Exploring Modern Genealogy with Kenyatta Berry

Kenyatta Berry profileModern genealogy can conjure up thoughts of DNA and social media. But the field of genealogy is expanding and changing in other ways. In this interview, Kenyatta D. Berry, host of PBS’ Genealogy Roadshow, gives her perspective on where family history is today and where it is going.

Generations Cafe Podcast, Episode 60

You can listen to this episode by clicking the play button below. (You can also listen on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and most other podcast apps.) Length: 37 minutes.

What Is Modern Genealogy?

First thoughts of “modern genealogy” are often toward DNA, Internet research, and other technological advances. This is part of it. Berry sees an increase in using tools from other aspects of our lives to help us do our genealogy work, whether that’s using social media or using technology to make our research more efficient. Technology also helps more people be exposed to and become interested in family history.

The “traditional” ways of providing education and outreach may not be as effective as they once were. As Berry mused, “We as a collective community need to come together and try to figure out what will the next genealogy education piece look like? What will the next conference look like?”

Technology and social media is making genealogy more accessible to more people, but this has set up two camps in the genealogy space: Those who came in through the “traditional” means (genealogy societies, all on-site research, etc.) and those who have come in through DNA or because of exposure to tv shows such as Genealogy Roadshow. Berry thinks that, while professionals seem to be emphasizing what the newer camp is missing in research, she also thinks that many professionals are missing out on opportunities to learn from the newer camp.

“It’s just being open to that change because we suffer just like so many other professionals do in their industry. We suffer from ‘we always did it this way.’ That is our issue. That is our problem. And since we suffer from that, if we continue on that road, then we’re not going to be inviting to those folks who probably have an interest in genealogy, but feel like they’re hitting a virtual brick wall with us because we want to teach them our way instead of learning from them.”

Motivations of Modern Genealogists… Family Historians

Berry noted that many coming into the space don’t call themselves “genealogists,” preferring the term “family historian.”

But it isn’t just a change of name that’s evident. There’s a distinct shift toward learning not just the names of the ancestors and adding another generation to the chart, but learning the experiences and stories of those ancestors.

Berry has experienced that in her research of enslaved ancestors. “It’s really about bringing that person to life, giving them that humanity. Because when you’re researching them, they’re going to be a name on a page with a value attached to them, but they’re human beings and how you really give them that it is by telling their story.”

Researching the Enslaved

Black Americans are finding genealogy to be more accessible than before, thanks to DNA and more records online. However, huge hurdles still exist. Berry thinks there is still work that the genealogy community needs to do:

  • Indexing more Reconstruction-era records, such as continued indexing of the Freedmen’s Bureau records. (Note: some are indexed, but many are not.)
  • Indexing of the names of the enslaved who are listed in wills; because their names are included in the body of the will or in inventories, they do not appear in searches.
  • Improved software genealogy (desktop software as well as online trees) that allows for better connection of the enslaved/enslaver relationship.

What about those who have discovered that their ancestors enslaved others? Berry encourages sharing what you’ve found, in order to help others. “What you have is you’re starting, as I like to say, from ‘the top down’ approach; you have the information I’m looking for. I’m coming from 1940 up to 1870 and somehow we need to meet in the middle, which is my favorite area of Reconstruction.”

Sharing via Facebook, blog posts, or online using projects like Beyond Kin, are all ways that this information can be shared.

Diversity in Genealogy

The genealogy field, for as much as it promotes connections, is not always welcoming to those whose genealogy is not seen as “traditional” (read: “non-European”). There are also hurdles for younger genealogists who are trying to break into speaking or being recognized as experts.

Representation matters. Berry related the story of visiting a society in Sacramento, where a group of African American women hosted her in what became her best genealogy trip ever. She thought perhaps it was because she was on television, but it was something more. “And one of them said, ‘It’s so inspiring to see you because you look like us and you’re younger. And to see you on television is so important, because I remember when a Black person would come on TV, when I was growing up, we’d call each other if they were in a commercial or if they were in some show or whatever.'”

What Berry doesn’t want to see is lip-service to diversity, and she’s taking steps to make sure that doesn’t happen. She has started a diversity group to help professionals and organizations truly become more inclusive. People are arriving at genealogy in all kinds of ways, whether it’s through DNA or genealogy-based tv shows, and they are here to stay. Berry urges professionals and organizations to embrace these changes.

If we really want to take genealogy to the next level, if we really want it to outlast us, we need to actually show people that they are welcome in the community. ~Kenyatta Berry Click to Tweet

Resources Mentioned in This Episode:

[Note: the Amazon links are affiliate links, meaning that I could earn a commission when you purchase through those links.]


Posted: February 28, 2021.

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  • Great interview! You and Kenyatta touched on some of the very issues I have run into on some current client work. Hopefully in time, some of these can challenges can be worked out.

    • Thanks, John. The family tree software issue shouldn’t be that hard to solve. If only the rest were that easy…

  • Thank you for yet another engaging podcast. When it come to wills naming slaves, another possibity to share these would be to add the documents to a profile for the enslaved person on the Family Search collaborative tree.

    • Yes, that’s an option provided you can correctly identify the enslaved person in the FamilySearch tree. That can be a huge challenge in and of itself, which is why it would be wonderful if there were a way to connect the profiles of enslaved people with the slaveholder family for easier identification.

  • Them
    I’m one of them. Why not Us? Just because. I haven’t felt I have the credentials nor a long enough history in genealogy to be an Us. Though I worked in a library and often answered reference questions regarding genealogy it wasn’t until I was retired and did that DNA test that I became interested in my own family history. If I had only known how interesting and fun the research would be, I’d have joined the group long ago. At first I didn’t realize I should be finding my ancestors, not my living relatives. The DNA had me hooked on the living that I did not know. Good thing as I needed these to share information. I joined a genealogy group in which most members had years of research under their belts. They were those that you describe as the on sight researchers. I was more the online researcher. Though everything is not online, I love that I can research the world from home. Still, I see the value of the in person visit. A combination of both techniques seems a good plan. So does a blend of Them and Us.
    Thank you. Enjoyed this segment immensely.