Dana Saxon’s Search for Roots Leads to Ancestors unKnown

Dana Saxon
Dana Saxon in Amsterdam
Photo by Janelle Williams

A few years ago, Dana Saxon started a personal project to research her ancestral history. Blown away by what she uncovered, she founded Ancestors unKnown, a nonprofit organization that helps young people discover their ancestors, and in the process, claim knowledge about themselves and find their place in history. And she moved to Amsterdam to do it. Saxon’s work has been covered in FastCompany—“Why Researching Our Ancestors Has The Power To Change Lives”—but in the following exclusive Clyde Fitch Report interview, we learn what motivated this Nonprofiteer to start her own organization, her biggest dreams for Ancestors unKnown and what keeps her up at night.

So, what is your story? What were you doing before you started Ancestors unKnown? 

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I spent some time in Ghana as a college undergrad, and that was a life changing experience. It planted in me this idea that I would one day start a program that helps other young people of color get out of their communities, expand their perspectives, and see that their options are not limited. I originally thought that it would be a study abroad program.

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After law school, traveling to Ghana again, and teaching at a Philadelphia public school, I worked in the nonprofit education sector, first doing fundraising work at New Leaders in California, then developing program partnerships for iMentor in New York. And I still had this dream of starting a study abroad program for students of color.

How did the idea for Ancestors unKnown come about?

In 2010, I set out to learn more about my family tree, and the results just blew my mind. I was able to find so much more than I expected. It was overwhelming to think about the lives my ancestors lived and all the sacrifices they made to achieve what seems like simple things now: working as a farmer or a teacher. I knew that for them, having escaped slavery, these were major accomplishments after much struggle.

I had not even known their names. For so long, I shivered at the thought of how their stories could have been lost forever if I hadn’t uncovered them. I was honored to finally know them. And I was proud to now carry on their legacies.

It occurred to me that there were all these other ancestors, just waiting to be discovered. It felt unjust to not recognize their lives.

Then I had an epiphany that perhaps the educational impact I wanted to have could be linked to helping young people find their ancestors. I decided I wanted to build such a program based on research about the significance of ancestry and its impact on identity development.

Why did you go to Amsterdam?

I enrolled in a Master’s program in Sociology at the University of Amsterdam to study Migration and Ethnic Studies. I was already considering a move to Amsterdam, and the program was a good fit for the research I wanted to do. So, it was a great excuse to move! I packed up, took on loans, and went.

How did you start Ancestors unKnown?

One of many benefits of being in school was that I made so many connections in the fields of local history and genealogy. As part of my own thesis research, I was connected to several people from Suriname and the Dutch Antilles (with ancestry in the former Dutch colonies), and I helped them kick-start their ancestry research. After that, I traveled to Suriname to work with teenagers and young adults for a year, in 2013. That was the first pilot program.

Ancestors UnKnown Students
R.B. Stall High School students working on their family trees

At the same time, I was keeping a blog, Black Girl Gone, chronicling my life in the Netherlands. Through it, I happened to connect with an assistant principal who was open to trying bold new programs for his students at R.B. Stall High School in Charleston, South Carolina. Also in 2013, R.B. Stall High School became the second partner for Ancestors unKnown, spearheaded by an incredible teacher, Ms. Avis Johnson. Ninth-graders at the school research their ancestors and learn about history at the time their ancestors lived. Then they create their own family trees. It’s beautiful when students present their family trees.

How far back do these ancestral stories go?

Perhaps because I’ve been researching since 2010, my history is more complete than the students I worked with this past year who have just begun searching.

In Suriname, the records were more thorough, so it was easier to trace those students’ African ancestors back to the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In Charleston, we’ve gone back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries—but even discovering a great grandparent has been a hurdle there. I found it shocking that there were no stories being passed down. It was even a challenge to get grandparents to talk to the students about family history at first. It is rewarding to help the students start that conversation with their families, which brings them closer. That was an unexpected reward.

What are your expansion targets for the organization?

I would love to keep expanding in the U.S., and then move internationally. I am looking to expand to more schools in Charleston, and looking at Chicago, the San Francisco Bay Area and Washington, D.C., as potential hubs for this work. I’m also interested in Philadelphia and New York City. All of this requires strong grassroots support first.

Suriname researchers
Researching family histories in Suriname

This is a very young organization. What is your funding model?

