
“Some of the things I found my family didn’t even know existed,” Holland said. “I was getting the oral history from them and then I would go to find the records to match the history.”
During her search Holland learned more about her great-grandmother. While the family knew she was murdered, no one knew much about her. For five years Holland searched for information using the surname McArthur. When her search provided futile, she decided to look at the microfilm.
There she found her grandfather and his siblings in an address she didn’t recognize. The house belonged to her great-grandmother’s sister, who raised the children. A conversation with the aunt’s daughter revealed that Holland’s great-grandmother’s last name was English not McArthur as she had been previously married.
Armed with that information, Holland’s search was able to continue.
“This whole journey it’s just so emotional, yet so comforting” she said. “It’s like putting a puzzle together. You get pieces from this source and that source and when they all fit together you can actually see your family tree, your lineage from generation to generation. It’s like you’re finding out something about yourself.”
Holland continued, “It’s indescribable, it’s almost like you’re connecting with them, with your ancestors.”
Over the years, genealogical searches have become easier with the aid of technology. While a time saver, Holland is quick to point out that while most records are digitized, results don’t always happen instantaneously. Spelling, for example, isn’t always consistent, she explained, and not all counties have good websites.
But for Holland, exhausting her online research isn’t always a bad thing. When that happens, it’s time to go to that place, she said. Most places have copies of agricultural schedules, state and county census records, school records, church records and more.
And it is when she’s visiting places that Holland often gets additional help on her searches.
“I had some good fortune of running into some kind people, I call them the town folks,” she said. “I would be in the courthouse and people would come in and I would meet people.”
Locals would tell Holland where to seek out information or which families to reach out to. Through their help, Holland learned that if a birth certificate didn’t exist, she could ask for the town’s midwife records.
Researching African American genealogy can be challenging, Holland said, but it’s not impossible. There’s a myth, she said, that if a person has enslaved ancestors, then those records don’t exist, but that’s not necessarily true. Instead, a person often finds themselves tracing the family history of the ‘planters,’ the historical name for slave owners.
Holland discovered this when she created a website asking for information on the McArthur family. Relatives of the white McArthur family reached out with personal legal records including the wills of their ancestors, which listed Holland’s enslaved ancestors under property.
Seeing the physical proof of a history she had only heard about was unbelievable, Holland said. It brought closure, she said.
“I felt complete,” she said. “I felt that they were waiting for me, that they were waiting for someone to find them, to complete this.”
Everybody has the right to know where they came from, Holland said. Which is one of the reasons her organization is launching Our House, a national collection of African American family trees.
“When a family is connected and together then you have better neighborhoods, you have better communities, cities and so on and so forth,” she said. “People on a whole are just better.”
The program is expected to launch in October 2021. The plan is to offer the program through public and genealogical libraries in addition to an online service.
Our House will act as a genealogy tool for those looking to start their own research. Unlike other genealogical websites, Our House will offer legacy boxes, which contain documentation of personal records such as school and church records, the midwife book and more.
As for Holland, she’s searching through the ship records in Mobile, Alabama, where many ships carrying enslaved people docked. A recent DNA test showed that her great-great-grandmother on her paternal side is from Cameroon, and Holland is busy doing research.
Being a genealogist is like being a detective, she said. One clue can lead to several more, and with some luck and kindness from strangers, the mystery doesn’t have to end.
“This is a lifetime journey,” Holland said. “There is no end to this, I would do this for the rest of my life.”