Making Matches: Linking Documentary and DNA Evidence

November 14, 2105


A panel of four genealogists who have succeeded in finding their ancestors by linking
documentary and DNA evidence: Jonnie Brown, Melvin Collier, Alice Freeman Harris, and James Wray. Each panel member advised that they are not DNA experts. However,
the panel moderator, Shannon Christmas, specializes in genetic genealogy.
The program was the first of its kind, showcasing how to apply genetic genealogy to advance African-American genealogical research. Each panel member presented a real-life case study, where they successfully utilized their family’s DNA test results in conjunction with traditional genealogy research to demolish brick walls and find their ancestors.


DNA Panel (L-R) Melvin Collier, Alice Freeman Harris, Jonnie Brown, Shannon Christmas, Cynthia Baber-Strunk, James Wray

Melvin explained how he used DNA tools and probate records to find his great-great uncle, whom he mistakenly thought had died by 1822. James demonstrated how he used Y-chromosome DNA testing to push his research beyond an 1870 brick wall and ultimately back into the late 1600s. Alice reported on how she marshalled autosomal DNA test results to find her 3rd-great grandparents. Collaborating with a fourth cousin match, using DNA tools, and conducting slave ancestral research to find their common ancestor enabled Alice to extend her family tree back two additional generations.

Jonnie Brown told of how, over 20 years ago, she struggled to confirm oral history and surface other evidence about her great-grandfather, but confirmed the identity of her Confederate great-grandfather in a simple, non-technical way with the help of a second cousin match. Jonnie’s new-found cousin, Cynthia Baber-Strunk, surprised everyone by appearing during the presentation. After receiving a standing ovation, Cynthia, who had flown in from Mississippi, provided her perspective on some of the difficulties African-Americans may encounter while trying to connect with European-American DNA matches, emphasizing the importance of persistence in exploring family roots.

With each case, Shannon added valuable advice, research tips, and answers to questions. Additionally, Melvin met, for the first time, a cousin who traveled from Maryland’s Eastern Shore to Columbia, MD just to attend the program and meet Melvin in person. Members of the standing-room-only audience commented on the inspiration gained from the DNA success stories. By all accounts, the program was a huge success.

Alice Freeman Harris, President of the AAHGS—Central Maryland Chapter, submitted January 5, 2016 [AAHGS NEWS September October_2015 newsletter]


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