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Cheryl Wills

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The Ghosts of America's Past Speak

Posted: 09/27/10 09:00 AM ET

It's one thing to learn the name of a long lost ancestor, but it's quite another to hear them speak. A leading online genealogy website has made the seemingly impossible possible, by launching a collection of more than 1,700 recorded oral histories from immigrants who arrived in the United States through Ellis Island in New York.

Ancestry.com helped me make an amazing discovery about one year ago. With the click of a mouse, my entire world changed when I learned that my great-great-great grandfather, an African slave named Sandy, was purchased at the age of 10 by Edmund Wills who lived in Haywood County, Tennessee in 1850. And when Sandy came of age during the Civil War, he rounded up five of his fellow enslaved brethren and fled to a federal installation to fight for freedom as proud members of the United States Colored Troops. Their compelling stories, which I verified through the National Archives in Washington, D.C., are mind-blowing. But Ancestry.com's latest wizardry with this collection of poignant recordings is equally jaw-dropping.

It's called the U.S. Immigration Collection. Americans who are eager to do more than just connect the dots in their family's tree can listen to invaluable oral histories from immigrants who gently explain why they left their homelands, and tell their incredible and often trying journeys to the shining city on the hill. Up until September of 2010, these recordings were exclusively housed at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, but now anyone with a computer can log on and listen to their forbears express their heroic dreams for a bright new future.

Yvonne Rumac calls it a humbling experience. Her mother, Estelle Belford, emigrated to the U.S. from Romania via Ellis Island in 1905. After listening to the recordings, the daughter now has a clearer picture of her mother's daring sojourn to a land that she had only dreamed about at the turn of the 20th century. "To our family it is important that we in the U.S. know the origin of the people who came to this country, settled here and made it what it is today. It makes us very proud to know that our mother was part of this," said Yvonne Rumac.

Ellis Island was the gateway for millions of immigrants between 1892 and 1954. The oral histories were captured by the National Park Service starting in the 1970s. For some, myself included, genealogy is more than just a hobby. It's a responsibility. We owe it to our courageous ancestors to, at the very least, learn their names and their stories. Dismantling the iron curtain between our past and our present can be a transformative experience. When you learn that your enslaved great-great-great grandfather walked barefoot in the shadow of death in a Confederate state to fight for freedom under a flag that did not protect him -- somehow you just can't see the world the way you did before.


ancestry.com/immigration

 

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