Kevin and his family at Camp Meeting, c1967. Left to right: Stephen (brother), Zemerie (father), Wendell (brother), Andreá (sister), and Kevin. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Graham)

“Do you want to know from whence you came?” 

This is what Kevin Graham often asks other Black people to stir an interest in tracing their family roots — a task that many find difficult to accomplish.

On Feb. 11, Graham will be a speaker at the upcoming Rewriting the Stolen Stories of the Graham and Shipp Families program hosted by Charlotte Mecklenburg Library. With help from a similar program in Lincoln County, Graham was able to learn more of his family’s history. 

The Rewriting the Stolen Stories program is intended to teach Black people how to use historical tools to trace their family lineage. Attendees will hear from Graham and Archivist of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, Sydney Carroll, on experiences using the tools and how they can utilize them.

An ‘extremely difficult’ task

Researching family roots can be a complicated task for many Black Americans because of the transatlantic slave trade and the dispersal of families — with limited documentation — for generations afterward.

Carroll said that she has had to look in some “unique” places to uncover the roots of Black family trees. Carroll said she used tools such as historical maps, wills and slave schedules, census forms used in the 1850 and 1860 federal census. 

John Sadler, a member and former president of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society ‘s Charlotte chapter (AAHGS) told QCity Metro that tracing the lineage of Black Americans is “extremely difficult.”

Sadler, who researched history and genealogy for 40 years as part of his role in the AAHGS, said finding a plantation ledger is like striking gold for a Black genealogist.  Ledgers, books with logs and records, can help families trace their lineage beyond the 1870 United States Census. However, its rare to find such documents. 

“It’s like catching lightning in a bottle,” Sadler said. 

 1870 Census document. (Photo courtesy of Charlotte Mecklenburg Library)

Sharing the information

Sadler said another way of tracing one’s lineage is through information passed down through generations. Graham used a combination of both documentation and oral history to discover more of his family history. 

At the event, he will speak to participants about his experience uncovering his roots. 

Graham, who is a military and Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s office retiree, described the process of learning his family history as “wonderful.” 

“I can handle the truth,” Graham said. “They had to survive for me to be.” 

Caroll said that the previous event in Lincoln County had about a dozen participants, but the upcoming event at Charlotte Mecklenburg Library has 72 people signed up. She cited Graham going out into the community and inviting people to participate as the reason for the increase in potential attendees. 

Graham reached out to members of his old family church, Ebenezer United Methodist Church, as well as other churches like Hunters Chapel. He also spoke to people from his childhood neighborhood, Smithville, in North Mecklenburg. 

Graham’s great-grandfather, George Graham, was eight years old when he was inherited as property to John Davidson Graham. Graham said it is important to see the “human” side of Black history. 

“My ancestors matter,” Graham said. He added that he wants to be the rule and not the exception when it comes to Black Americans trying to find their roots. 

Graham will be joined by his 8-year-old daughter and his 79-year-old aunt when he speaks at the program to show the significance of multiple generations knowing their roots.

Graham has long wanted to know where he came from and wants to tell his ancestors stories, just as he wants his children to tell his story. 

“I know why I did it,” Graham said. “They have to find why they want to do it.”

The program will be held  on Feb. 11 from 2-4 p.m. in the Wells Fargo Theater at ImaginOn.

Amanda was born and raised in Charlotte and graduated from UNC Charlotte with a Bachelor’s in Communications and English. She covers Mecklenburg County. Reach her at

Join the Conversation


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *