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Heart of Utah: Elevating Black family history and connecting to the past

This story about elevating Black family history and connecting to the past is part of KSL NewsRadio’s ongoing Heart of Utah program to highlight good news around the state that airs Wednesdays.

SALT LAKE CITY — This Black History Month, there has been a big focus on the family. And with RootsTech starting this week, it has been a great time to delve deeper into Black family history.

A Utah man is working on those efforts on a worldwide scale.

Thom Reed knew he wanted to help others connect to their roots because of his own experience. Reed went to Africa in 2016 for a project to help collect oral histories and genealogies and to preserve and digitizing them with Family Search International. He is the deputy chief genealogical officer there.

While he was in Ghana, Thom said he felt like he needed to know where he came from. He knew his people were of African descent and somehow got to the US, but he can’t trace it back on paper. Thom, like many other genealogists, hit the “brick wall” of 1870 which is when the first US census counted African Americans as people with first and last names instead of as property.

“I had this connection and that made me think, where are my people from? I’ve done my own genealogy and I’m stuck in Alabama in 1870. The Freedmen Bureau records still have not cracked the nut on my own family history to be able to go back to get to what we say the water’s edge, so to speak for my people,” he said.

A month or two later, in November 2016, Reed took a DNA test.

“I see Cameroon and Congo. I see Nigeria, I see all these other areas, and then all of a sudden it hits me. I’ve just connected to my African roots. I now know where I come from,” said Reed.

He became teary-eyed during the Facebook Live.

“It filled a hole in me that I didn’t know I had. It completed a sense of identity of me that I didn’t realize I needed completed.”

Now Reed is working on helping others find that connection, too, with the Reclaiming our African Roots, or ROAR initiative.

Reed says after FamilySearch worked on the Freedmen Bureau project, they knew there was so much more to be done, and so many more people to help. They knew they could get together with other entities and provide more records, more stories, and more access to people of African descent around the world.

“Any person with any kind of Black connection to be able to immediately access some type of family history, some type of connection to their people — and it doesn’t have to be all on FamilySearch,” said Reed.

Reed says anyone and everyone can help with ROAR, and anyone can help with Black Family History, by sharing anything and everything they can find in their own family history that’s connected to Black families.

“One of the questions I always get is ‘I found out that my family owned slaves. What do I do about that?‘ My suggestion is to share and tell everyone,” he said. Use Facebook groups, blogs, websites that collect slave ancestry, local historical or genealogical societies around the country that need the information so that others can find a piece of the puzzle for their own lives.

Reed says people are always watching family history and genealogy shows because there’s a hunger to connect to the past and to connect to others.

“Black history is family history is American history is everyone’s shared history. We’re all part of a great collective of humanity and everyone’s history is our history when you look at it,” said Reed.

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