Genealogist traces lives and histories of African American families

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Genealogist traces lives and histories of African American families
Photo/Steven Halperson/Tisara Photography Char McCargo Bah said she would like to be remembered for helping people who did not know their history, giving them their past and making their future brighter.
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By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]

Char McCargo Bah did not learn about Alexandria’s Black history until she was 30.

“We were taking this Black history tour, and we get down to Duke Street and [the guide] says, ‘This is the slave pen.’ And I say, ‘What?’” McCargo Bah said. “He said, ‘This is the slave pen.’ I said, ‘Nobody ever told me it was a slave pen here.’ I was really emotional about it, on the street hollering and yelling, ‘Why didn’t you tell me about this?’”

Given that she was born and raised in Parker-Gray, a historically segregated Black community in the city, during the 1950s, it came as quite a shock. She went to Charles Houston Elementary School and had Black teachers, yet nobody had told her about this part of the city’s history?

“I said, ‘Never again will I walk the city I was born in and not know certain things.’ I made it my full-time job to research and study the city,” McCargo Bah said.

McCargo Bah continued to work as a policy writer for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for her full-time job until 2014, but her passion for history, specifically genealogy, came to dominate her life. McCargo Bah now operates her own genealogy business, tracing the histories and lives of the city’s African American residents.

It’s a job that comes with its own set of challenges. Genealogy for African Americans is different than for other demographics due to the history of slavery and slave owners who actively attempted to disrupt families and cut the roots off of family trees. With 41 years of experience, McCargo Bah, who was named a Living Legend of Alexandria in 2014, has become an expert on Alexandria’s Black history and a respected voice in local historical research.

“She really stands out as someone who cares about the city, cares about representation for communities of color in the city and wants to make sure our historical narrative is accurate and that we are telling the story of all of the citizens of Alexandria,” Audrey Davis, director of the Alexandria Black History Museum, said.

For McCargo Bah, the names and faces of 18th and 19th century figures are like those of old friends. Libraries and cemeteries are her home, and the streets of Alexandria are paved not only with brick but with the voices and stories of those who came before.

“Especially for African Americans, there is a lot of pain in our history, but there’s also a lot of joy,” McCargo Bah said. “… I can walk different places and almost feel the past and appreciate the knowledge I have of what was going on during that time. It’s more of an appreciation of the history, the history I did not know as a child but know now, and being able to put it in a positive spin.”

Roots

McCargo Bah was born in Alexandria on Feb. 9, 1957, to Jasper Lee McCargo and Bernice Scott McCargo, who had moved to Alexandria from Halifax, Virginia. Growing up in Parker-Gray, McCargo Bah was aware her community was segregated from the rest of Alexandria, even if she did not always know why.

“Certain places in Alexandria we could not go to, like where the King Street Metro station is,” McCargo Bah recalled. “Under the bridge, we were told not to go under there. We didn’t know why, and one day we decided to explore, and we found out why.”

Early on, she was unaware of not only the city’s Black history but her own family history. She knew her maternal grandmother, to whom she was quite close, and her maternal great-grandmother, who was still alive at the time, but most of her family still lives in Halifax and visits were often short.

After graduating from T.C. Williams High School, now Alexandria City High School, in 1975, McCargo Bah went on to the University of the District Columbia. In college, after reading Alex Haley’s “Roots,” she realized how little she knew about the history of her family and her people. The book, and the 1977 television miniseries adaptation, helped her understand that African Americans could trace their roots and, with that, understand more about themselves. It sparked a passion for history and genealogy that completely changed her life.

“It’s funny how one thing sparks something that can impact a whole lot of people,” McCargo Bah said. “Alex Haley, regardless of whether his book was fact or fiction, it started a movement among many African Americans because especially if you’ve been in this country and your folks have been enslaved, never in the world do you think that you could find your folks – and you can.”

McCargo Bah ended up graduating from UDC with bachelor’s degrees in urban studies and African American studies – and took the necessary steps to make her hobby into a career. She took courses on legal investigation, research and publishing and would later complete the University of Toronto’s advanced genealogy and methodology program.

Family ties

After watching and reading “Roots,” McCargo Bah’s first genealogical project was close to home: She decided to trace her own family’s roots.

“I said, ‘I’m going to get back to Africa,’ and as I was doing the research, it was not important to get back there. It was important to know who you are, who you’re related to,” McCargo Bah said.

She went to the Washingtoniana Collection in the D.C. Public Library and was able to trace her family name back to a Scotch-Irish slave owner. She then combed through the business sections of every city directory she could find, writing down the name and address of every McCargo in the country. After compiling a comprehensive list, she sent out what would be her first family newsletter and an invitation to the inaugural McCargo family reunion.

To her surprise, about 80% of those she contacted responded and agreed to come to the reunion. All of them were from Virginia. The reunion soon expanded beyond just the McCargos to include her mother’s side of the family, drawing close to 190 people. One family member even flew in from Germany, where he was stationed.

The reunion was a hit, and it quickly became an anticipated tradition.

