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Dear Professor Gates:

I am a sophomore at Clarion University of Pennsylvania. My older sister and I are currently taking a sociology class here at Clarion and we have a project due in March where we have to create a family tree. The only problem is that we do not know our family’s history. My father comes from a family with a bunch of secrets. My father doesn’t even know where my grandfather was born.  

What we do know: My grandfather, William Edward Dale, was born Dec. 9, 1927, and died on Dec. 9, 2010. I know that he lived in Philadelphia for a while. He married my grandmother in April 1957 and he died in Camden, N.J., where he was living for about 40-plus years when he died. His mother’s name was Mattie Jones.

My father and I knew my grandfather, and he was married to my grandmother until he passed away, but he never talked about his family, and physically abandoned my grandmother when my youngest uncle was 9 months, taking all of his truth with him.

 I’ve gotten a subscription to Ancestry.com and was able to find nothing except my grandfather’s death certificate. My father is hurting because he doesn’t know his history, I hurt because I don’t know where I come from and as far as my project is concerned, I fear that I will only be able to go back a couple of generations. I would like to be able to fill out the family tree on my father’s side to at least his parents’ generation.

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 Could you help, or at least point me in the right direction? —Aaricka A. Anderson

If you are having difficulty locating other documentation about your grandfather, it may help to change the way you are searching on Ancestry.com. General searches using an individual’s name and date of birth do not always produce relevant results. Searching specific collections may lead to more results.

Checking Census Record Databases

For example, you know that your grandfather was born in 1927, that he lived in both Philadelphia and Camden, N.J., and that his mother’s name was Mattie Jones. Given his date of birth, he likely was included in the 1930 and 1940 U.S. census records. Searching census records specifically for a William Dale may help you locate him.

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Starting with the 1940 U.S. census, we located a possible match (subscription required to view) for your grandfather. William Dale, an 11-year-old black boy, was living in Camden, Camden, N.J., in 1940.

However, this record is a good example of why it is important to always examine the original record and not rely on the information that was transcribed to Ancestry.com. In this case, the transcription states that William Dale was living in the household of Albert R. Lerris, a 61-year-old white man. However, the original record clearly places them in two separate households.

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Upon examining the original document, you will notice that the record for William Dale is a bit unusual: William is recorded under a line that states, “Following persons live in Block No. 1.” This seems to indicate that the individuals on this page were recorded later than the rest of the households where they were living.

We noted that William Dale was recorded in household No. 193 and at house No. 516, but we had difficulty reading the street name. To determine what streets were in this enumeration district (District 22-37) we used the tool Obtaining Streets Within EDs for the 1940 Census in One Step. Select the state (New Jersey), the city (Camden) and the enumeration district (22-37) and the results will list street names for that district in 1940. Comparing the list to the original copy of the census, we determined that Division Street was most likely the street name where William Dale was residing.

Going back to the original census records on Ancestry.com, you can browse through the rest of the pages in that enumeration district by using the arrows on the bottom of the screen. On Page 20, we located the household where William Dale was living in 1940. The head of household at 516 Division St. (Family Number 193) was Robert Lawrence, a 25-year-old black man born in Pennsylvania. Living in the household with him was his wife, Rebecca Lawrence, and his aunt, Mattie Jones.

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We know that your William Dale’s mother was Mattie Jones, so this is a fit for your family. According to the record, Mattie Jones was 43 years old, born in Washington, and her residence in 1935 was Philadelphia. The record does not state whether this was Washington State or Washington, D.C., but based on the location of the rest of the family members, it is likely Washington, D.C.

You can then search for other records of this family.  We had difficulty locating Mattie Jones in earlier census records; however, you now know that Robert Lawrence was William Dale’s cousin. Based on this, one of Robert Lawrence’s parents likely was a sibling to your Mattie Jones. Searching for more information on Robert Lawrence may lead you to more information on Mattie Jones and William Dale.

We did locate Robert Lawrence living in Philadelphia in 1930 at age 15, using Ancestry.com. According to the record, the head of household, Roland Campbell, was his stepfather, making Roland’s wife, Bertha, the likely mother of Robert Lawrence. We cannot determine from this record alone if Bertha Campbell was the sister to Mattie Jones, but you could explore this idea further. It is also possible that Mattie Jones was the sister to Robert Lawrence’s father, so you should try to find information on the first marriage of Bertha as well. Searching for records on any of the individuals in this family may lead you to more clues in your search.

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Using Social Security Records

Another option to determining your grandfather’s father’s name may be William Dale’s Social Security application (SS-5 application). The Social Security Death Index (via FamilySearch) includes a record for William E. Dale that states he was born Dec. 9, 1927, and died Dec. 9, 2010, in Camden, N.J. It seems likely that this is the death record you located on Ancestry.com for your grandfather.

You could order a copy of his Social Security application, which may include information about his place of birth and his parents. When you submit the form, you will need to include proof of his death (death certificate, obituary, newspaper article or tombstone), otherwise the important information you are looking for, such as his parent’s names, will be removed from the copy you receive.

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An article by Lindsay Fulton on using the Social Security Death Index provides information on ordering an SS-5 application and may be helpful to your search. If you are able to identify his parents on the application, you can begin to work backward from there.

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 co-founder of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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

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This answer was provided in consultation with Meaghan E.H. Siekman, 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.