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A landmark study opens a new possible way for Black Americans to trace their ancestry

EYDER PERALTA, HOST:

Black Americans who try to learn about their heritage often come to a dead end when researching their family trees. That's because few records would've been kept about any ancestors who were enslaved. But advances in DNA analysis may be able to help. WYPR's Scott Maucione reports on a new study that connects unnamed slaves from Maryland to their descendants today.

SCOTT MAUCIONE, BYLINE: In 1979, workers expanding a Maryland highway came across a forgotten cemetery containing the bodies of enslaved people from the 1800s. They lived in what is known as Catoctin Furnace, a former ironworking village. About 30 bodies were exhumed and sent to the Smithsonian Institution for safekeeping. Now a partnership between the Smithsonian, Harvard University, a local historical society and the biotech company 23andMe is using the DNA from those bodies to connect them to possible relatives in the present day. Eadaoin Harney is a population geneticist at 23andMe.

EADAOIN HARNEY: The memory of the Catoctin individuals has been largely forgotten. And the records that do exist about their lives, they are, you know, describing the Catoctin individuals in terms of property.

MAUCIONE: Which meant their stories had largely been lost. To find out more about them, the team extracted DNA from their skeletal remains and compared the samples to 23andMe's database of genetic information made up of millions of direct-to-consumer ancestry tests. In a study that's now published in the journal Science, the researchers found that about 42,000 people who took one of the direct-to-consumer ancestry tests were in some way related to the people buried at Catoctin Furnace. And about 3,000 of those people were what researchers call close relatives.

HARNEY: And that translates most likely to a relationship that's within nine degrees. So these are ninth-degree relatives or closer.

MAUCIONE: Meaning people today would be something like great-great-great-grandchildren or cousins six times removed from the people buried there. The work is a massive breakthrough in genealogy for Black Americans. Many have trouble researching their past because slave owners and traders often did not keep records on people they enslaved.

ELIZABETH COMER: That history has been obfuscated. It's been erased. It's been eliminated from our narrative.

MAUCIONE: Elizabeth Comer is the president of the Catoctin Furnace Historical Society.

COMER: We don't have, you know, any idea who these people were because they're anonymous within the cemetery.

MAUCIONE: 1870 is largely considered a brick wall for Black Americans who are looking to find out more about their ancestors because it's the oldest census where all Black people were counted in the United States. Before that, records were sparse.

DOUG OWSLEY: What this genetic methodology potentially allows you to do is to jump over that brick wall.

MAUCIONE: Doug Owsley is a curator at the Smithsonian.

OWSLEY: It's the-first-of-its-kind analysis to take historical DNA and tie it to really tens of thousands of individuals that are living today and make these connections with individuals who labored at this iron forge in Maryland.

MAUCIONE: Comer says she hopes continued DNA and historical research can find out who the closest 3,000 present-day relatives are and give them a chance to connect with this piece of their past.

COMER: It's their history, and we want people to come to Catoctin, learn about Catoctin and acknowledge the debt that we as the United States have to these skilled African American ironworkers.

MAUCIONE: Her dream is to create an organization where relatives can come together and celebrate their common ancestors.

For NPR News, I'm Scott Maucione in Baltimore.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALE FILLMAN AND KID KIO'S "USELESS BEFORE COFFEE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Maucione