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Background Image Sherri Camp

Big Idea: Stories of Resilience and Determination: African American Genealogy Research in Kansas

Sherri Camp teaches genealogy and history and is the author of African American Topeka (Arcadia Publishers), a book on 150 years of African American history in Topeka, Kansas.

Kansas presents a unique dilemma to many genealogy researchers. While finding our ancestors can begin with oral histories and primary source documents that tell us names and when and where our they were born, at some point we all run out of sources.

The cause of this problem: migration from other states. Although all Kansas genealogists encounter this, African Americans have the additional challenge of finding family members who experienced dislocation prior to and just after slavery. Before 1865 and after emancipation, formerly enslaved people left their "homes" as runaways or as freed people who had been manumitted. Other free people of color were simply in search of a better life, and still others came to Kansas as members of the Exoduster Movement in 1879. Each of these situations can conjure up a vivid picture of why they may have wanted to leave a place they knew as home.

two young women in early 1900s

Elsie and Lela Scott, 1910. The Scott sisters were the daughters of Exodusters who settled in Stafford County, Kansas. Photo by W.R. Gray Studio. Courtesy of the Stafford County Historical Society.


Once away from their former homes, their histories were also left behind. Imagine leaving pain and suffering as you searched for a better life for yourself and your family. Remembering that place of suffering would be undesirable. However, passing on information about that place and time would also be undesirable. This is the case with my own family research.

Cultural historian David Brion Davis often wrote about enslaved families and their lost stories. In his 1997 article, “A Review of the Conflicting Theories on the Slave Family,” he explores the challenges that historians and genealogists have faced as they research families with enslaved ancestors. Many African Americans fled the south to places north, including Kansas, and often left their families and their histories behind.

The 1977 miniseries Roots, based on the novel by Alex Haley, inspired many African Americans to research their family histories. That same year, the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society (AAHGS) was founded; today there are chapters across the country, including Kansas. The mission of AAHGS is to preserve African-ancestored family history, genealogy, and cultural diversity by teaching research techniques and sharing information and stories.

Researching African Americans in Kansas has been an effort for me for over 30 years. While I can trace back as many as five or six generations to the early 1800s, I still run into the proverbial "brick wall" and cannot find more information. My ancestors hail from Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, Missouri, Arkansas, and beyond to Virginia. Some of them came through the Exoduster Movement, and some came after. Most came because, to African Americans, Kansas represented freedom from oppression.

While research for African Americans in Kansas offers a unique challenge to locating and telling the genealogical stories of our ancestors, it is not impossible. The stories to be discovered offer a wonderfully rich history for African Americans. Stories of resilience and overcoming the past. Stories of determination to succeed through struggle. Most of all, these stories are a vital piece of the full American story.

About Sherri Camp

Sherri Camp has degrees in history and sociology, a Master’s from Washburn University, and a Certificate in Genealogy from Brigham Young University. She is a founder and president of the Kansas Network to Freedom; former board member of the Brown v. Board Sumner Legacy Trust; and founder and president of the Kansas Chapter of AAHGS. Ms. Camp has served as National Vice President and President of the national AAHGS. In 2013, she wrote African American Topeka, a book on 150 years of African American history in Topeka, Kansas, published by Arcadia Publishers as part of its Image of America Series. Ms. Camp is currently the Genealogy Librarian at the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library. She teaches genealogy and history classes across the country.

Spark a Conversation

  • READ African American Topeka (Arcadian Publishers) by Sherri Camp shares the heritage of Black life in the Kansas capitol city through photos and stories.

  • RESEARCH Finding your African American ancestors presents unique challenges. Today there are strong online resources to assist your journey. Visit the African American Genealogy page at, and the Afro-American Historical & Genealogical Society websites for a wealth of links, insights, and tips.

  • READ Revisit the masterpiece that sparked new interest in family research. Roots: The Saga of an American Family by Alex Haley begins with a young enslaved man, Kunta Kinte, and follows his descendants as they live through history.

  • LEARN Invite Kim Stanley to your community to share techniques about writing your family’s stories. She can be booked through the HK Speakers Bureau catalog




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