Elston Howard in Yankee Stadium
Arnie Lee/Wikimedia Commons

Dear Professor Gates:

There is a legend in my family that we are related to Elston Howard, the first African American to play for the New York Yankees. Proving this is difficult, and needless to say I have hit a huge wall. Elston’s bio says he was born in 1929 in St. Louis and died in 1980 in New York City. Although family lore says my ancestors were in St. Louis for a time, I have not found any Howard connections to St. Louis and Elston Howard. My Uncle Jimmie, however, was convinced that Elston was a cousin. Can you help, please? —Aaron Howard

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Most families have at least one story about their origins or notable ancestors that gets passed down through the generations. In your family the legend is more recent, since you’ve heard that you may be related to Elston Howard, who, in 1955, was the first African American to play with the New York Yankees. While family stories can be a great starting place for tracing your roots, it is always best to confirm these stories by finding sources—both primary and secondary—about your ancestors and those you believe to be related to you.

Simply put, primary sources are documents that were created at the time of the event. For example, a birth certificate is recorded right after a person was born, so this would be a primary source. Other primary-source types of records include census records, will and probate documents, military records and vital records. A secondary source is something that was recorded or created after the actual event happened, such as a biography, history book or a family story.

To determine whether or not your family legend is true, you can use secondary sources to start your research and then primary sources to find out what is fact and what is fiction. You’ll have to start by researching the ancestry of Elston Howard and then comparing it with records you have for your family.

Trace the Ancestry of Elston Howard

According to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, eight years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major-league baseball, Elston Howard “suited up” as the first black player for the Yankees, in 1955. Prior to signing with the Yankees in 1950, Elston had played for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro League.

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As Ricky Gomez writes for the NBHFM, “During his 12 seasons with New York Yankees, Howard was selected to nine All-Star teams and won four World Series titles and two Gold Glove Awards at catcher—and made Major League Baseball history in 1963 by becoming the first African American to be awarded the American League Most Valuable Player Award.” He died on Dec. 14, 1980, at the age of 51.

As for his origins, Elston was born in St. Louis on Feb. 23, 1929, to Emmaline Webb and Travis Howard. The two were never married, and when Elston was 5 years old, his mother married Wayman Hill and they lived together in St. Louis, where he grew up.

Your family’s legend is that you are related to Elston by your Howard ancestors, since you share a last name, so you’ll want to focus your research on your male ancestors who have the Howard name. When you say you are related to someone, it could be a very close relative, such as a cousin, aunt, uncle; or the relation could be a bit more distant, such as a second or third cousin. Keep this in mind as you search to see if your families are connected.

For instance, if your Uncle Jimmie was, in fact, a first cousin of Elston, the ancestor you two would share would be your great-grandfather. This man would be Elston’s grandfather. In confirming family legends such as yours, it is best to draw a family tree on a piece of paper that shows the possible connection. This will help you recognize which people in the family to focus your research on to help you find a possible common ancestor. If your relationship to Elston is more distant, your common ancestor will be further back in your ancestry.

For example, if your fourth great-grandfather and Elston’s third great-grandfather were the same person, you would be Elston’s fourth cousin once removed. The “once removed” shows that you are in the next generation after Elston. A more detailed explanation for figuring out family relationships can be found at Genealogy.com. There is also a useful tool here that can help you calculate your relationship to someone based on a common ancestor.

Because Elston Howard is such a well-known figure, there are several secondary sources that give us more information about his parents. His wife Arlene’s memoir, Elston and Me: The Story of the First Black Yankee, gives us the most detailed information about his father, Travis Howard. According to the book, Travis was born circa 1898 and grew up in Memphis, Tenn. He later came to Sikeston in Madrid County, Mo., where he worked at a local school and met Emmaline Hill. Arlene writes that Travis and Emmaline never married because Travis’ father was a scholarly man from a well-off family who thought the relationship was inappropriate. The book also states that Travis died in Memphis on Oct. 8, 1988. Using this information, you can begin to search for records of Travis Howard to determine who his father was.

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Since you already have Travis’ death date, looking for a death record or an obituary is a good place to start. We first found a burial record for Travis H. Howard, which shows that he was born on Jan. 15, 1896. Even though the book Elston and Me lists his birth date a few years later, since the name, death date and place match, this is probably a record of Elston’s father. This is a good example of how memoirs and other published sources can have some information that isn’t always correct, so it’s best to check everything using primary sources.

