Searching for a past

Black families face a variety of obstacles as they trace their genealogies
Friday, June 27, 2008 | 3:18 p.m. CDT; updated 4:57 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
TOP: A Wilson family reunion in Quincy, Ill., in 1970.
BOTTOM LEFT: Traci Wilson-Kleekamp’s grandmother, Mary Ella Wilson, and her brother-in-law Arthur Wilson with Kenneth, Robert and William E. Wilson Jr., Traci’s father.
BOTTOM RIGHT: The Rev. Nathaniel P. Wilson and his granddaughter, Tonie Wilson-Buie.

COLUMBIA — It started with a hunch but had turned into something else. Traci Wilson-Kleekamp knew that the answers lay in the census records she’d been looking over. The papers had been by her side for the past three weeks — the car, work, her bedroom, the bathroom. There was something she was missing.

But as she tried to sleep one night, two details jumped out at her. An ancestor, Clory Mundy, had two biracial daughters whose last names were Overton.


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And there was a white man named Dudley W. Overton living next door to Mundy.

In that instant, Wilson-Kleekamp abandoned sleep. She got up from bed, brushed her teeth, made her way to her office and spent the rest of the night on the Internet learning everything she could about the neighbor, Dudley Overton.

Every year, millions of people undertake the monumental task of researching their genealogy. Anastasia Tyler, public relations manager for, said genealogy is the most popular online hobby.

But for blacks, researching genealogy is more complex. Despite the great leaps in the availability of data that came with the Internet, records often remain hard to come by, and family names and spellings often change with relocation. In the generations following emancipation, many black families became scattered. Today, a researcher trying to trace his or her family roots might be far removed from the region where vital records might be found, and they’re not always available online.

The era of slavery is another major obstacle black researchers must overcome. Their families were owned and listed as property, which means they are listed in wills among the silverware and sheep and cows. To add to the complications, tracing a pre-emancipation line often means tracing two families: that of the slave and of the owner.

“There are many myths surrounding African-American family history, such as black family history is impossible,” Tyler said. “African-Americans can discover the stories of their ancestors — and many African-Americans have found their roots pre-Civil War and even back to Africa.”

People explore family history for many reasons. Some simply hope to learn more about their heritage or whether they’re descended from someone famous. Others want to make pilgrimages to ancestral homelands or to organize family reunions. Regardless of aim, intrigue drives the search.

The three stories that follow are no exceptions.

Wilson-Kleekamp, 43, originally wanted to help her son fill in the branches of a family tree for a school project. Now, genealogy is her passion.

Her cousin, Marc Cobb, 52, wanted to bring his father’s family back together.

Her friend and possible relative, Linda Palmer, 60, needed to know where she came from.

For genealogists, there is no promise of success. But on those rare occasions when they find that missing shred of evidence — when history is revealed in an instant, when unanticipated bonds of friendship and family form, they know their efforts are worthwhile.

Traci Wilson-Kleekamp, Columbia

She probably should have been a detective or an FBI agent. That’s what her dad tells her.

Wilson-Kleekamp was born in Albuquerque, N.M., on Kirtland Air Force Base. A well-known neighborhood and civic activist, she has lived in Columbia for the past four years and works as a part-time researcher and substitute teacher.

In the 10 years she’s been tracing her genealogy, Wilson-Kleekamp has become an expert at unraveling the mysteries of family trees. She has committed at least a hundred names to memory. Get her talking where she’s within reach of a pen and paper, and there’s a good chance she’ll scratch out the connections with a black Sharpie right there before your eyes.

But she’ll be the first to admit that she wasn’t always so knowledgeable. In fact, in the early days, there were too many gaps to count.

Those gaps really hit home after her son Ian, now 17, brought home an assignment from school.

“It was a class project for his second-grade class,” Wilson-Kleekamp said. “It was simple: Fill in the family tree. I thought it would be easy. But when I started asking my family, everyone wasn’t so sure who was who. Some families are very good about passing things down. In my family, that didn’t happen.”

With little to go on, Wilson-Kleekamp hit the Internet in hopes of finding information that would help her in her search, but she was surprised to learn there were really no resources for black families researching genealogy.

Since then, she says, the Internet has changed dramatically. Along with genealogy Web sites, researchers now have access to census records, newspaper articles, databases that search special collections and manuscript archives.

In February, Wilson-Kleekamp worked with Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan to create a series of presentations called “African-American Genealogy: Putting Together Pieces of Your Past.” The five-part series lists many Web sites and gives advice on how to track down information on the Web and what to do with the information gathered.

Over the years, Wilson-Kleekamp has amassed thousands of pieces of paper. The large file cabinet in her office is jam-packed. Open her closet across the room and the scene is similar: three plastic tubs filled with documents.

Tidy stacks of paper around her desk represent the individual “packs” of families Wilson-Kleekamp is exploring. A few might find their way into the kitchen.

Wilson-Kleekamp has developed a specific approach to her cases. First, she concentrates on getting documents: birth and death records, census information, obituaries. Then, she tries to fill the gaps.

But anything before 1870 is hard to come by.

“The census of 1870 was the first one where black people were numerated as people, not property,” Wilson-Kleekamp said. “Anything before that, and you are dealing with slavery.”

When searching for needles in the old, dusty haystacks of courthouse records, Wilson-Kleekamp relies on her instincts. But she also has little rituals that help her along the way.

“On my way to the State Archives in Jefferson City, Missouri, I love to stop at McDonald’s in Ashland and have chicken nuggets, fries and a cheeseburger,” Wilson-Kleekamp said. “Not the healthiest choice, I know, but I get excited and motivated about my research plans for the day. I usually say a little prayer and ask the ‘dead folks’ to come on out when I get to the state archives or the courthouse — so they can be ‘found.’”

Wilson-Kleekamp has visited courthouses in Audrain, Boone, Callaway, Cooper, Howard, Morgan, Moniteau, Pettis, Saline and St. Louis counties. There are a variety of records available to her, and she uses everything she can. The answers to her questions often lie in marriage records, wills, circuit court files, land deeds, mortgages and maps.

Many of the records are held in large books, which can often prove unwieldy when it comes time to make copies. She needs ladders to access the higher bookshelves. She has to read indexes closely, and she spends hours poring over microfilm.

“It is very tedious and time-consuming,” Wilson-Kleekamp said.

She has become deft at decoding euphemisms. On one courthouse visit, she saw deeds labeled “land and personal property” and figured that was code for slavery. She was right.

“Slavery is asking about personal property,” Wilson-Kleekamp said. “Understanding slavery is more than the slavery part of it. It’s also about understanding what documents are available to me.”

But it wasn’t always easy to reconcile the slavery part.

One of the first people Wilson-Kleekamp corresponded with after beginning her family research was Ann Siler, a descendant of the men and women who owned her ancestors. Siler sent Wilson-Kleekamp an old will that referenced a lawsuit that took place in Morgan County. The children of Jacob Chism were suing each other over their one-eighth shares of two slaves, Emperor and Tom, in 1858.

“I remember my face was on fire. It bothered me so much,” Wilson-Kleekamp said. “It was late at night, and I felt depressed. I remember thinking: ‘What is this hobby that I’ve started?’”

She put away the will for a few weeks. When she took it out again, she made notes on it; she transcribed it. But she became upset if she thought too hard about it.

“Now it’s just all part of the deal,” Wilson-Kleekamp said. “I would not be successful in what I do if I let my emotions get to me.”

Success has definitely come to Wilson-Kleekamp. Not only has she been able to amass information about her family, but she was able to bring families descended from Bunceton slaves together for a reunion last summer.

Having gathered reams of documents on her family that date back to the late 1700s and early 1800s, Wilson-Kleekamp hopes to record her findings in writing projects and books. But that will take some work. Her project for now remains loosely organized, but she’s happy with it nonetheless.

“Even if I have to put this together and it’s all raggedy,” Wilson-Kleekamp said, “it’s better than having nothing.”

As if her own family history weren’t enough to keep her occupied, Wilson-Kleekamp also hires herself out as a researcher to clients who have hit roadblocks. She’s had her own share of dead ends, but her curiosity and deep-rooted commitment to her ancestors has always driven her forward.

Clory Mundy, Wilson-Kleekamp’s great-great-great-great grandmother — the one whose life story had kept her awake at night — was no different.

Mundy was living in Lewis County in 1870, according to the census. She was 52 and blind, living next door to Dudley Overton with her two biracial daughters, Nancy, 15, and Virginia, 11. They both carried the surname Overton. When Nancy died at 56 in Quincy, Ill., her death record listed “Dud Overton” as her father. Mystery solved.

