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Funeral programs helping to connect African-American families to roots

James Scott Baron/The Free Lance-Star | 11/27/2019, 6 p.m.
Volunteers across the state are combing through a large collection of old African-American funeral programs to help families connect with ...
Scans of funeral programs are available to people researching their families and acquaintances through FamilySearch, a global website operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Peter Cihelka/The Free Lance-Star via Associated Press

Ms. Helzer cited Baptist Liberty Church in King William County as one example of the positive impact the project has made on a small country church and the community that surrounds it. As a result of the project, many families in that region have connected to relatives of the past.

“If we can do this for one small community, for one little church, imagine what we could do for the world,” Ms. Helzer said. “If more people get involved, I can see many different communities being able to do this.”

The Latter-day Saints church recently donated $2 million to the International African-American Museum in Charleston, S.C., to build a FamilySearch Discovery Center within that facility. It is scheduled to open in late 2021.

Mr. Heyward

Mr. Heyward

The Discovery Center will give museum visitors an opportunity to research their family roots near the hallowed grounds of Gadsden’s Wharf.

“The site of the museum is right on the wharf, the port of entry for nearly half of the enslaved African-Americans brought to America,” said Elijah Heyward, the museum’s chief operating officer.

Between 1783 and 1808, an estimated 100,000 West Africans arrived at Gadsden’s Wharf, where many men, women and children died, never reaching the auction block. It also was during this era that Africans, arriving under harsh and cruel conditions, were recorded as property rather than as human beings. For years, this inhumane accounting method created obstacles and dead ends for those in the African-American community hoping to research their ancestry.

Although the funeral program collection can be accessed from any computer by anyone at no charge, the Discovery Center within the new museum will give visitors a unique opportunity to research their family history at the site where so many Africans first set foot on American soil.

“We’re building a world-class institution here,” said Mr. Heyward. “Having a partnership with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will help us achieve our goals.”