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McClymonds High students learn about their family histories with ancestral research project

on May 24, 2012

Dontarion Layne hopped on stage as the crowd cheered and raised both arms above his head, the McClymonds High School sophomore full of youthful energy. Someone in the crowd of about 60 people yelled, “We love you, Terry!” Without missing a beat he responded, “I know you do, girl!” as the crowd broke into laughter.

Layne then introduced his ancestral history project—a study of his maternal ancestral line—and told the story of his family. “It started off with John in Memphis, and John married Maddie,” Layne said, as his fingers traced the family tree he’d written on a poster display. “Then they had Emma Hazel, which is my great-grandmother.”

On Wednesday afternoon, five students presented ancestral research projects as part of an event entitled “Remembering Our Past, Moving Toward Our Futures.” For three months, students had conducted ancestral research on their families by interviewing relatives and using genealogical search tools with help from volunteers from the African American Geological Society of California (AAGSC). Students even took a DNA test to find out about where their lineage originated.

The McClymonds students participating in the project are a part of Alternatives in Action Culture Keepers, a mentorship program that pairs students from Mack with students from Hoover Elementary. Students from Hoover Elementary also took part in the ancestral history project, as did teenagers from the Alameda County Probation Department Weekend Training Academy, which is an alternative program to detention. The idea is to teach kids about their family history, while also connecting them to their elders and training them on how to use research tools.

At Wednesday’s event, students shared their family histories through video presentations, song, poetry and, like Layne, on poster board, in front of an audience that included their parents, grandparents, teachers, students and other community members. Students also participated in an African dance presentation. The event was sponsored by Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson’s office, and Alternatives in Action, an East Bay nonprofit that organizes youth leadership programs.

Carson came up with the idea for the project, which is in its second year, because he said he recently realized he and a lot of people he knew didn’t know much about their own family lineage. “I thought, ‘Why not start with kids in school to see if we can get them to take this as a project they’d be engaged in?’” Carson said.

Franklin Hysten, the senior director of programs at McClymonds, said he thought the project was important because “so many times, older adults do not have conversations with youth, or connect in a way to converse about something meaningful.”

“Some people today feel that young people are a lost generation,” Hysten said, “and this really provided some meat for the youth and adults to have a conversation about what’s connecting them, the connections between them. You have Dontarion going home and having conversations with his grandparents that he otherwise would not have had, and some of us may not have had even in our twenties or thirties.”

The students began looking into their family histories in February with the help of AAGSC volunteers. Nica Smith, the group’s outreach and education chair, said that to reconstruct the past of a family, the students conducted oral interviews with family members and sought out census information, birth, death and marriage certificates, obituaries, land documents, and newspaper clippings. Students also took field trips to conduct research at the Mormon Church’s Oakland Family Research Center and looked through online ancestry sites.

From those different pieces, students were able to reconstruct much the past of their families, she said. “Just living your everyday life, even if you try to be incognito, you are still leaving these ‘little bitty crumbs,’ I say,” Smith said. “And those crumbs come together to make a big cookie, and that ends up being your family history.”

While the students learned where their relatives came from, and how they came to live in West Oakland, they also learned details about their families that even members from older generations didn’t know much about. Tyisha Stills said she discovered the name of her great-grandfather by looking through old census records. “My nana did not know that,” she said.

During his presentation, Layne shared that both his parents and grandparents met while attending McClymonds, and cracked jokes. (“It doesn’t get any better than me,” he said, indicating his timeline when he stopped at the date of his birth.) After he was finished, he said he was proud to learn about his family’s strong ties to West Oakland, a connection he said he plans to continue.

“To know that it’s a tradition,” he said. “The West Oakland community is small, so everybody pretty much knows everybody. I learned that pretty much everyone in West Oakland back in the day went to this school. I plan on having my kids come here if it’s still up and running.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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