Merlene Davis: Black genealogists are researching in the Bluegrass

Whenever I can, I like to write about African-Americans with ties to Kentucky who have made a mark in American history.

Had I been given pieces of that kind of information during my school years, I might have paid closer attention in history classes.

Sharyn Mitchell told me not to feel too bad about that.

Mitchell, president of the African American Genealogy Group of Kentucky, said most of the members of that group had little interest in history until they made it personal.

"I have learned more history doing this than anywhere," she said of her explorations into her family history. "I know more about the 1800s than present-day stuff."

Mitchell, who has been researching her genealogy for 20 years, said her work often leads to information that can't be found in history books. At one time, that history was discussed at family meals, with the children learning from the adults.

"Now, with TV and the Internet, we don't sit down and talk," she said. Too much information is being lost to death, memory loss and record destruction, she said.

To help slow the loss of information, Mitchell and Shirl Marks, the group's vice president, decided in December to start a genealogy group for African-Americans. They think it is the first and only one of its kind in Kentucky.

At the first meeting in January, Mitchell said, the temperature was 8 degrees, and 12 people attended. In February, the attendance jumped to 65 and has been at least 25 consistently since then.

Each meeting is in a different county on the third Saturday of the month. Nine counties — Bourbon, Clark, Fayette, Franklin, Jefferson, Jessamine, Madison, Scott and Woodford counties — are represented in the group.

In June, the meeting will be at Camp Nelson Civil War Heritage Park in Jessamine County. Brandon Slone, archivist for the Kentucky Department of Military Affairs, will discuss blacks who served in the military, then the group will tour Camp Nelson. The meeting starts at 1 p.m. June 18.

Group members, who range in experience from archivist to amateur, share tips and information at meetings to help research go more smoothly, Mitchell said.

There are two members of the group who were researching the same family without knowing it, Mitchell said. "We, as African- Americans who are doing genealogy, don't have a forum," she said. "We don't get together and discuss history except at family reunions and funerals."

Mitchell's mother began researching their family history in 1977, and Mitchell would help occasionally. The more they dabbled, the more interested they became.

While there are African-American history groups in Kentucky, the genealogy group is different in that it doesn't look at buildings or communities as a whole, she said. Her group looks at families.

"Between myself and several others, we can tell you how to start," Mitchell said. "We can tell you where to go and how to preserve your records and the different help sites."

Those sites give clues to help further your research if you come to a dead end.

For instance, Kentucky slave owners insured their slaves, and those insurance records are in California. "We just found that out," she said.

Mitchell has learned that one of her relatives, George White, was able to buy the freedom of his children in the early 1830s as well as more than 500 acres of land in Madison County. Some of the land is still in the family. She also discovered that one of her relatives was a house boy for Cassius Clay.

She also learned of a great-grandfather who died within a week of an explosion in Winchester in 1921 in which he lost both legs. The newspaper ran a story for three days exclaiming how well-loved he was.

"Our stories are often hidden in un-indexed volumes, stored forgotten on dusty shelves and omitted from the traditional history books of our country," Mitchell said.

Annual membership in the African American Genealogy Group of Kentucky is $30 for individuals, $50 for organizations. If you just want to receive emails, the ambassador membership is free.

For more information, email

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader