Society offers black Americans link to past

Published 12:38 am Monday, November 12, 2007

ISLE OF WIGHT, Va. (AP) — While their white counterparts often easily reach into their families’ pasts, many black Americans assume their history beyond their slave ancestors is lost.

The Slave Descendants Freedom Society wants to change that. The Carrollton nonprofit group is encouraging black Americans to trace their roots and seek out their heritage on the African continent.

‘‘I think it’s a real void in our community, not knowing your history, not knowing where you’re from,’’ said Eric Sheppard, the organization’s chairman and founder. Most black Americans are ancestors of former slaves, he said.

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He and his wife, Lisa Sheppard, formed the society five years ago and are celebrating this weekend with a banquet at the Hampton Roads Convention Center.

Dodou Bammy Jagne, an ambassador to the United States from The Gambia in western Africa, will keynote the event, which also is expected to draw Cyrille Oguin, ambassador from the African Republic of Benin.

Benin was the first African country to apologize for its role in the Atlantic slave trade, according to organizers.

For black Americans, researching their family tree has been historically considered near impossible.

While Americans of European descent can identify a country they’re originally from, black Americans are up against a history in which even their ancestor’s names often were erased, Eric Sheppard said.

White slavemasters typically replaced enslaved African’s names with more European-sounding ones. Slaves then took on the last name of their owner.

But genealogy searches and reunions have surged in light of modern research tools. The release of Alex Haley’s book ‘‘Roots’’ in 1976, also jump-started interest. Haley used records to trace his origin to a slave who arrived in Annapolis in 1767.

So far, Eric Sheppard has traced his roots to a former slave named Moses Grandy, who penned ‘‘Narrative of the Life of Moses Grandy: Late a Slave in the United States of America.’’

The Sheppards ultimately want to build a genealogy research and cultural history museum called the Restoration Center in The Gambia. It would bridge the gap between Africans and black Americans.

‘‘It gave me a sense of pride, a sense of legacy to leave for my children,’’ Eric Sheppard said of tracing his history. ‘‘It has given me a sense of purpose that I can make a difference helping others reconnect their families and their histories.’’