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Tracing their roots

Black History Month, a prime time to blast into the past

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Leslie Colter Jackson
Leslie Colter Jackson

First in a series of Black History Month stories.

Some people can trace their family’s roots to the 1700s, others only a generation or two back. Documenting a family’s history nearly always begins with a personal desire to understand one’s origins.

For Freeport native Leslie Colter Jackson, 70, connecting with her family’s African-American heritage has given her the chance to educate her children and grandchildren about their past. “I’m just into history,” she said. “It’s overwhelming and awesome when you can hear the beginnings of your family.”

February is Black History Month, a perfect time to reflect on the histories of African-Americans across the country. For Colter Jackson, delving into her family’s genealogy has meant connecting with its African past — while also discovering its Portuguese roots.

In the early 1990s, Colter Jackson’s young son and niece took part in a series of genealogy seminars sponsored by the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women’s Clubs of Central Nassau. Seeing their curiosity encouraged her to explore her roots more deeply.

By 1994, she had connected with a second cousin, Ivo Gomes Furtado, of Dorchester, Mass. Upon meeting him, Colter Jackson learned that Gomes Furtado was from Cape Verde, an archipelago of 10 volcanic islands off the west coast of Africa, where Creole-Portuguese culture dominates and the main language is Portuguese. She also learned that her mother’s side of the family came from Cape Verde, a former Portuguese colony that did not achieve full independence until 1975.

As the story goes, Colter Jackson’s grandfather, Joseph Furtado, who lived in Roosevelt, was from Cape Verde. She never knew that, however, because he died in 1937, a decade before she was born. An older second cousin, had written to Furtado in the 1930s to keep the Long Island and Massachusetts branches of the family connected. When Joseph died, however, that connection was lost — until, that is, Colter Jackson did a little detective work and was able to find that second cousin.

That experience inspired her to continue her genealogical research, which eventually led her to connect with cousins throughout the South. In her effort to reconnect with her past, she enlisted the help of Freeport’s first African-American police officer, Julius Pearse, who is now 80, and whose wife, Joyetta, is executive director of the African American Museum in Hempstead. Julius manages the museum and is president of the African Atlantic Genealogic Society, which has an office there.

Pearse was inspired to delve into his own past by his mother, who kept close track of the family, which was able to trace its roots back to slave times in the 1800s. Eager to delve deeper, he took a DNA test through the National Geographic’s Genographic Project, which is mapping the human journey through DNA. Pearse learned that 50 percent of his DNA is sub-Saharan African — and 20 percent Northern European. The remaining 30 percent is a mix of Mediterranean, Southwest Asian and South African.

“Genealogy is a way of tracing one’s personal family history,” Pearse said. “This means it can also rebuild the history of African-Americans in this country.”

African-Americans, he said, are often reluctant to trace their roots back because they fear that their stories will include slavery. There is a rich history to be discovered before those times, however, through genetic testing, he said.

“The African-Americans in this country have been greatly overlooked,” he said. “And it’s important for young African-Americans to realize that though we came up in slavery and segregation, we were survivors.”

For African-Americans, he said, understanding personal history is as important as understanding the history of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Rosa Parks. “We can find heroes in our own family history,” he noted.

Tanisha Mitchell, a librarian at the Freeport Memorial Library, has been teaching Freeporters how to use library resources and local records to discover family history. Through her efforts, the library has free introductory genealogy and family tree programs.

“I find that in any community, especially the African-American community, there is a disconnect,” Mitchell said. “They feel that because their family may have been slaves, there is no point” to researching genealogy.

Through her work in the field, Mitchell has seen families discover names, stories and achievements, at times confirming their beliefs about their origins, and at others discovering new connections.

“I can’t describe the feeling when you see someone discover someone that is connected to them in some kind of way,” Mitchell said.