Yet that’s only a piece of the complex puzzle that is Wilson-Kleekamp’s family tree. Her ancestors have ties to Morgan, Moniteau, Callaway, Howard, Pettis, Adair, Knox, Marion, Lewis, Jackson, Boone, Cooper, Buchanan and St. Louis counties.

“I have learned that people in my family were very industrious and hard working,” Wilson-Kleekamp said. “Some owned their own business; some were teachers, carpenters and land owners.”

It’s hard to find detailed history on any one person through the census and wills. Civil War pension files and emancipation records rely on interviews with witnesses. Those sorts of documents often bring specific personal information to light.

“The probate of Weeden Spenny in Cooper County, Missouri, mentioned that a slave, Lucy, and child, Gus, had run away,” Wilson-Kleekamp said. “Later, I discovered Gus had taken the name of Joplin and inherited several thousand dollars from George Buchanan of Cooper County, Missouri.

“Sometimes records give you important small details that help solve riddles later in your research. I’ve learned one little missing link can put everything off,” Wilson-Kleekamp said. “But one little piece can set everything right.”

Marc Cobb, Phoenix

It was Sunday gatherings at his grandmother’s house in Quincy, Ill., that fostered Cobb’s love for family as a child. After church, his aunts and uncles would get together to talk and watch the evening news before dinner.

The menu varied with the season. Cobb’s father and uncle would go hunt or fish, then stock the freezer with whatever they got. Fish. Chicken. Rabbit. Duck. Deer.

After supper, Cobb remembers, his grandfather would sit on the porch, talking with a cigar poking out from the corner of his mouth.

“Everyone has fond memories of him,” Cobb said. “He was well-liked.”

Eugene Wilson Cobb was a jack-of-all-trades, a real handyman. In addition to hiring out his skills, he built his own house, dug his own basement and fixed his own roof. He taught his sons to do the same.

After growing up so close to family, it’s easy to see how Marc Cobb became frustrated as an adult, after his family had scattered to California, Arizona, Chicago and Kansas. It seemed that funerals were the only times the family came together anymore.

After Cobb’s mother Connie died in 1999, he was determined to change that. Before her death, Cobb had been working with Connie and some of her relatives to nail down a family tree. He decided to try the same approach with his dad’s family.

“That’s when things got complicated,” Cobb said.

It turns out that very little was known about the grandfather that had made such an impression on Cobb in childhood.

“As far as records are concerned, his life stopped when he got married,” Cobb said. “I was able to trace him through my grandmother’s side by asking my relatives. I found out that he lived in Missouri for a while. But the records only showed that he lived and died in Quincy.”

To compound his frustration, Cobb also lived in Phoenix, working at his Internet advertising company, which was far removed from the records that he needed. He tried working online but found that many records had not yet been digitized.

“The records aren’t kept up well when it comes to black people. I don’t think it is discrimination or anything, it’s just the way things are,” Cobb said. “For example, for a death as early as 70 years ago, you can’t find online. To me, it was very disappointing.”

Eventually, after working with a cousin he found online, Cobb was able to fill some specifics of his grandfather’s life and relatives, and he also learned more about the dynamics of black communities that he had not known before.

“I guess in those days, black people migrated in groups,” Cobb said. “A whole group would migrate, settle down together and build their own town.”

Cobb feels most rewarded by the opportunity to bring his family back together.

“This has been a time of healing,” Cobb said. “By going back into family history, it gets people talking again. People are trying to get the stories straight.”

In 2000, Cobb organized a family reunion in Springfield. Now, they hold the reunions every other year, drawing 25 to 30 people to small towns where they can camp, fish and bowl. One night of each reunion is set aside for “family night.”

“My research has really been a way for me to repay my aunts and my uncles,” Cobb said. “It has really brought people together again.”

Cobb can trace his family back four generations to the late 1800s.

Along the way, he’s discovered the determination of his ancestors to do what they wanted ­— on their own terms. Whether it was an uncle who drove race cars, an aunt who sang opera and was featured on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson,” or an ancestor who opened his own barber shop then turned it into a Chinese shop when he grew tired of cutting hair, Cobb’s ancestors followed their passions.

“I guess when you look back, when people in my family had a mind to do something, they did it. As a young black kid, it was good to know,” Cobb said.

As he fills in the birth and death dates, marriages and accomplishments of his ancestors, Cobb moves closer to his goal of further understanding the man he has become and the choices he has made in his own life.

