Ancestors unKnown: Bringing the Power of Genealogy to Today’s Youth

Ancestors unKnown

[Editor’s Note: Recently, I had the pleasure of communicating online and over the telephone with Dana Saxon, the founder of Ancestors unKnown so I could learn more about this phenomenal initiative. Realizing that what Dana has created is a true “hack” in terms of genealogy and family history, I knew her message needed to get out to a broader audience, hence the interview below.

Please read about the great work that Dana and Ancestors unKnown is accomplishing with young students. Consider a donation (see below) or volunteering your time as a genealogist and PLEASE help spread the word about Ancestors unKnown!]

What is Ancestors unKnown? If you had to give a brief “elevator speech” to someone unfamiliar with your organization, what would that be?

Ancestors unKnown is an international nonprofit organization that introduces knowledge of Black history and genealogy research to a young audience of predominately Black and Latino students, with a mission to inspire their personal and academic success. We partner with high schools to incorporate the Ancestors Curriculum into the students’ weekly coursework. Themes focus on significant, yet commonly untold stories of the African Diaspora, from slavery rebellions and the Great Migration to modern-day African inventors. Simultaneously, students are guided in the research of their own family trees, placing themselves and their ancestors in the greater context of world history.

If we ride the elevator to the top floor, I also would explain that Ancestors unKnown’s approach uniquely addresses a well-documented need to fill “ancestral voids,” left among so many throughout the world who have experienced severed ties to their ancestry, for reasons including slavery, colonialism, and forced global migrations. This is an overdue response to generations of forgotten ancestors, introducing them to young people who can be motivated and provided the academic skills to create inspiring legacies of their own.

Ancestors unKnown

Ancestors unKnown has two pilot programs right now – tell us about one or both programs and their progress so far.

Yes, we launched two pilot programs in 2013: Charleston, South Carolina and Paramaribo, Suriname (South America). Seemingly geographically disparate, our pilot locations have surprisingly parallel histories. In addition to shared experiences of colonialism, slavery, and maintained African traditions and language, the young people just don’t know much about their ancestors.

Although we had very little budget for our pilots, we managed to engage incredible support from local volunteers and educators to accomplish the mission of Ancestors unKnown. In Suriname, youth participants received lectures from leading experts and historians on topics related to Afro-Surinamese art, language, religion, and migrations. And benefitting from extensive archives of the Moravian Church and the Suriname National Archives, participants were able to make great strides in the research of their family trees, in some cases naming their third great grandparents for the first time.

In South Carolina, where we’re continuing to partner in 2014, we piloted the program with R.B. Stall High School in North Charleston. The Ancestors Curriculum was incorporated into the 9th Grade Essentials of English class on a weekly basis. Not only were the students enthusiastic to learn something new about history that reflected their ancestors and themselves, their teacher was most moved by their increased motivation and demonstrated skills of communication, research, and reasoning that were evoked in each lesson. Although the students faced some hurdles related to their ancestry research last year, we’ll partner again with Stall this year to continue to break down the barriers of family history knowledge through ongoing education, research skill-building, and volunteer engagement.

Ancestors unKnown

What are the challenges involved in bringing genealogy and family history to young students?

When I launched the program, my biggest concern was that young people just wouldn’t be interested in family history – or history in general. I never run into high school students when I’m at the archives. And, as far as I know, genealogy hasn’t yet made it to the ranks of “cool.” But to my surprise, students expressed a prompt and keen interest in learning about where they’ve come from, from local, national, and international history to the stories of their own ancestors.

Yet so far, and again to my surprise, the challenge has been a lagging interest of their families in the research process. Particularly in North Charleston, many of the Ancestors unKnown students have complicated home lives. Not all of them know or have access to both or either of their parents. And we’ve found that even when the parents or grandparents are in the students’ lives, they’re not particularly interested in answering questions about the family’s history to help the students get started on their research. In some cases they don’t know the answers. And in others, they just don’t want to share the information, perhaps due to a common genealogy challenge of family secrets. Nonetheless, these students stand to benefit tremendously from digging deeper into their family histories. So we’re working on strategies to better engage their families in the process. And we keep pressing on!

What do youth get out of researching their ancestors?

So much! An Emory University study revealed strong links between knowledge of family ties and positive outcomes for young people, including self-confidence, emotional health and happiness. And based on my own sociological research, I found that when people have been led to believe they can’t access their family histories, basic social needs of belonging and identity development can be compromised. And due to slavery in the Americas, colonialism and forced migrations, this lost ancestry knowledge affects most of Ancestors unKnown’s target population. So introducing these young people to some of their ancestors opens up significant opportunities for identity development and personal growth.

And that’s not even getting into the academic benefits! Genealogy research is a skilled practice, teaching students new methods of communication, online and archival research, and deductive reasoning. We’re all exercising our investigative skills when we build our family trees. The Ancestors unKnown students just have the added benefit of improving their academic performance in the process.

What about future plans for other pilot programs of Ancestors unKnown?

I mean it when I say we’re international. So not only am I looking to launch new U.S. partnerships in Chicago and Washington, D.C. in the near future, you’ll be seeing Ancestors unKnown throughout the Caribbean and Europe. My next target is for partnerships in the Netherlands, including the Hague and Amsterdam, where I currently live. One of the objectives of this international reach is to create virtual connections between our student researchers.

In a few years, when we’re seeing success with the program in multiple cities throughout the world, I have my sights set on expanding beyond the core program. We’ll grow to include college programming, provide research and digitizing job opportunities for our students, and even provide opportunities for international heritage travel. I find these long-term possibilities incredibly exciting.

Dana Saxon, founder of Ancestors unKnown

I’m sure our readers want to know more about you and how you became interested in genealogy and starting Ancestors unKnown . . .

Well, it certainly hasn’t been a direct path. Once I completed my law degree and knew I didn’t want to practice law, I began working in the nonprofit education sector. After several years of that, I was certain I wanted to continue serving young people, providing motivation and pathways to better lives. But I had lost some of my passion in the everyday trials of work and life, particularly in NYC, where I was living several years ago. In a somewhat random effort to lift my spirits, I logged on to I had my doubts that my African American ancestors would be even remotely traceable on such a mainstream site. But I’m so glad I was wrong. The first thing I found was my great grandfather’s WWI registration card. And I was hooked. I’ve since made use of countless online resources, traveled to the former hometowns – even homes – of some of my ancestors (who I previously couldn’t have even named), and traced my family back as far as the late 18th century, when an ancestor was enslaved in southern Africa and taken to Cuba.

The epiphany for Ancestors unKnown wasn’t far behind. If knowledge of my ancestors was able to lift me up and inspire me to do something great, I could only imagine the benefits that would come for the young people to whom I had already dedicated my professional life.

Finally, how can others get involved or assist in the success of Ancestors unKnown?

Donate (using the Donate button below) or volunteer (! We’re accepting much-needed donations online that go toward programming costs. And we’d love to have genealogist volunteers contribute to our students’ research projects, which also can be done online. Share your expertise and some research time to help build a young person’s family tree! And let me know if you’d like to volunteer in-person, or if you’d like Ancestors unKnown to come to a school near you. These are opportunities I never deny.

©2014, copyright Thomas MacEntee

About the Author

Thomas MacEntee
Genealogy educator and author Thomas MacEntee has been researching his family history for more than 40 years and is the creator of Abundant Genealogy, Genealogy Bargains, DNA Bargains, The Genealogy Do-Over and numerous other web-based genealogy and family history properties.

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