Updated: September 27, 2012 at 12:00 am
Candice McKnight all but moves mountains to help people find their roots.
But it was on an imposing rock set down in a stranger’s yard in Missouri that she looked her own family’s past in the face.
The president of the African-American Historical and Genealogical Society of Colorado Springs was visiting family when a cousin, who belonged to a historical society there, showed her the rock that had been a platform from which slaves were sold in the early 1800s. Intrigued, they found papers that showed that a great-great-grandmother had been sold there.
But in an unusual twist, the woman was a French indentured servant who was sold to an African-American family,
“That’s when I realized not all slaves were black and that blacks might be slaveholders,” McKnight said.
McKnight stood on that rock in commemoration of her ancestor. At the women’s behest, the rock from which predominantly black slaves were sold became part of a display at the Franklin County Historical Society.
“It’s surprises like that which makes genealogy so fascinating and important,” she says, adding it’s a good example of why no one should have set ideas when they delve into their history.
And it is why McKnight and her society members have relentlessly worked for decades to make sure local history is preserved.
For many black Americans, the legacy of slavery created a disconnect from their historical ancestral relations, notes Stephany Rose Spaulding, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs assistant professor of women’s and ethnic studies.
“It was taken away from them. It was part of the breaking process to take their identity away,” she explains. The Transatlantic slave culture broke psychological ties to homeland and people. Slaves were separated from others of their culture or tribe so they were not among others who could speak their language. And their names were changed.
The search for African-American roots has particularly been difficult because the U.S. Census, which is the cornerstone of much genealogy, did not mention slaves in reports until 1870.
“They were listed as property,” notes Spaulding.
In recent times, African- Americans have overcome research difficulties. The immense popularity of the book “Roots: The Saga of an American Family” in 1976 opened the door. Author Alex Haley painstakingly traced his line back to Kunta Kinte, who was kidnapped in Gambia in 1767 and sold into slavery in Maryland.
More recently, publicity about Sally Jennings, a Monticello plantation slave who is said to have bore children of President Thomas Jefferson, has renewed interest. This summer a group of genealogists issued a report that President Barack Obama likely is a descendent of slaves through his mother’s lineage.
The possibility of filling in her family tree became reality for McKnight at a family reunion in 1999 when she wondered “how do all these people fit into my history?” Sometime later she was at Evergreen Cemetery talking to director Will DeBoer, who told her how to start her research.
Armed with some family names and dates, she ended up at the Penrose Library’s genealogy collection and the two Colorado Springs Family History Centers run by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, where she met several genealogists who would be her mentors, including author Katie Brown Bennett and the late LDS librarian Bonnie Jorganson and former Pikes Peak Library District librarian Mary Davis.
She encountered the challenges that come with the lack of the usual genealogical documentations such as birth and death certificates, not to mention the Census.
“I can’t tell you how many times I said ‘I’m stumped, I can’t I can’t’ and they kept me going. Katie (Bennett) would say, ‘You can do this. You can do this.’”
McKnight formed the African-American Genealogical Society of Colorado Springs in 2000.
She was friends with local historian Lu Lu Pollard and others who had founded the Negro Historical Association of Colorado Springs. When Pollard died in 2003, the baton was passed to McKnight. In 2005 the genealogy and history societies merged.
It presents genealogy workshops and history lectures several times a year, and publishes a newsletter to inspire others to keep alive the past. She says the book title that sums up the challenge is “The Invisible People of the Pikes Peak Region,” by John Holley. The history is one of the few that chronicles early black residents.
“A lot of our history has just been thrown away,” McKnight says with an urgency that underscores her fear that even today’s family histories will disappear if no one preserves them.
She convinces one workshop at a time, one person at a time, whatever it takes.
“I tell everyone we have to keep this alive; if we don’t, who will? It’s a lot of work, but if you love it, it’s not hard,” she says.
It’s not history just for history’s sake. She has seen families reunited by genealogy, including some of her own. She has helped adoptees find long lost relatives. “You keep your Kleenex handy,” she says.
She can’t count all the microfilm she has read, documents she has searched for and phone calls she has made all over the country searching for her family history. She has found family lines that include Scottish-Irish and Native Americans as well as African-American.
McKnight grew up in the St. Vrain neighborhood, attended Garfield and North schools, and graduated form Palmer High School. She attended Blair College and worked for years as a medical assistant while raising two kids. Now retired, she says she wants to leave the legacy of her findings to her four grandchildren.
She is thrilled by those she has met along the way — some living but others she is acquainted with only through birth certificates, slave bills of sale, census materials and the fading memories of elderly relatives.
The indentured servant who was sold from the rock was Eliva Everleen Snoddy Clay. That led her to William Lacy Clay Jr. a Missouri congressman. She was shy about calling him, but didn’t let that reticence get in her way.
“I was surprised he called me back. But he was so polite and happy to hear about the past we share.”
She has lots of tidbits from her years of research. She discovered that a great-uncle once owned the building that eventually housed the famous black nightclub The Cotton Club owned by Fannie Mae Duncan.
She does more than record her ancestral lines on a family tree. For example, she keeps Sallie Mack, her great-great-great-grandmother on her father’s side, alive through historical reenactments such as the one held yearly at Evergreen Cemetery.
The fancy red period costume she wears is kept at the society’s headquarters in the Westside Community Center’s campus at the old Buena Vista School, 1628 W. Bijou St.
McKnight calls this place “phase one” of a black museum she and the others want to create. The large room is filled with African-American lore and hundreds of books on black history and genealogy that members have gleaned from college library cullings and donations. On the wall is a display of photos of local African-American police officers back to 1880s, Tuskegee Airmen, and Buffalo soldiers. There is a large quilt with the photos of the society’s members and their families.
A file cabinet is filled with worksheets given to visitors and a plethora of black research help including booklets such as “The NHSA Register of Black Settlers in the Pikes Peak Region, 1861-1941” and ‘“Records of Military Agencies Relating to African Americans from Post World War I to the Korean War.”
McKnight is looking for a volunteer grant writer to help the society raise funds for a permanent home for the museum. McKnight points to the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Commission and Cultural Center in Pueblo and Black American West Museum in Denver, as examples to emulate.
The Pioneers Museum has a small room dedicated to black history, and many of the photos there were donated by the society and by Lu Lu Pollard’s family.
But McNight says the community deserves more than a room.
“We African-Americans need to know where we came from so we can know where we are going.”
Contact Carol McGraw: 636-0371 Twitter @mcgrawatgazette
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