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Through genetics, researchers track ancestors of unknown enslaved people in Maryland

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Last year, researchers at the genetic testing company 23andMe teamed up with Harvard and Smithsonian historians to analyze the DNA of 27 people who were enslaved near Frederick, Md. before the Civil War. The testing indicates those people could have about 42,000 living relatives. Some of those relatives have been located, and that gives new life to the stories that were lost more than 150 years ago. Scott Maucione with WYPR brings us this story.

SCOTT MAUCIONE, BYLINE: The little girl was maybe 2 or 3 years old when she died, still enslaved at the Catoctin Furnace in Maryland. The site used enslaved workers to create materials like utensils and ammunition through much of the 19th century. When the girl was buried, there was no marker with her name, no indication of family and no real record of the life that she lived. But now, harnessing a vast genetics database, researchers have linked that young girl to a handful of people who still live less than an hour's drive away. One of those people is Vickie Winston.

VICKIE WINSTON: And I just am so thankful that we found out about this little girl, that at least, you know, we can go visit where she used to be.

MAUCIONE: Winston found out she's a relative of the enslaved toddler after taking a 23andMe test and lives in Kearneysville, W.Va., just 40 miles away from the site. Winston says the families wondered about the girl's life and felt for her struggle.

WINSTON: You know, did she have any more relatives that were closer there? It's just overwhelming.

MAUCIONE: Winston's mother, Agnes Jackson, is now 86 years old and is possibly the toddler's closest living relative. It's likely that Jackson's great-great-grandfather was a half-sibling or cousin to the little girl. Eadaoin Harney is a population geneticist at 23andMe.

EADAOIN HARNEY: Agnes shares almost double the amount of DNA than we detected with anybody else who is included in our original study.

MAUCIONE: The partnership between 23andMe and the Catoctin Furnace could change the landscape for understanding the heritage of many Black Americans who descend from enslaved people. Prior to the 1870 census, records of enslaved people were sparse. That means Black Americans searching for their ancestry often can't find reliable documentation before that time.

ELIZABETH COMER: It really is a brick wall of family research and genealogy in the African American community.

MAUCIONE: Elizabeth Comer is the archaeologist at the Catoctin Furnace Historical Society.

COMER: And that brick wall is really incredibly difficult to get over. Last names are, you know, not used. Often in inventories, people are characterized as, you know, 20, enslaved, but no names.

MAUCIONE: DNA projects like those at the Catoctin Furnace are giving Black Americans today a way to break past that wall.

HARNEY: I think that this is really showing how genetics can help us. We can actually use DNA to kind of get beyond that brick wall, get into that black box and find connections that really can't be discovered using documentation alone.

MAUCIONE: The Catoctin Furnace is now trying to create a society for people like Vickie Winston and Agnes Jackson to connect with other living relatives as they become more aware of their shared heritage.

For NPR News, I'm Scott Maucione.

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Scott Maucione
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