I fundraise. I’m actively recruiting foundations, corporations and additional individual supporters. And schools and nonprofits pay a modest licensing fee for our history and genealogy curriculum. The partnership includes a customized program, complete with guest speakers, local history lessons and curriculum. I would love to see local programs being funded by their own communities.

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For me personally, I am doing a lot of freelance writing and editing work, and running a for-profit small business that helps individuals with genealogy research.

What is the hardest thing about starting your own organization?

Gosh—having to do it all! I started with no staff, no team. From program development to accounting, I’ve had to do it all, and that’s been intimidating. Asking for help was never my strength, and I’ve had to ask for help, a lot. It’s paid off though. I now get support from several volunteers, a Board of Directors, and an incredible curriculum writer.

It’s also a challenge financially. I have to keep reminding myself of the ultimate goal, and of my purpose. I do worry about how I am going to continue to do this right without enough money flowing in. I worry because I’m so clear about the mission and how I want to do it. I don’t want to mess it up. It’s so beautiful when it goes right.

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Let’s imagine everything worked out. Years from now, what would you like to see for Ancestors unKnown?

Our mission is to inspire the personal and academic success of students throughout the world by introducing them to their unknown ancestors. I want to see Ancestors unKnown programs in cities throughout the world. I want to see students enthusiastically learning about their ancestors and connecting with each other across borders in the process. I’d like volunteers from all over the world helping students find their ancestors. I want to see students connecting their personal histories to the larger, global context.

I want to see our students engaging with their families and communities, excelling in school and living a life they’re proud of, with the self-confidence that someone who’s connected to the past and feels hopeful about the future can feel. And connecting this to my original goal, I would love to provide students the opportunity to travel abroad to a place that’s significant to their ancestry.

I’m so curious to hear about your own “mind blowing” ancestor story that started all this. Please tell.

Rev. C.S. Long, Saxon's maternal great-grandfather
Rev. C.S. Long, Saxon’s maternal great-grandfather

I found out that my maternal great-grandfather, Charles Sumner (C.S.) Long, who was active with the Florida African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church, had written a book about the church’s history. I’d hoped he included information about his father, Thomas W. Long, my great-great grandfather. Born in 1839, Thomas had escaped slavery, fought in the Civil War and started a number of AME churches in Florida. There was a good chance he’d be mentioned in the book. Now that it’s out of print, I could only find the book in the archives.

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Sitting in the Schomberg Center in Harlem and poring over his book on microfilm, I found a chapter C.S. snuck into the book about his own family. In that chapter, he said his grandfather, James Long, was taken from Southern Africa to Cuba as a teenager and enslaved, but was able to buy his freedom and then move to Florida. My later research revealed that there was indeed a less commonly known slave-trading route taken by Spanish traders from Mozambique, Africa, to Cuba in the early 1800s. So, my third great grandfather was Zulu.

Wow. I just got chills.

I was sobbing over the microflim reader.
(Read more about Saxon’s discovery here.)

What does one do to start researching her own family history?

Talk to your family. Ask lots of questions. Then check the online archives to expand upon what you already know. These are my favorite research sites:

Also, check out the PBS Series “Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates, Jr.” Professor Gates is also the Editor in Chief of The Root and my inspiration.

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What would you do differently if you could do it all over again?

I was so eager to get the program started, which I’m glad I did. But if I could do it again, I would work harder to solidify the funding and partnership models earlier in the process.

What’s your advice for nonprofiteers wanting to follow in your footsteps?

When you share your idea or take the first steps to get started, other people will have so much to say. Don’t let other voices be too much of an influence, especially when you are just forming your idea.

Having said that, I want to add a caveat. Once you get clear on the objective and purpose of your organization, that’s the point where you should be open to change and awareness of where you might be able to improve. Don’t be so stubborn that you can’t make an important adjustment.

How can people help your work with Ancestors unKnown?

We need more supporters to sponsor our work with students. We are a 501(c)3 organization with the ability to accept tax deductible contributions through the Love Foundation, our fiscal sponsor partner. To give, please go to the Ancestors unKnown Web site and click on our “Donate” button.

I also need volunteers to help students with genealogy research projects, as most of this research is done online. Ancestry donates student accounts, which is amazing. But it comes in handy to have helpers in as many cities as possible when we have to look up records that are not available online.

And please just spread the word about our organization! Visit us at  Ancestors unKnown.