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Helping Bermudian families trace their roots

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Kenyatta Berry, genealogist
Professional genealogist Kenyatta Berry (Photograph supplied)
Kenyatta Berry, right, with her late grandmother Mildred Kendrick, centre, and mother Denise Berry, in Detroit, Michigan on Mother's Day 2017 (Photograph supplied)

On May 29, 1907, Norman Butterfield boarded the Pretoria in Hamilton.

It was a big day for the baker from Pembroke who decided, at 21, to leave the island and make his home in the Big Apple.

One hundred and fourteen years later, as Kenyatta Berry prepared a genealogy workshop for the National Museum of Bermuda, his name kept popping up.

“I researched several Bermudians with connections to Bermuda and put together family trees,” she said. “But Norman kept popping up. It almost felt like Norman wanted to be found.”

The American genealogist was ultimately able to link Norman with a Bermudian who signed up for the free virtual workshop she presented on February 17.

More than 200 people took part in what was the start of Tracing Our Roots and Routes, a year-long series of genealogy talks and workshops hosted by the NMB.

Generally Ms Berry’s focus is African American heritage but she says the information in her talk could be used by beginning genealogists anywhere.

Every participant received a genealogy tool kit that contained a starter family tree, interviewing tips and ideas for organising research.

Pro tip: don’t forget to cite your research so you can find your way back to those records later.

Ms Berry also included information on understanding immigration and census records valuable to Bermudian researchers with ancestors like Norman Butterfield.

American census records available on Ancestry.com revealed that by 1930 he was living in Manhattan where he worked as a stevedore for a shipping company and had a wife, Laurie.

It is one of many searches completed by Ms Berry, who started her genealogy journey while in law school.

“I was dating this guy who had an unusual middle name, Dwelle,” the Santa Monica, California resident said. “I was doing torts and contract law so I wanted to take a break. I thought I would look into his family. They were very prominent doctors, lawyers and preachers in the United States in the south.”

It was enough to get her hooked.

Two decades later, she runs a genealogy consulting business and hosts a PBS series, The Genealogy Roadshow.

She said one of the biggest misconceptions is that African Americans cannot trace their heritage back before slavery ended.

“I have been able to trace my ancestry back to my maternal fifth great-grandmother, Mildred Payne born in about 1800 in Virginia,” she said.

Her goal in genealogy is to help others feel the same sense of satisfaction she gained by learning more about her family tree.

“I want people to understand the process,” she said. “I want them to see that it is possible and that their story is a part of American history, and world history. I really spend a lot of time trying to dispel that myth around not being able to find your enslaved ancestors, because you can. They are buried in documents.”

She urged amateur genealogists to interview older people in the family for their stories. One of her biggest regrets is that she never interviewed her own paternal great grandmother Johnnie Lucy Levine Carpenter Berry, who died in 1996 at 104 years old.

“I had just started in genealogy,” Ms Berry said. “I was in law school and in my 20s and just didn’t think of it. I think she would have told me something, if I had asked.”

Her great grandmother’s parents had been slaves.

“When you are doing work on enslaved genealogy, it is different,” she said. “It is a name in a book with a value attached, which is horrific.”

At the University of Mississippi library it is the information that was laid out for her in a plantation book the size of a 3in X 5in index card.

“They set the book in front of me as I was working,” she said. “I held it in my hand. I had chills. The next time I came to the special collections at the University of Mississippi library, I set it out and turned the page so that each person in it had their name read.”

She felt it was important to acknowledge them as human beings and individuals in a way they had not been while they lived.

In 2012, she was president of the Association of Professional Genealogists when she was approached by television producers interested in creating an American version of the popular UK series Genealogy Roadshow.

In the programme professional researchers help ordinary people learn more about their past.

Ms Berry was then working full-time selling computer software.

“When I met with them they said, ‘You should try out for the show,’” she said. “I said, ‘No, I am in technology. I came here to help you hire genealogists.’ I thought, ‘I didn’t come here to be on TV. I moved to Santa Monica for the beach. This is not my thing.’”

But, in the end she was convinced, and has been part of the show since it first aired on PBS in 2013.

The show helped Ms Berry build a fanbase; more than 10,000 people applied to fill 40 spots in the third season. In 2017, she left her software job to devote herself to genealogy full-time.

The following year she published a book, The Family Tree Tool Kit, aimed at beginner and intermediate genealogists.

“In the book I talk about interviewing family members,” she said. “I talk about organising your research. I cover immigration and naturalisation.”

Join Kenyatta Berry, Jane Downing from the National Museum of Bermuda, Ellen Hollis from the Bermuda National Library and Mandellas Lightbourne from the Bermuda Archives at the next virtual lecture from 5.30pm to 6:30pm on March 17. Admission is free. To register, to view a recording of Ms Berry’s talk or to download her tool kit, go to nmb.bm/learn/tracing-our-roots

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Published March 02, 2021 at 9:41 am (Updated March 02, 2021 at 9:41 am)

Helping Bermudian families trace their roots

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