Utah man leads efforts to connect African Americans to their ancestors in honor of Juneteenth

Jun 17, 2022, 6:08 PM | Updated: 8:17 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — Millions of people are connected by the click of a mouse every day. Not just through social media, but through family history.

“I think there’s some healing that happens when we connect with our people,” said Thom Reed, FamilySearch director of African heritage initiatives for North America.

For some, our family records are easy to pull up. But once you reach back to 1870, all U.S. records go blank for the African American community. These documents from 1860 show why — only slave owners were named; everyone else was just a number.

“We were forcibly migrated here through the transatlantic slave trade, where many records don’t exist of where those individuals were maybe taken from their homelands and Africa and came to the United States,” Reed said.

Thom Reed’s mission in life and work at FamilySearch is to uncover records of his African American ancestors, and to make their stories available for the world.

FamilySearch has been working for 20 years, conducting oral histories in Africa in 700 different languages.

“We’ve collected almost a million interviews. We have nearly two million audio recordings. We have pictures of these individuals, and so we estimate that there will be 250 million people identified in these records when it’s ready to publish,” Reed said.

In Africa, Reed visited a male slave dungeon — a moment that changed his life.

“I touched the wall and I can feel the claw marks where they tried to escape,” he said. “This dungeon would hold maybe 2,000 men who were going to be shipped off to anywhere in the world as slaves. And I wanted to feel what they felt and know what they know. So, I remember, in that moment, God spoke to me and said, ‘This is the work that you’re to do — to make sure that these men and women are not forgotten, and that all people can connect to their ancestors.'”

That is a connection Reed has felt again and again through discovering his ancestors.

For Juneteenth, FamilySearch created a link to show if you have any relatives connected with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

“I found a second great grandfather,” Thom said.

KSL’s Erin Cox even looked to see if she had any ancestors connected with the Emancipation Proclamation. She discovered she had 20 ancestors that were living the day it was signed.

“Although in some records, they may be a tick mark, and they may be an x, or they may be a number in a bill of sale, they truly are people. And that’s what we want. We want to connect people with their people,” Reed said.

For a list of all the Juneteenth celebrations happening across the state, click here.

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Utah man leads efforts to connect African Americans to their ancestors in honor of Juneteenth