Researcher unravels roots in heart of Black Belt
Thursday, January 03, 2008
News staff writer
CAMDEN — Ten years ago, Millie Lee Dulaney fulfilled her mother’s last request and buried her in Alabama red dirt in the overgrown Wilcox County cemetery where her mother’s mother and sister lay.
As Dulaney looked around at the weeds around the graves of her ancestors, she knelt down and gathered some of that red clay and put it in a heart-shaped crystal bowl that she would take with her back to the West Coast. The act was the beginning of a quest that eventually brought her back home to Alabama after most of a lifetime spent away.
Over the course of 10 years, working mostly on the Internet, Dulaney traced the history of her family and that of the white Dulaneys of Wilcox County who had held her ancestors as slaves.
Dulaney documented the history of the cemetery and the adjoining church, Dulaney AME, and won their placement in the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage.
She even earned admission to the United Daughters of the Confederacy after documenting her descent from Hardy Dulaney, a slave who cared for the horses of the 3rd Alabama Confederate Cavalry.
Since moving back to Alabama in 2006, Dulaney founded the Wilcox County Cemetery Society and co-founded, with B.J. Smothers, another Black Belt returnee and genealogical researcher, the Black Belt African American Genealogical & Historical Society. It’s part of an effort to apply and spread the skills they’ve gained and the new resources available.
Feb. 14-17, the Genealogical Society will hold its second family history fair and conference in Selma. Among those expected at the conference is Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Harvard University historian who has spearheaded “African American Lives,” a public television series that explores the family histories of prominent blacks.
A second installment of “African American Lives” is scheduled to air on public television in February and will feature profiles of two prominent blacks with Alabama roots: businesswoman Linda Johnson Rice and radio personality Tom Joyner. The repeat of a segment on Oprah Winfrey’s roots is airing on Alabama Public Television tonight at 9 p.m. and Friday at 2 a.m.
Hooked on research:
Whether it’s recording names and dates on tombstones, ferreting information from Internet resources, or digging through courthouse deeds and wills, Dulaney has learned to persevere.
“It’s hard and tedious,” she said. “But you get hooked on it.”
This fall, Dulaney, 72, was awarded the Idella Childs Distinguished Service Award from the Alabama Historical Commission’s Black Heritage Council.
“What I admire about Millie is that she is so energetic and positive,” said Dorothy Walker of the Alabama Historical Commission. “She refused to give up no matter what the obstacles were. It is sort of infectious to be around her.”
Those working in the field say there is a renewed interest in tracing roots, particularly among blacks. More information, including courthouse and cemetery records, are available now on the Internet. DNA testing is being used to shed light on relationships among people whose families were broken up during slavery, and is even suggesting connections to distant African tribes and, in some cases, white ancestors in Europe.
Frazine Taylor, a researcher at the Alabama Department of Archives and History, said she is seeing an upsurge in interest in tracing family ties from baby boomers in the North.
“A lot of time, the trail leads back to the South. They have to come back here to find out,” Taylor said. “I am seeing an increased number of people coming into archives, and the Internet has helped a lot.”
Like many families, Millie Lee Dulaney’s branch left Alabama for opportunity in the North when she was a child. The family settled in Ohio. Dulaney spent a career as a nurse but also worked in political campaigns. She moved to California and later to Las Vegas, never visiting Alabama again until her mother died.
Looking back over her decade of research, she feels a debt of gratitude. Her mother’s insistence on returning to Alabama connected her daughter with a family network she’d never known. Her own children and grandchildren are spread across the country but now, living in Selma, she is surrounded by kin.
And the stories of her ancestors inspire her to keep going. “What it has taught me is this: If they could make it, I know I can make it.”
Along the way, she learned that one branch of the family includes Creek Indians, so she has plunged into learning about Creek history and culture.
She’s also gained appreciation for the white Dulaneys. Benjamin F. Dulaney came to Wilcox County from Virginia. He was progressive for his time in his treatment of slaves, Dulaney said. She’s made contact with descendants of the white Dulaneys and, though they aren’t related by blood, she has helped them learn more about their ancestors.
Dorothy Walker said Dulaney’s embrace of all aspects of her family’s story has helped her appreciate how the history of white slaveholding families and of slave families are intertwined.
“The thing that Millie showed me is that you’ve got to be able to connect those histories together,” Walker said. “If you are going to have an understanding of your own family, you have to know about the white family, as well.”
On the Net:
Black Belt African American Genealogical & Historical Society: www.bbaaghs.org
PBS series “African American Lives”: www.pbs.org/wnet/aalives
Source: Birmingham News
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