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University Relations

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Jan. 18, 2005
Contact: Mary Jane Dunlap, University Relations, (785) 864-8853.

KU Ph.D. student researches slavery's legacy in African-American families

LAWRENCE -- University of Kansas doctoral candidate Thirkelle Harris Howard is researching a theory that most African-Americans are seventh or eighth cousins for her dissertation in American studies with an emphasis on family history and genealogy.

Howard estimates that about 85 percent to 90 percent of today's African-Americans are descendants of enslaved Africans brought to America between 140 and 385 years ago.

"About 400,000 to 600,000 Africans were brought to America as slaves, although I don't think anyone really knows for sure how many Africans were brought to America, because records were frequently not kept," Howard says. Using census guidelines, Howard estimates that about 200,000 to 300,000 of those slaves had children.

"Most people may have about 150,000 close or distant living relatives," Howard says. Yet because the names and births of slaves often were not recorded, proving relationships of ancestors living before 1865 can be hard to document today.

Howard, who has traced her ancestry to the late 1700s, examines her own family history as an example of how closely related African-Americans are today. Using census records, archives, family Bibles and Internet connections, Howard has found relatives in her family tree with identical surnames living within the same region but is unable to document their relationships without DNA testing.

Previous research indicates that 40 percent to 70 percent of African-Americans have European ancestry, Howard notes. Up to 1920, the census reports distinguished African-Americans as black or mulatto.

"We talk about biracial populations today; however, most African-Americans have mixed-race ancestry," Howard says. "In my case, I am about one-eighth white and about one-quarter Native American." She notes that her own racial mix is not unusual for most African-Americans.

Working on the Internet to search her family history, Howard says, "I found relatives of whom I previously had no knowledge. It is difficult to find descendants of enslaved ancestors because many slave masters did not keep any or accurate records of births of enslaved babies, or of older children, or adults. After the emancipation of slaves in 1865, the 1870 census became the first census to include full names and numbers of persons of the majority of persons of African ancestry in the United States."

Howard's interest in family history began with a class assignment on genealogy as a student at Wichita High School East in the 1960s. Howard, the only black in the class, traced her family through three generations and was amazed that other students listed five to 12 generations in their charts.

" That's when I realized that many black families didn't have the information they needed to trace their histories," she says. "Families didn't talk about slavery; it was so horrible. My mother's parents would send the children outside to avoid talking about slavery in front of children."

When Alex Haley's book "Roots" was published in 1976 and created new interest in genealogy, Howard says, "I read it immediately, but I had already done a lot of the research. It was harder then than now."

Howard, coordinator of multicultural affairs at the Kansas State University College of Human Ecology, is teaching a course this year on American ethnic genealogy. Howard has a bachelor's degree in psychology from Wichita State University and in political science from K-State and a master's degree in public administration from KU.

She and her husband, Clyde Howard, Manhattan, are the parents of two adult children, Shannon and Jarad, both of Overland Park. Thirkelle Harris Howard is the daughter of Irving Harris of Wichita.


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