Now that you have a birth date for Travis, you can begin to search census records to see if you can find him living with his parents. The 1900 U.S. census is a great place to start because he would have been about 3 to 4 years old, and this is the only census year that lists a month of birth in addition to the year. We found one census record for a Travis Howard, who was born in January of 1896 in Mississippi, and his race was listed as black. He was living in Panola County, Miss., with his parents, Frank and Frances Howard. Frank was born in Mississippi in May of 1869 and worked as a farmer. This doesn’t quite fit the story that Travis Howard was from a well-off family from Tennessee, but since the date of birth matches, it’s worth looking into this family.

The 1920 U.S. census record for the family shows that they were still living in Panola County. Elston’s father was working as a farm laborer, but he also attended school at the age of 26, meaning that he did have some higher education. By 1930 the family had moved to Memphis in Shelby County, Miss., where Franklin P. Howard worked as a Protestant preacher. Travis was not living with the family at this time, which further supports the story that he was teaching in Sikeston, Mo. Now that you know more about Elston’s family, you can then compare it with the records you have found for your family.

Seek Connections to Your Own Howard Family

If your uncle was a first cousin of Elston Howard, your great-grandfather should also be Frank P. Howard of Mississippi. From the information you shared with us, however, we see that your great-grandfather is actually Charlie Howard, who was born in 1892 in Louisiana. So your uncle was probably not a first cousin of Elston; however, it’s possible that the relationship was a more distant one.

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To find this out, you will want to continue to trace both families back further to see if you can find the common ancestor, or at least a time and a place where these two Howard families were living near each other. We found that Elston’s father was actually from Mississippi, which is closer to your ancestors in Louisiana than St. Louis, where Elston was born.

According to additional information that you sent us, the furthest back you can trace your Howard ancestry is your second great-grandfather, Henry Howard, who was born in February of 1864 in Louisiana. You told us you have heard that your family lived mostly in Butler and Mineral, La., both of which were in the DeSoto Parish.

Because Henry Howard would have been young at the time of the enumeration of the 1870 census, it would be useful to try to find a record of him in that census year. We found one potential record, which shows 5-year-old Henry Howard living with 42-year-old Jessie Howard, born in Africa, and 24-year-old Norah Howard, born in Louisiana. Although this census record does not explicitly list the relationship of these people, records in this year typically list the father first, then the mother, followed by the children (but don’t assume this is always the case).

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We also found an 1880 U.S. census record for this family, still living in DeSoto Parish, but some of the information is different from what was listed on the 1870 census. For example, Norah’s place of birth was listed as Alabama, and Henry was listed as 18 years old instead of 15.

Next you’ll want to try to verify in the 1870 and 1880 U.S. census returns that this is your great-grandfather. To do this, you will want to see if there are any connections to his siblings. For example, did they also move to nearby Natchitoches Parish, La.? Also, since Henry Howard died in 1925, it’s possible that there is a death record for him at the Louisiana Archives. You can first search the online index and then use this information to order a copy of the original record.

Death records can list the parents’ names and occasionally their places of birth. If you can confirm that your third great-grandfather was born in Africa, it seems even less likely that you are related to Elston Howard, unless you can find a branch of the family that moved to Mississippi. If you find that your ancestor is probably not the same Henry Howard of DeSoto Parish, keep searching the 1870 census for other possible records of your ancestor.

Consider DNA Testing

Tracing the ancestry of the two Howard families becomes increasingly difficult as your research enters the pre-Civil War era. Given this, you may also want to consider taking a Y-DNA test to find more information about your paternal ancestors. You can also contact a male descendant of Elston Howard (he had a son named Elston Jr.), or a male descendant of Elston’s father or grandfather, to see if they would be willing to take a Y-DNA test as well. FamilyTreeDNA and Ancestry.com both offer a Y-DNA test.

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Additionally, you could have autosomal DNA testing done to show if you and a direct descendant of Elston Howard share long segments of identical DNA, which would indicate that you share an ancestor in the recent genetic past. FamilyTreeDNA, Ancestry.com and 23andMe all offer this test, too.

As you can see, a lot of time and research is needed to definitively prove or disprove family legend. By using primary sources, documenting each generation and taking DNA tests, you may be able to find out whether there is a connection between these two Howard families.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.

This answer was provided in consultation with Kristin Britanik, a researcher from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, contains more than 300 million searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today.