“I guess I want to understand my drive to own my own business. My grandfather built his own house and hired himself out. Maybe that was the best he could do to have his own sort of business,” Cobb said. “It’s all about understanding a little more about what drives me. It doesn’t put any more money in my pocket, it just helps you understand things better.”

Linda Palmer, Los Angeles

Alex Haley’s miniseries “Roots” inspired Palmer to start researching her genealogy in the late 1970s. Palmer grew up in Columbia and moved to Los Angeles in 1976, where she worked as an administrative clerk for GTE/Verizon before she retired in 2003. In the decades before computers and the advent of the Internet, Palmer talked to family members to find the information she needed to get started.

Her first major roadblock was a lack of information about her great-grandfather. Her maternal grandmother offered little. For nearly a decade, Palmer only knew that her great-grandfather’s name was Emery, that he had a brother named Charles and that they died within two weeks of each other.

“There is just a time when you know that there is nothing that is going to come soon. So you put it away for a while and come back to it. I kept picking at it,” Palmer said. “You push it to the back, hope for the best and expect the worst.”

Once a month for 10 years, Palmer would pull out the file she hoped to fill and start again, slowly trying to inch toward progress.

But in 1989, Palmer was forced to put her research on hold after she became the legal guardian for her father. For five years, her work was tucked neatly away inside a file cabinet. It wasn’t until her dad had died that she came across her files again while she was going through his papers.

“Once you are set on finding somebody, it just kind of escalates,” Palmer said. “I just go with the flow.”

By 1994, Palmer had started to take advantage of the Internet. She found a message board where she could post her desire to find information on her “elusive great-grandfather.” About a week after her first post, a woman named Dell agreed to pull records at a Chicago library for Palmer.

As 1994 was coming to a close, Palmer learned that Dell had found a directory that held two men who had been born in Missouri, Charles and Jack Hardiman. Besides birth location, the directory listed race. Palmer knew she was looking for Charles but was puzzled by Jack.

Meanwhile, Palmer was still asking relatives for any information they had, trying desperately to close a file that had been open for a decade. A breakthrough came when an older relative explained to her that Emery’s wife didn’t like his name. He went by Jack after he married.

Having located two men that fit the build of her relatives, Palmer found death certificates for the two men. She could have the documents sent to her for $10.

After a decade of waiting, she didn’t even hesitate.

“I knew that if I didn’t pull it, I would always wonder,” Palmer said.

It was New Year’s Eve 1994 when Palmer received the large envelope in the mail. She was cooking black-eyed peas, listening to music and enjoying the company of her son’s family that day. The windows were open in the house to take advantage of the nice weather, so Palmer heard the mail drop when it came early in the afternoon.

“Calm down, Linda,” she said. “Calm down.”

She retrieved the envelope from the mailbox, walked back in her house, sat down in the living room and began to carefully tear open the corner. She took her time. She kept telling herself not to get excited, that this probably wasn’t what she was looking for.

But parents’ names were all the confirmation she needed. The decade of searching was over. All that remained were happy tears.

“It had been dark for a long time,” Palmer said. “Now it was light.”

Palmer insists it was neither determination nor drive that brought her greatest find. It was just simply the right time.

“He was just being elusive,” Palmer said of her great-grandfather. “There are just some things that don’t want to be found. When I found that, I’m sure he was ready for me to stop hounding him and just get it over with.”

Since then, Palmer has expanded the breadth of her research. She started by focusing on two families, the Hardimans and the Rogers, but now she’s sifting through eight.

“They started coming out of the woodwork,” Palmer said. “The more I found, the more there was to find.”

Palmer’s research has afforded her insight into her ancestors’ lives. And from what she’s found, they did whatever they had to do to ensure a good life for their families.

“They were all resourceful,” Palmer said. “They had to do menial jobs just to survive.”

Many of the women farmed and did other people’s wash or ironing and cleaning. The men farmed and worked as hire hands.

The bulk of her families are concentrated in Boone and Platte counties, but Palmer is also interested in some branches of her family that moved to Texas and Illinois. After scouring the Internet, she’s been able to find city Web sites where she can see many digitized records without having to make travel arrangements.

An early riser, Palmer enjoys days when she can wake up, get her house clean and then tinker at the computer for any clues she can dig up. Often times, what starts out as a few hours of work can turn into an all-day or all-night quest.

“I’ll get up to use the restroom, stretch my legs, and fix food or drink,” Palmer said. “But I could sit there just about all day if there is something I’m looking for.

