The names were neatly printed in the back of a family Bible—a large edition with decorative gold-rimmed pages and a white leather cover. I stumbled upon this record of my ancestors as a teenager. Each name was perfectly legible, a testament to the special care somebody had taken in writing each one. There were more than 80 names in total.

The record included only a few generations. My paternal great-grandfather was Moses Scott. His wife was Sarah Ella Douglas. My father’s maternal grandfather was William Loper. My maternal great-grandfather was Alexander Barr. He also married a Sarah; her maiden name was Cooper. But the space that would have identified my mother’s maternal grandparents was empty. What were their names?

For those interested in tracing their ancestry, it’s not uncommon to encounter sudden gaps in information. That’s especially true for African Americans descended from the enslaved, whose link to their ancestral past was so violently shattered. The quest to recover that lost heritage is at the heart of the stories in our special report. Travelers in possession of DNA tests describing their genetic history embark on personalized trips to their ancestral homelands in Africa. A photographer re-stages old portraits of Black heroes of the Civil War, some unknown to the public and even to their descendants—until now. Forensic anthropologists use advanced isotope analysis to examine the remains of the first generation of enslaved people and create uniquely precise maps of their places of origin.

My own quest brought me to the Robert Frederick Smith Explore Your Family History Center at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). The center draws on census records, marriage licenses, divorce decrees, wills, military records, lists known as slave schedules, and other sources to assist anyone interested in exploring their roots.

We started with my mother, locating her and her mom on a 1950 census. As we accessed earlier data, new names appeared. I learned that my mother’s maternal grandmother was Nancy Sharperson. We traced the family line back to the 1870 census, the first conducted after the Civil War, where we found names I’d never heard: Henry and Susan Stark. Both were born in South Carolina.

That’s where the record stopped. Genealogists refer to this as “hitting the brick wall.” “This occurs because enslaved African Americans prior to the 1870 census mainly appear on the slave schedules of 1860 and 1850,” often without names, Lisa Crawley, a genealogy reference assistant at NMAAHC, told me.

Searching old records, Crawley found a prominent South Carolina landowning family named Stark. We weren’t able to identify Henry as “property” on any Stark inventories, which only listed enslaved people by their gender and age. But we learned that Robert Stark, an attorney who died in 1830, bequeathed the people he enslaved to his children in a will. We believe that one of those enslaved people may have been Henry’s mother. There’s likely no record of those who came before—my ancestors who survived the Middle Passage or who toiled for decades before they were deemed human enough to have their names listed. Their identities are seemingly lost forever.

I received my own gold-embossed, leather-bound Bible as a gift when I married almost seven years ago. It includes eight pages where I can create a family tree. I hope I have as steady a hand and penmanship as neat when I enter the names of the Barrs, Coopers, Sharpersons, Scotts, Douglases, Lopers and, of course, the Starks—my great-great-grandparents—in the registry.

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This article is a selection from the January/February 2024 issue of Smithsonian magazine

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