Old photograph of an African American woman (by Flickr user Okinawa Soba (cc:by))

This story was originally covered by PRI's The Takeaway. For more, listen to the audio above.

"The worst thing that could happen is you inherit a box of images from an ancestor, and you don't know their name, no stories, and they're your relatives, but they're strangers," says filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris. His Digital Diaspora Family Reunion project is helping to uncover the identities of these ancestors and create a platform for African Americans to share their stories.

This community outreach effort has both online and in person components. People can upload pictures to the website to share and discuss them. Harris says, "This website has, in a sense, created a kind of living genealogy, through looking at the history of artifacts that they have around their homes, as they attempt to piece together the narrative of their own diaspora experience."

The project is traveling to different cities, and asking people to bring in their photos and artifacts. The roadshow format "creates a communal journey," says Harris and the most interesting images are used in audience discussions. Harris describes a Harlem roadshow:

We highlighted their photographs and we blew them up to 8 feet by 10 feet, and we had not only them talk about their family photographs, but the audience was able to contribute and read the image. And so there was a dialogue around these family photographs, which are normally very private, but through this project, had become public -- a public source of sharing.

One woman who participated in the project, Bernice Alexander Bennett, started a search for family based on one picture of her grandmother. "I had just an opportunity to not only find her people, but also to trace my grandmother all the way back to slavery -- her family back to slavery, and to meet the slave owners' descendents." Bennett reflects on bringing her findings to the project saying, "When I shared with Thomas the slave papers, and I could show him my great-great-grandfather Andrew being sold for $288, that was amazing."

Bennett speaks to the value of the project:

I really believe ancestors left footprints. I truly believe that they want us to find information, and the information is out there.


"The Takeaway" is a national morning news program, delivering the news and analysis you need to catch up, start your day, and prepare for what's ahead. The show is a co-production of WNYC and PRI, in editorial collaboration with the BBC, The New York Times Radio, and WGBH.

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