“I like the anticipation, the chase. I like the outcome and the finds,” Palmer said. “You have to know where you’ve been to know where you’re going.”


In the beginning, the goals of Wilson-Kleekamp, Cobb and Palmer were simply to find family members of the past. But ultimately, they found distant relatives all over the nation.

The Internet was among their primary tools. In addition to allowing access to databases, the Internet also serves the genealogist by putting him or her in touch with other people who are hitting the same road blocks. Although the presence on the other end of the computer connection is appreciated, it often remains faceless, or even nameless.

Sometimes, though, nature interferes.

In the case of Palmer and Wilson-Kleekamp, it was a thunderstorm. The two women were conversing online when the weather took a nasty turn.

“I have to leave,” Palmer typed. “There is a bad storm.”

As she was preparing to sign off, Wilson-Kleekamp’s reply flashed on the screen.

“Me, too.”

After some follow-up questions, they learned that they lived only an hour apart: Palmer in Los Angeles and Wilson-Kleekamp in Long Beach. They began meeting to do research together, hitting libraries and courthouses in search of documents to verify the family cases they were building. Over time, they learned they were looking at the same families.

When Wilson-Kleekamp and her family relocated to Columbia, she was now in close proximity to the courthouses and libraries that were so vital to the research.

Now, Wilson-Kleekamp and Palmer exchange information year round. Every summer, Palmer comes to Missouri so the two can continue researching.

“Part of our thing is getting out a map and picking what we’ll see,” Wilson-Kleekamp said.

In May, Palmer and Wilson-Kleekamp traveled to Bunceton to attend a basket dinner and to place flowers on the graves of their relatives. They both have family buried in Sunset Hills, a black cemetery maintained by Mt. Zion Baptist Church. Among the burials are members of the Crump, Miles and Wilson branches of Wilson-Kleekamp’s family tree and some members of the Hardiman family from Palmer’s family tree.

Although the two women have not yet found the ancestor that links them, they both are certain it’s a matter of when, not if.

“We call each other ‘cuz,’” Palmer said. “We keep circling around the same family, the same town. I know we are related somewhere.”

Wilson-Kleekamp also found her cousin Cobb through the Internet after she found out he had been chatting with her father online.

“We both had family Web sites,” Cobb said. “For some reason, we both discovered we were looking for the same things.”

Finding distant relations, or people who are interested in the same families, is important to researchers. There are more eyes to pore over documents and offer fresh perspectives.

“The exchange is very valuable. It cuts down on time and research,” Cobb said. “It either gives you a basis to springboard or validates what you already have.”

And as much as research is dependent on the researcher, a little teamwork can go a long way.

“Everyone contributes to what I learn,” Wilson-Kleekamp said. “We help each other solve the mysteries.”

The drive to uncover

Despite setbacks and roadblocks, the researchers have been able to uncover parts of each family’s past.

Eight years of research has allowed Cobb to trace his family back to the late 1800s and early 1900s. He also has collected four generations of family photographs.

But it’s the future he’s concerned about. Cobb has lofty goals.

“More than anything, I would love to go over to Africa and find my roots there,” Cobb said. “I also am trying to find more family. I know they are out there, it is just no one has taken the chance to find them.”

Palmer is shoring up her research and gathering all her threads back to 1870 before entering more deeply into the times of slavery.

“Anything past that will be a whole new ball game,” she said. She prepares by taking on one piece at a time. She already knows the names of some of the owners of her family. The rest will follow.

“This is my task. It’s long and drawn out and time-consuming,” Palmer said. “Someone may have to carry on, but I never want to stop completely.”

Wilson-Kleekamp is the furthest along of the three. She continues to drive head-on into the tangled mass of her ancestry. Many family members are nameless and lost to time for now, but they’re waiting to be found and remembered.

Her current project centers around a group of slave owners and the 100 slaves they owned in mid-Missouri. While the owners’ names are known, those of 95 slaves are not. She vows to change that.

“I’m seeing some naming patterns and am focusing on those,” Wilson-Kleekamp said. “I have a keen sense of wanting to know, a whole curiosity. I can stay up all night for days in a row if there is a mystery to solve.”

The journey hasn’t been easy, but every inch of ground gained is a victory. And through it all — the obstacles, the tears, the frustration, the waiting — Wilson-Kleekamp, Cobb and Palmer have found hope. They’ve found family.

And most of all, they’ve found each other.

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