With the advent of modern technology, ancestry sites, and professional genealogists to help guide the process, tracing one’s roots is nearly not as complicated as it may appear. Family historian, research specialist, and genealogist Ruth D. Hunt of Jersey City, New Jersey, has been in the business of helping families explore their backgrounds since 1995. “The work that I do is for my descendants. We all must stand on the shoulders of our ancestors. So, I am standing on the principle that I shall not disgrace my family – my mother, grandmother, great-grandmother. I represent my total family and we all must represent our community.”
The former fashion model who broke the color barrier as the first Black in-house swimsuit model on Seventh Avenue before evolving as a project manager for the Jackie Robinson Foundation and later as a healthcare executive became intrigued with genealogy due to repeatedly being questioned about her ethnicity. “When I started modeling, people in the showroom would ask, ‘What are you? Where are your people from? You’re not all Black.’ Oddly enough, a psychic nailed Ruth’s ethnicity with a simple observation: “You have Native American blood. I can tell by the tone of your voice.” That incredulous revelation prompted Ruth to push even further for answers by confronting her father, who confirmed the family’s heritage as Cherokee along with Scottish, Irish, German, and Sub-Saharan African descent.
“I have researched nine generations of family members which is more than the Cherokee tradition. Cherokee people believe each person is responsible for seven generations – ahead of you and behind you. If you think about that, it determines how we carry ourselves.” This philosophy helped Ruth uncover generations of family, even European and patriots during wartime, dating back to the 1300s!
As astounding as this may sound, it is not impossible to trace one’s roots through several hundreds of years. Intending to find details about her maternal grandmother, Ruth Cansler’s family, the genealogist procured specific information, particularly burial sites, from Hiwassee College in Madisonville, Tennessee. “It was like I stepped into a time machine. I went there looking for my family’s cemetery. Your ancestors are with you when you start doing the work. Their spirits surround you and protect you. While my mother cautioned me to be mindful of snakes in the cemetery, I walked on the grounds and felt no fear. They want our stories told.”
She points out that getting started can be as simple as creating an ancestral sheet to be disseminated among members at family reunions. Documenting births, deaths, marriages, and whatever else is known can often lead to outside connections. The family historian advises contacting libraries where county and state files can be obtained. Granted, the accessibility of record keeping for many Black families was prohibited before the 1870 census, but Ruth maintains persistence is pivotal for cultural preservation. “It has been more than 150 years since the head of Black households was documented for the census. Most times, we can only go back to the 1870s to learn about our backgrounds. But every Black person should be able to actually identify their enslaved ancestors.” She states that the Bible can provide an excellent source for digging into family history. “Back in the day, every Black home had a family Bible. In it was a particular scripture that was marked, a lock of baby hair that was saved, or other keepsakes. I had the good fortune of hanging on to my great grandmother’s Bible that was passed down from generations. That’s how I was able to find out certain family details separate from what the census records indicated.”
While the satisfaction of imparting and sharing critical knowledge to folks attempting to search their roots is gratifying, Ruth’s highest achievement was locating her long-lost half-brother, whom she had never met until 1997. Barry Hunt was born to her father, John W. Hunt, and his white British partner during World War II when interracial marriages were banned. Forced to return to the United States without his son, Ruth’s father never lost hope in seeing him. “I always dreamed of reuniting my father with his son. So, I did everything I could to research Barry. It was hard without cell phones and sophisticated DNA. But I traveled abroad, placed ads in the Southampton newspaper where my father was stationed, and pleaded for help to obtain his birth certificate.” Fortunately, her diligence paid off, and Barry was reached in Wales. Soon after, a glorious reunion of the entire Hunt family transpired stateside, with her 82-year-old father proudly embracing the 53-year-old son he hadn’t seen since six months of age. The tear-shedding moment has made a lasting, permanent imprint on the Hunt family that will never be forgotten.
Presently, Ruth D. Hunt is writing a book on the struggles and triumphs of finding her brother. She also offers workshops on genealogy through her associations, including Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR); Sons and Daughters of the United States Middle Passage (SDUSMP); NJ State Library; Englewood (NJ) Library; Afro-American Historic Genealogical Society (AAHGS); and ROOTSTECH. For additional information on family genealogy, contact RuthDHunt.com.