CINCINNATI - Imagine if we could walk in the shoes of relatives who were alive decades ago, or even centuries.
We cannot travel back in time, but there is a way to venture into their experiences without being a history buff.
"Who is that?" Thomas Jordan asked his granddaughter as the two looked at an image on a laptop.
"That's my great-grandmother," said 3-year-old Anaya Jordan as she points at a picture of a woman on the screen.
Anaya knows about her living relatives, and her grandfather hopes that when she's older she'll know about as many of her ancestors as possible.
"In terms of great great-grandparents, I wasn't aware of any of them two years ago," said Thomas Jordan, who has since identified 12 out of his 16 great great-grandparents. He is undertaking the task of genealogy-- learning about his family history by researching his ancestry.
"You don't think it's important. When you're younger, you think everyone is going to be around," said Jordan. "You don't think to ask questions, and then you start hitting 40, and a lot of your colleagues are dying and a lot of your family members are starting to leave the scene; and you're kind of like 'Hey, where did I come from? Who am I?'"
Jordan says he started his research by simply interviewing relatives at holiday events and family functions. Then he brought his research to the third floor of the Hamilton County Public Library in downtown Cincinnati.
How to start
"You always start with yourself or your child if you want to do both sides of the family, and [then] work back," advised Patricia Van Skaik. She's the manager of the Genealogy and Local History Department at the library, which is one of the top genealogy collections in the country.
"We have over 100,000 roles of microfilm. We have digital records. We have 100,000 books covering all 50 states-- very strong in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi materials; [where] the people who have migrated from the South, especially African Americans in this area, make heavy use of," added Skaik.
Microfilm is a picture of an original record, such as a birth or death certificate, that you can find online or at the library. You can also purchase a copy for $5. Many genealogists use microfilm to find detailed information about ancestry.
For Black History Month, the library offered several programs targeting African American genealogy, which gets complicated due to slavery.
Jordan, who is African American, explained, "For us it's difficult because once you get past 1870, we're not on a census record. We're probably someone's property, and I've got some strong leads on who actually may have owned some of my ancestors."
That was the case with John Bryant, who began his research 35 years ago-- before websites like ancestry.com existed. His research led him to Alabama, where he met a woman with strong connections to his family's past.
"She's the great-granddaughter of Stokely D. Massengale. Stokely D. Massengale was the slave holder that had my great-grandfather Green Massengale as one of his slaves," said Bryant, who was able to sit-down with the woman and learn about her past as well their ancestors.
Many African Americans may find ancestors listed as "mulatto" in census records. The word was used to identify people of both black and white race. Many times the slave master was the father, even though it was not documented.
What to watch out for in genealogical research
But Bryant warns to not expect everything to be accurate in your research, as was the case with a family surname he found. "Coming out of the slavery, the slaves were not literate; and sometimes the census taker wasn't literate, so they spelled the name as it sounded or appeared. So you have to be careful in doing the research."
Be sure to utilize all of your resources when doing genealogical research, such as handwritten letters from decades ago, or obituaries, or newspaper clippings that may have random pictures or mentions of your research.
You may also find that you have different cultures in your background, such as Native American ancestry.
Why is genealogy important?
"I really think people get a huge sense of who they are [by] understanding where they've come from. Sometimes people say, 'I don't want to do my genealogy because I might find something that's a little bit unsettling. I might find out something traumatic that happened to an ancestor,' said Skaik. "But we find genealogists that discover these things; that actually gives them inspiration and hope. They're like, 'My ancestors had all this to deal with and they made it, they survived. I'm here today to tell the story.'"
Bryant now knows of 400 living relatives due to his research, and has no plans of stopping any time soon.
Neither does Jordan, who has travelled to meet distant cousins in West Virginia and Mississippi, and learned about illnesses that may run in his family, as well as a family cemetery. He says don't let age limit you if you're considering genealogy. "Anybody's capable of doing