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Great Migration Unit Helps Scholars Dig Up Their Own Family Roots

In the middle of US History class, junior Sakai Savage would take out his phone and call his grandma, who lives on the Eastern Shore. Sakai was not ignoring his classwork, but instead was excitedly reporting to his grandma what he had learned about their family through his research using the genealogy website As part of history teacher Bill Stevens’ unit on the Great Migration, Sakai and his classmates used primary sources and oral histories from family members to gain a greater understanding of their own families’ migrations.

“The first step was for scholars to talk with family members about what history they knew,” explained Mr. Stevens. “Then they took what they learned from oral histories and searched primary archival sources on” Mr. Stevens applied for and received a grant that enabled him to give access to the popular genealogy website to all of his scholars to use during class.

“They’ve been looking at census records and finding people who are related to them who they never knew existed,” said Mr. Stevens. “They’ve found photos of their relatives gravestones, draft cards, and all kinds of amazing stuff.”

Migrating for a Better Life

“When I told my dad about this project, he encouraged me to take it seriously, and suggested I talk with my grandmother, because she knew more than he did about the family history,” explained junior Dezaray Walters. “My grandmother, Louise, told me about her parents, Sarah and Doc Void. Louise had six children by the age of 20. She was the first of her family to migrate from South Carolina to Washington, DC. She worked in a hotel cleaning rooms so that she and her six boys could have a better life. Her mother Sarah took care of her kids while Louise worked. My grandmother had first brought my father up to DC, but he moved back to South Carolina. Then when he joined the military, he came back to DC and settled here.”

Through, Dezaray found census records for Doc Void and all of his children and pictures of their tombstones. “Doc and Sarah have a tombstone together,” she said. “Doc was born in 1881 and stayed in South Carolina his whole life. It’s hard to imagine why he didn’t move.”From census records Dezaray discovered a great-great-aunt named Queen Esther who she had never heard of before.

“My dad is really family-oriented,” Dezaray said. “Every time I come home from school, he wants to know what I learned about our family. He wants me to present all this at our family reunion. Doing this work has opened my eyes to what family means in the Great Migration. If my parents hadn’t migrated, I wouldn’t be the person I am. It’s opened my eyes to how grateful I should be. All these people moved so I could have a better life.”

From Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, the text that Mr. Stevens used in the Great Migration unit, scholars learned about the movement of traditions and culture from the American South to the North during the Great Migration. “That’s what our family did too,” explained Dezaray. “My dad is a big music guy. He’s into jazz and he used to play in a band, and he taught me all I know about music.”

Dezaray plans to study history in college and is already taking a class in the history of African American culture at the University of the District of Columbia Community College through IDEA’s dual enrollment program with UDCCC.

Discovering Far-Flung Family Members

Xavier Allen discovered through his research on that his great-great-grandfather was a farmer in Virginia but never a slave. “I want to know what he did to become a farmer and not be a captive. I’ve wondered if he was an activist. I’m still researching that to find out more,” Xavier explained. Xavier also learned that his grandmother came with her husband to DC from Southern Virginia when she was 22. “I found on the census that there were 15 people living in my great-grandmother’s house.”

Because his mom is the oldest living relative Xavier knows, he didn’t have access to much family history before he started his research. “I know a lot more about my family that I didn’t know before,” Xavier said. “I found out I have some family members in Germany and Japan. I’ve reached out to a cousin in Germany who’s a little older than me and created a new connection. My mom and my aunt are trying to reach out to other cousins and uncles to see what else they know.”

Tracking Down the Meaning of a Name

Like Xavier, Michael Artemus is on a continuing quest. “I have always wanted to know where my last name comes from,” Michael explained. “I had tried to do research on my own, and I couldn’t find the name Artemus on any slave plantation. In the 1880s, a lot of people were named Artemus, but over time that number has decreased. I think my last name is dying out. Having the opportunity to do research on my family in class was fun.”

“My father never met his father,” Michael said, “but my mother knew a lot about my father’s mother. I’d never met her. During my research I discovered that my father’s mother Alberta changed her last name repeatedly. I knew I was looking at the same person, though, because of her social security number and other details. At one time she was living in DC but would go to California every weekend, so she was listed in the census in DC and California.”

“I learned that my grandfather’s full name was Major James Artemus. He was not in the military—his first name was Major. My father’s full name is Major James Artemus, Jr. But for some reason when he was little people called him Kenny. When he started school, he found out his first name was Major, and he was shocked!”

Michael’s grandfather was born in 1912, and his father was born in 1956. “I don’t have to go back that far to get to slavery,” he said. Or to the brutality that African-Americans faced in the 20th century. “My father’s mother told my father that his uncle was lynched in South Carolina." That provided plenty of motivation for the family to move north. 

Investigating family history seems to be left up to Michael, as many of his relatives are no longer living. "Since I am one of the youngest of my siblings and one of the youngest in my extended family, those people who knew about the past family members are all dead," Michael explained. "My father was also the youngest, so many people who could tell him about his past family either were in South Carolina or were dead. Through this research, I have gained a closer connection to the past and this ability to reconnect with my family. I've learned that people in my family have had such interesting lives and survived a lot."


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