By Larisa Robinson, Destiny Shelton and Katherine Coates
Capital News Service
RICHMOND — Vonda Robinson, an African-American senior citizen, sat down at a computer, opened a Web browser and typed “ancestry.com” into the address bar. She was hoping to find information about her family’s past. But she hesitated when the subscription-based website asked her for credit-card and other personal information.
“I tried to get in, but then I saw that there’s a 14-day free trial period before you have to pay. I don’t like that,” Robinson said. “I also don’t like that you have to give all of your information.” She fears putting too much personal information on the Internet because you never know who might get hold of it.
The Virginia Historical Society and Dominion Resources Inc. have come up with a system similar to Ancestry.com that gives people access to their genealogy without compromising their privacy or paying fees.
“Unknown No Longer: A Database of Virginia Slave Names” is a free, online database that will take information from the historical society’s collections to provide personal facts about enslaved Virginians.
Although the information will benefit mostly people of African-American descent, anyone is welcome to use the site. Those working on the database, expected to be accessible this fall, say it will be unique.
Dr. Lauranett Lee, the historical society’s curator of African-American history, is helping spearhead the project.
“Unlike other databases, this database will get to specific names,” she said.
Lee used Ancestry.com to trace her grandfather to Charlotte County, Va., in the year 1865.
Ancestry.com runs a network of genealogical and historical record websites, sells genealogical software and provides other genealogical services. Still, with records spanning only a few centuries, Ancestry.com covers a shorter time frame than the “Unknown No Longer” project plans to cover.
Moreover, while Ancestry.com covers a broad range of locations, “Unknown No Longer” will focus specifically on Virginia.
“People who have ancestors in Virginia will benefit by looking at our website, because we’re looking through the commonwealth of Virginia and the span of centuries,” Lee said.
The slave names database also will have a simpler interface and be easier to access than similar sites. William Cooper IV, a junior at Old Dominion University, tried to use Ancestry.com and found it confusing.
“I don’t know how to use it, really,” Cooper said. “There’s so much information that it’s hard to figure out what to do, especially if I’m not sure what I’m looking for.”
Jennifer Guild, senior officer of public relations and marketing for the Virginia Historical Society, said people like Vonda Robinson and William Cooper won’t have to worry about revealing personal information or having difficulty accessing the database.
“This database will be accessible from the VHS website,” Guild said. “It will be similar to our current online catalog, where anyone who has Internet access can search our collections using this portal.
“We have no intention of collecting personal information from the users,” Guild added. “It will certainly not be required that anyone has to give us their name and contact information to search the database.”
Guild said researchers would have to give personal information only if they want to buy photocopies of certain documents or leave a message on the database’s message board.
Although the database will be easily accessible, users still have to do some work.
“This is a database that will provide the basic information,” Guild said. “People have to go out and make their own connections and (family) trees afterwards, though.”
Dr. Aashir Nasim of Virginia Commonwealth University has tried to trace his African roots in the past. Using the website AfricanDNA.com, he had his DNA analyzed and found he has ties to Senegal. Nasim, an associate professor in African-American studies and psychology, is excited about the Virginia Historical Society’s upcoming database.
“I think that anything that offers African-Americans a chance to search their genealogical history is a great thing,” Nasim said.
“It’s very important in terms of helping provide closure and instill ethnic pride. I hope that the new database gets highly publicized … and that it’s used as an educational tool as well.”
The educational aspect is one reason Dominion Resources gave the historical society a $100,000 grant to work on the project.
Marjorie Grier, Dominion’s director of corporate philanthropy, noted that the database will promote diversity – and that helped win the company’s financial support.
“The database is consistent with our interest in supporting diversity initiatives,” Grier said.
She said that in 2010, Dominion awarded $1 million in grants for diversity-related projects. The “Unknown No Longer” system is just one of the projects Dominion donated to this year.
“It’s just great to help people trace their ancestry,” Grier said.
People will be able to trace their ancestry through “Unknown No Longer” when the historical society officially launches the database in September. Initially, the searchable database will contain 1,000 names. It will be updated as the society processes more material from its collections.
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