Hello there, welcome to the 2nd edition of Voices of Genealogy. This is the 10th interview of the Voices of Genealogy series. This season we are expanding past professional genealogists and showcasing some other careers within genealogy and also some #GenZGenealogists.
A little about Olivia…
Olivia Dorsey Peacock is the creator of DigitalBlackHistory.com. She is a self proclaimed digital historian. She holds B.S. and M.S. degrees in Information Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, with a minor in African American Studies. She also has a YouTube series entitled GenTech for beginners using technology in their family history journey.
How did you get into genealogy? Did you do it by yourself or did someone help you? I got interested in my family history at a young age. My grandparents kept memory books and hung old photos on the walls of their home, which prompted me to ask questions about the people I didn’t recognize. One day, my mom gave me an incomplete family tree from a previous family reunion. I spent hours trying to visualize who these people were. It just fascinated me that they existed before I was even a thought. I wanted to know more about what they were like. Then I started wondering about the people who weren’t on the tree. How could I find them? I mostly did the research by myself, doing rudimentary things like searching online. But I also spent a lot of time talking to my living relatives, asking them about the people on the tree and encouraging them to tell me stories.
What was it like being a young genealogist in the 2000s? Did you meet anyone your age at the time who also was interested in family history research?
I actually still feel like I am a young genealogist! When I first started, I didn’t meet anyone around my age who was interested in genealogy. Family members in my generation thought that the family history was boring and couldn’t understand why I kept wanting to chat with the older folks. Even though I told them that the history was quite the opposite! Relatives in the older generations had mixed reactions—either they were excited that I was so interested or they too found it uninteresting.
These days, more people in my age group are interested, but I’m still often one of the few young genealogists at events.
How do you think genealogy research has changed since you started back in the 2000s?
Back when I started over a decade ago, I only knew of a few online sources for finding information, namely Ancestry and AfriGeneas. These days, there are so many websites online for exploring records. Not to mention, there are a bunch of ways to connect with genealogists all over the world, whether you’re using social media or participating in a training. The professional development opportunities are abundant, especially with the proliferation of virtual webinars.
What were the challenges of searching for family back then? How did you do your research with limited technical or less access to information?
What was challenging for me was finding resources other than the Internet for information. I’d use sources like Ancestry or just flat-out Googling for information—terrible, I know! I didn’t know how to do the research properly back then. Even beyond that, I couldn’t travel to libraries or archives because I was so young. I think another angle that doesn’t get talked about is the gatekeeping that happens when you’re young. As a pre-teen, I would ask aunts about older relatives who had passed on and often, they would tell me I was “too young to know.” It wasn’t until I was older that they would open up and tell me about certain family events and tragedies. As a young Black girl, I had the added difficulty of tracing my enslaved ancestors. Although I had some names and sparse dates from the “Brick Wall” generation, I didn’t know as much about them as other ancestors. There also weren’t any living relatives I could talk to about those individuals. As a beginner genealogist, I was often frustrated because I didn’t know how to find out more about them. I would rely on things I found on the internet or on interviews I had conducted with my relatives. I didn’t know how to validate what I found or how to figure out where to go next. I mostly relied on family interviews or putting names to faces in photographs.
How has Digital Black History aided you in your own family history journey?
By searching for projects to add to the website, I’ve been able to have a greater understanding of all of the digital humanities projects that are out there and that focus on Black history. A few projects have helped me add context to my ancestors’ experiences, whether through oral histories or local resources that others are sharing.
Given the communal nature of contributions to digitalblackhistory.com, has this had a positive impact on your networking and making new connections and opportunities within the genealogy world?
Oh, yes! I’ve met folks simply because they heard about Digital Black History. I’ve also presented on the project at a couple of events. Others have reached out for me to include their project on the website.
What are 3 pieces of advice you have for young people who are starting their family history journey?
1. Don’t get caught up in the enthusiasm! It’s easy to get excited about finding names, but make sure that you have a good understanding of the sources you need to evaluate to do the work correctly. Read, listen to webinars, participate in local genealogy groups, and connect with those in the field so you can make friends and learn from them.
2. Be patient with yourself. There were times when had to put the research away for months or even years because life got in the way. Honestly, it still happens for me occasionally. And that’s okay! Sometimes as a younger genealogist, you may feel like you won’t ever get to that breakthrough or become an expert because you don’t have as much time as others. But if you can learn and research when you can, you will get there.
3. Focus. It’s okay if you spend a long time on an individual or family or branch. Take the time you need to find your people and to verify what you find.
What are some new and exciting things that are happening or upcoming in the GenTech space?
This isn’t unique to the GenTech space, but there is a lot of buzz around artificial intelligence and machine learning. We’ve already seen some of this with the release of the Seton Shields Genealogical Grant. MyHeritage’s Deep Nostalgia tool, which lets you re-animate photos of your ancestors.
The tool is based on DeOldify, which uses a machine learning technique called deep learning. This tool is also the basis for other tools on MyHeritage that colorize and restore old photos.
While it’s fascinating to see what technologies like this can do, it’s important to talk about the implications of using these tools. What does it mean to apply these tools to historical photos? What historical context is removed or added as a result? What does it mean when we apply these algorithms to photos of people of color?
Can you speak on your journey to find funding for Digital Black History and what that journey was like?
It’s actually been interesting finding funding for Digital Black History. I run the project as an independent researcher who isn’t affiliated with any institution, so it’s a little harder to find relevant funding opportunities. I didn’t find many funding resources when I initially launched the project, so I was prepared to fund it completely by myself. I was delighted to find out about the Seton Shields Genealogical Grant and was so thankful to receive it last year! But until I find additional grants, I’ll continue to rely on my own funds to keep it online.
Why is family history important to you?
Family history to me is a way to respect those who came before me. Their lives, their struggles, and successes all meant something. More than that, they were important to their loved ones. Not telling my ancestors’ stories does them a disservice.
Researching family history is especially important for Black families. For so long, my people have been told that we didn’t have a history. The evidence of our ancestors’ experiences and the receipts of the research say the exact opposite. I want Black people to see themselves and their families in that history. Learning about how history shaped the lives of my ancestors makes that history real to my family and I know it can make it real to others too.
What’s an interesting fact you have learned during your research for your own family?
My 2x great grandmother was a midwife, just like her grandmother before her. She helped deliver many babies in Macon County, North Carolina and worked in this trade well into her 60s.
If you wish to keep up with Olivia and her projects please check out the links below:
Digital Black History GenTech Franklin Memories Social Media: Twitter