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Church records hold key to ancestry

Mormon research centers allow access to an extensive collection of records, some of particular interest to black families.

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE
Published February 28, 2007


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David Wofford knows that his maternal great-grandfather was a free man who married a Cherokee American Indian woman.

Researching his father's side of the family has proved more difficult. Because the forebears of many African-Americans were slaves, property, marriage, birth and death certificates often don't exist.

The little that Wofford did learn came from a place some would consider an unlikely source: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

While Mormon genealogical records have long been heralded as among the world's best, the church also is known for its past discrimination against blacks. It wasn't until 1978 that the church let black men into the priesthood, and by extension, allowed them and their families to become full members.

Since then, the church has worked to change the stereotypical image of Mormons as "white, middle-class people living in the Intermountain West," borrowing a phrase from the church's Web site.

One way they're reaching out is by touting the church's large collection of public and private records as a way for African-Americans to research their ancestors.

Moving on

Robert Pate Jr., 39, is researching his genealogy at the church's Family History Center in Largo, one of more than 4,500 centers worldwide and a branch of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City.

The church's past discrimination isn't an issue for him, said Pate, a St. Petersburg man who is black and Mormon.

"It's just like African-Americans being enslaved. It's the past. We're moving on," he said.

Of particular significance to African-Americans are the church's Freedman's Bank Records, which contain personal and family information about African-American depositors after the Civil War. In some cases, the records provide the names of former slave owners and plantations. The church says an estimated 8- to 10-million African-Americans have ancestors who deposited money in the bank.

In October, the church also launched a new African-American resources page on its free Web site, www.familysearch.org.

In Largo, the volunteer-run center had hoped to offer a Saturday program in honor of Black History Month. But no one was available to work because Saturday is when many Mormons visit the church's Orlando temple, said Ken Hesse, the center's co-director.

At family history centers, people can get free access to genealogical records and computers and request materials from the church's Salt Lake City library for a fee.

The Utah library concentrates on records of deceased people who lived before 1930. The vast collection includes birth, marriage and death records from government and church sources, along with census returns, court, property, probate and cemetery records and emigration and immigration lists.

Connecting to the past

Khadijah Matin, national president of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, praises the church's extensive resources.

"Their family history centers have been extremely helpful in giving people the tools on how to do their family genealogy," said Matin, an interfaith minister in New York. "It makes it something that anyone can have access to, as opposed to a privileged group of people."

The Rev. Manuel Sykes, president of St. Petersburg Theological Seminary and pastor of Bethel Community Baptist Church, hopes more people will use the records.

"Any type of historical information that tries to connect us with our past and gives us a sense of continuity is good," Sykes said, adding that the sense of history could be especially important for black youth. "It might make them understand that their culture is more than bling bling."

Tampa resident Anthony Moses Hills' research took him back to 1838, eight years after Joseph Smith founded the church.

"I was surprised that a family member from way, way back was a part of the church," said Hills, 55.

The church's interest in genealogy is rooted in its doctrine.

"We believe that relationships, marriage relationships, can endure not just in this life, but throughout eternity," said Joseph Meyers, president of the St. Petersburg Stake, which includes congregations in Pinellas and western Pasco County.

To ensure that eternal bond, Mormons perform "sealings" that bind husbands and wives and children for all eternity, said Meyers, adding that such ceremonies can be performed even after death.

That's the reason Wofford, a 38-year-old U.S. Army captain and Mormon church leader in Palm Harbor, looked into his past.

Certain of their eternal relationship, Wofford and his wife, Sherry, who have four children and another on the way, want their ancestors to be similarly assured.

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at 727 892-2283 or moore@sptimes.com.

Fast Facts:

For information

The Largo Family History Center

9000 106th Ave. N, Largo

(727) 399-8018

By the numbers

1830Year the Mormon church was founded.

12.56- million. Estimated Mormon membership worldwide.

2.4-million. Rolls of microfilmed genealogical records at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City.

5 Number of floors in the Utah library.

700,000 Number of books, serials and other formats at the library.

Source: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

[Last modified February 27, 2007, 20:34:36]


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