“They were so excited, even to the point where every time they find a McCargo, they’ll email me, ‘Is this a relative of ours?’” McCargo Bah said.

Down to business

According to McCargo Bah, most genealogists enter the field with skills accrued through other professions that help them in their work as a genealogist. In McCargo Bah’s case, her investigative experience from her job as a policy writer for the federal government proved a solid foundation on which to build a decades-spanning career as a genealogist. Her relentless curiosity and deep, engrained knowledge of Alexandria have allowed her to excel.

“I think being inquisitive is the best trait to have if you’re a genealogist, and she leaves no stone unturned,” Davis said.

She started taking pro bono clients in 1990, working primarily on families in Virginia and North Carolina before expanding to other parts of the country. She took on all kinds of cases, from the descendants of enslaved people to people who had been adopted and wanted to find their birth parents.

In every case, the process starts the same way: with records. According to McCargo Bah, the availability of records varies from state to state. In Virginia, vital statistics records – death and birth certificates – have been kept since 1853. That’s typically the best place to start, but for enslaved people, the process is often different. Free African Americans did not appear on the U.S. Census until 1870. Prior to that, slave owners were required to report the birth of the enslaved people on their property, so identifying the slaveowner in question is a necessary step in the investigative process.

But genealogy is about more than archival research, McCargo Bah said. It’s about forming relationships and bonds with the client’s family and collecting stories and oral histories.

“All my clients that I located, all the people that I locate, become family,” McCargo Bah said. “I don’t forget about them. I talk to them during the month – I have over 100 people I talk to every month. … It’s hard for me to separate them from what I do. I just fall in love with them through the process of doing the research.”

The process also requires an understanding of not only history but geography and culture.

“All of my people that I researched who were in the South, if you get invited to their house and if you’re sitting on the sofa and the parlor, you know you’re not gonna get much information,” McCargo Bah said. “You got to get invited to the kitchen table. Once you get invited to the kitchen table, you got it.”

Contrabands and freedmen

One of McCargo Bah’s most notable projects was her work on the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery, in which “contrabands,” those who fled enslavement and were taken in by Union forces during the Civil War, and other freed Black people were buried. McCargo Bah started volunteering with the Friends of Freedmen Cemetery in 1997 before she was recruited by city archeologist Pamela Cressey in 2008 to track the descendants of those buried in the cemetery.

“The Path of Thorns and Roses” by sculptor Mario Chiodo at the Contrabands and Freedmen Memorial Cemetery. (Photo Credit: Cody Mello-Klein)

According to Davis, who worked with her on the project, McCargo Bah was able to find about 1,000 descendant links to a 19th century book of records that contained the names of those buried in the cemetery. McCargo Bah’s work allowed Davis and the city to bring some of the descendants to Alexandria when they opened a memorial on the site in 2014.

“It’s very important that [her work] helps us understand how people lived, and it gives voice to people who are often voiceless during the time they lived,” Davis said. “There are things that sometimes we just wouldn’t know – family connections or where somebody worked in the city – and I think what she’s been able to find out has been very important for us.”

McCargo Bah is currently working on several other high-profile projects, including one for the city that involves finding the relatives of Joseph McCoy and Benjamin Thomas, two young men who were lynched in Alexandria.

Ghosts of the past

Despite the historic import of her work with the city, McCargo Bah always emphasizes the personal value her work offers African American families. By connecting the past and the present and unearthing stories that may have been lost to time, she said genealogy can take history out of the abstract, transforming it into something tangible and real.

The moment when she presents her findings to a client can be emotional, not only for them but for her as well.

“In order to put the past to rest or bury it is to know about it, to study it and take from it to make yourself strong. But if you don’t know, it’s going to constantly keep coming back to haunt you,” McCargo Bah said. “… We should take the time to know who we are and be able to take that to do better, to make ourselves better.”

Sometimes the truth can be painful. McCargo Bah can attest to this personally. In learning about her own family history, she discovered that her great-grandmother had given birth to eight children, the first at the age of 10. All eight of her children were fathered by a white American, who was 40 at the time.

“That was hard for me to process to the point where I put genealogy on the shelf for three months and said I was not going to touch it anymore,” McCargo Bah said.

But after talking with her great-grandmother and learning the truth, she asked herself, “If I put it down, who will tell this story?”

“I went back, dried my eyes and started working,” McCargo Bah said.

At the same time, her work has changed the lives of her clients and even her family. The discovery that her great-greatuncle was a Buffalo Soldier, an African American cavalry unit founded in the aftermath of the Civil War, inspired her brother and several other relatives to honor his memory every year by attending a Buffalo Soldiers’ event wearing uniforms and replicas of their relative’s war medals.

“You don’t have to be running behind heroes that are not related to you,” McCargo Bah said. “You have enough heroes in your own family. You just have to research them and find them. They’re there. Everybody has heroes in their own back yard. They don’t have to go far.”

Listen to a conversation with McCargo Bah on this month’s episode of Speak Easy, the Alexandria Times podcast, available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts on Feb. 23

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