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Thursday, Jan. 7, 2010 06:36 am

Decatur genealogy museum traces African-American roots

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Evelyn Hood stands next to a slave dress and other historical items on display at the African-American Cultural and Genealogical Society of Illinois Museum in Decatur.

Evelyn Hood of Decatur began researching her family history some years ago, realizing how hard it is for African-Americans because landowners usually did not include surnames of their slaves in their records. Surnames would tell people their tribes. That families were divided at auction provides another hindrance.

 “I was having a difficult time,” Hood says. “I had to educate myself about genealogy and African-American history.” Out of her experience, in August 1993 Hood created the African-American Cultural and Genealogical Society of Illinois Museum in downtown Decatur.

Hood began by helping people research their family history, and then others began donating artifacts. The center is stuffed with memorabilia, and a lending library on diverse cultures, even the Mayans. “A lot of people contributed to where we are today,” she says. In establishing the center, she visited like places in Baltimore, Atlanta and Memphis. As a speech by Martin Luther King plays in the background, a visitor can look at a slave dress from Kentucky, or at a signed photo of the Obamas, or at a certificate of freedom from Maryland. “We try to show the positive side here,” Hood says.

For her efforts, in 2006 Hood earned a Studs Terkel Humanities Service Award.

Hood encourages people to research family history while their parents and other elders are still alive, stressing the importance of oral history. Hood did not start on her quest until after her mother died, but she found that her mother’s family was free, educated, and had Methodist ministers as members. She talked with a 100-year-old woman who had seen her great-great grandfather, with blue eyes and red hair. “All bloodlines make you the unique individual you are,” she says. With Hood’s help, a relative traced her family back to Madagascar. Members have found ancestors who were scholars and industrialists.

 A woman from Liverpool, England, visited and complimented Hood on the museum, telling her some African-American history and saying that there are many records of slaves in Liverpool.

 Hood maintains computerized records for members to use and says that knowing landowners’ names is sometimes helpful. Her collection includes wills, always helpful. “I tell people to go back as far as they can,” she says. “Some of us will probably never know.” DNA is sometimes a tool, though it’s not perfect. If a person wants to go that route, Hood advises them about whom to talk to. People come into the center, as well as contact her online for help.

 She has high praise for the Mormons, who traveled to Africa to help with African-American genealogical research. She met a professor from Ghana who educated her about slave castles maintained by some Portuguese.

 “It’s hard to swallow that humans can be so cruel,” she remarks. That same professor described how African-Americans were put on ships in Ghana – “horrifying.” The story, handed down, was that “all they knew, they got on the ship, they didn’t know what was happening.”

 “What people did makes you cringe,” Hood murmurs.

Hood has a small staff of volunteers. As her work grew, she found that many people wanted to help. She worked closely with the city in researching African-Americans who served in the Civil War and are buried in Greenwood Cemetery, looking for headstones and researching names online. “They were giving their lives for something they did not have themselves – freedom,” she observes.

Looking around at her cramped quarters, Hood says it would be nice if she could get into a larger facility. The society has launched a capital fund drive to buy and renovate a larger building. Meanwhile, she hopes to expand her research into towns like Pana, Clinton and Moweaqua, where she hears bits and pieces about racial clashes. And, she presents programs on African-American history to various groups, as well as making courses available.

Contact Linda Hughes at lindahughes01@gmail.com.

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