Roots for Kids


I don't know if people need genealogical roots, but all people need to belong.

-- Phebe Jacobsen, Senior Archivist, Maryland State Archives

Alex Haley, Phebe Jacobsen, and State Archivist Edward C. Papenfuse examining newspapers at the Maryland State ArchivesFrom his childhood in Henning, Tennessee, Alex Haley heard his elders speak of Kunta Kinte, "the African," captured by slave hunters and taken across the sea to a port called "Naplis." After his retirement from the U.S. Navy in 1959, Haley's began to write articles that appeared in popular magazines and worked with Malcolm X to write The Autobiography of Malcolm X published in 1964. The remembrances of Haley's own ancestors and their exploits kept intruding, however, and gave him the impetus to begin documenting the stories he had heard.

The quest for sources to illustrate the Roots saga took a number of years. Haley had already found documentation of the ships, including the Lord Ligonier, that had been carrying slaves from the Gambia during the years that Kunte Kinte would have been transported to the United States. In the spring of 1967, Alex Haley arrived in Annapolis searching for confirmation that the slave ship, Lord Ligonier, had docked in Annapolis. Upon his arrival at the old Hall of Records, Haley was directed to Phebe Jacobsen, the Maryland State Archives' senior reference archivist, who carefully listened to his request. In letters to Phebe and in interviews about the book, he often recounted the story of the moment that the Roots saga came together -- the reference to the Lord Ligonier in the Maryland Gazette:

I will never forget long as I live how one morning Phebe lifted up a little 3x5" index card bearing the ship name "Lord Ligonier"... which name I'd last seen in London, then on a listing saying that the ship was sailed from The Gambia, on its way to Annapolis. I will never forget the look on your face when you saw the look in mine. Loved you ever since!

In 1976, Haley's Pulitzer prize-winning novel was finally published. The book has since been published in 37 languages and the resulting television mini-series was viewed by an estimated 130 million people. The popularity of Haley's saga sparked an unprecedented interest in family history, particularly African American genealogy. That popularity was no surprise to Haley. In the Foreword to Ethnic Genealogy: A Research Guide (1983), he wrote: 

Young and old alike find that knowing one's roots, and thus coming better to know who one is, provides a personally rewarding experience. But even more is involved than uncovering a family history, for each discovered United States family history becomes a newly revealed small piece of American history. Stated simply: a nation's history is only the selective histories of all of its people. It is only through an unfolding of the people's histories that a nation's culture can be studied in its fullest meaning.

SOURCE: Extracted from Phebe R. Jacobsen Scrapbook, MSA SC 5304; Alex Haley, Why Do Genealogy?

National History Standards

Materials compiled in this document can be used by educators to fulfill the following National History Standards for Grades K-4:

Topic 1: Living and Working Together in Families  and Communities, Now and Long Ago 

STANDARD 1: Family life now and in the recent past; family life in various places long ago. 

Standard 1A: The student understands family life now and in the recent past; family life in various places long ago.

K-4: Investigate a family history for at least two generations, identifying various members and their connections in order to construct a timeline. (Teachers should help students understand that families are people from whom they receive love and support. Understanding that many students are raised in nontraditional family structures--i.e., single-parent families, foster homes, guardians raising children--teachers must be sensitive and protect family privacy.) [Establish temporal order] 
K-4: From data gathered through family artifacts, photos, and interviews with older relatives and/or other people who play a significant part in a student’s life, draw possible conclusions about roles, jobs, schooling experiences, and other aspects of family life in the recent past. [Draw upon historical and visual data] 

Topic 4: The History of Peoples of Many Cultures Around the World

Standard 7: Selected Attributes and Historical Developments of Various Societies in Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Europe 

Standard 7A: The student understands the cultures and historical developments of selected societies in such places as Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Europe. 

3-4: Investigate the ways historians learn about the past if there are no written records. [Compare records from the past] 

Primary Resources

  1. DESCRIPTION:  Advertisement, announcing arrival of the Lord Ligonier from Africa to Annapolis, MD
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: September 29, 1767
    SOURCE: Maryland Gazette Collection
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  2. DESCRIPTION: Example of marriages recorded in a parish register
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: 1723-1728
    SOURCE: SPECIAL COLLECTIONS (St. Stephen's Church Collection) SC2507, North Sassafras Parish, 1695-1822, 
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  3. DESCRIPTION: Example of a 18th-century recorded will
    SOURCE: PREROGATIVE COURT (Wills) pp. 515-517, Thomas Larimore, Sr. [MSA S 538-30; MdHR 1298-2; 1/11/1/24]
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  4. DESCRIPTION: Example of 18th-century militia appointment
    SOURCE: ADJUTANT GENERAL (Militia Appointments) pp. 49a-49b Stephen Durbin [MSA S 348-1; MdHR 1349; 2/8/3/13]
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  5. DESCRIPTION: Example of entry from Census of 1778
    SOURCE: CHARLES COUNTY COURT (Census of 1778) X 3, pp. 632, 639 John Mudd MSA C 654-1; MdHR 8167-2; 1/7/7/27. 
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  6. DESCRIPTION: Example of entry from Census of Negroes
    SOURCE: TALBOT COUNTY COURT (Census of Negroes) p. 23 MSA C 1841-1; MdHR 10,786; 1/43/3/44
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  7. DESCRIPTION: Example of a 19th-century certificate of freedom
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: 1807-1815
    SOURCE: TALBOT COUNTY COURT (Certificates of Freedom)  MSA C 1843-1; MdHR 10,784; 1/43/3/44
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archive

Family Primary Resources

Students should be encouraged to examine the following family documents that may be found readily in their own homes:

  1. Family Bibles
  2. Photographs and photo albums
  3. Scrapbooks and yearbooks
  4. Newspaper clippings (for family events, obituaries, wedding announcements, etc.)

Additional sources of genealogical information include:

  1. Interviews with relatives
  2. Census returns
  3. Birth and death records
  4. Church records
  5. Newspapers
  6. Land records
  7. Probate records

For genealogical charts, see: 

Additional Media Resources

Genealogy and Family History for Children. From Genwriters.

Maryland State Archives: Guide to History/ Family History Research in Maryland

Additional Instructional Resources

ANCESTORS Teaching Guide. From PBS.

Student Worlds Student Words: Teaching Writing through Folklore

Identifying Sources of Family Information

Cemetery Records. From PBS TeacherSource.

Census Records. From PBS TeacherSource.

Compiled Records. From PBS TeacherSource.

Family Records. From PBS TeacherSource.

Immigration Records. From PBS TeacherSource.

Military Records. From PBS TeacherSource.

Newspapers. From PBS TeacherSource.

Probate Records. From PBS TeacherSource.

Religious Records. From PBS TeacherSource.

Vital Records. From PBS TeacherSource.

Eyewitness to History

Secondary Resources

Current, Richard N. "Fiction as History: A Review Essay" The Journal of Southern History (Feb., 1986): 77-90.

Haley, Alex. Roots: The Saga of an American Family. New York: Delta, 1976.

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Teaching American History in Maryland is a collaborative partnership of the Maryland State Archives and the Center for History Education (CHE), University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), and the following sponsoring school systems: Anne Arundel County Public Schools, Baltimore City Public School System, Baltimore County Public Schools, and Howard County Public Schools.

Other program partners include the Martha Ross Center for Oral History, Maryland Historical Society, State Library Resource Center/Enoch Pratt Free Library, with assistance from the National Archives and Records Administration and the Library of Congress. The program is funded through grants from the U.S. Department of Education.

This document packet was researched and developed by Nancy Bramucci.


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