Researching in Georgia - Taliaferro, Toliver, Lawrence, Brewer, Askew, Dorsey, Jackson, Poole, Butler, Allen, Gilbert, Crawford, Middlebrooks, Gates, Parks, Thompson, Alford, Favors, Guise, and related surnames.

15 January 2010

A Friend Of Friends: Lessons From The Underground Railroad

One night during the holidays I watched one of my favorite movies, Roots: The Gift. The movie stars LeVar Burton and Louis Gossett, Jr., in their roles as Kunta Kinte and Fiddler from the television series Roots. In this movie, Kunta and Fiddler accompany their owner to another plantation at Christmas time for a party, and become involved in a plan to help some runaway slaves escape via the Underground Railroad to freedom. A simple, yet powerful story. There are many messages and lessons to be learned from Roots: The Gift.
In one of my favorite scenes, Fiddler and Kunta are helping the group of runaway slaves get to the river where they are to meet a boat that will take them further on their journey to freedom. Along the way they make a stop to pick up other “passengers” on the Underground Railroad. When they come to a farmhouse, Kunta approaches and knocks. The man asks...”who goes”? Kunta responds “Friend of Friends” acknowledgment, the man replies “Friend of Friends”. A group of “passengers” exit the house. Kunta, Fiddler, and the group continue their journey.

This year, I was particularly moved by the Underground Railroad scene, and even more so by the phrase uttered by Kunta- Friend of Friends. The phrase, and variations of it, was used along the Underground Railroad as a password or signal to those assisting runaway slaves on their journey freedom. The traditional response to the “who goes there” password is said to have been “A Friend of a Friend”.

A Friend of Friends. Say it... A Friend of Friends, again...A Friend of Friends. It evokes such a comforting, welcoming feeling. A feeling of trust, of sharing, of caring, of kindness, and of friendship, however brief. At the same time, it is transient...adjusting and changing with the circumstances. I’m A Friend of don’t know me, but I require assistance...I need your help, and guidance...some information to aid me on my journey...then I’ll be moving the next stop along the way.

The phrase, and the underlying concept, seems particularly appropriate and relevant for those of us in the genealogy community; aren’t we all on some level really just A Friend of Friends? Strangers helping strangers. Friends of friends with a common bond that ties us all together....the desire to know our ancestors, and to tell their stories. A common goal, with different methods, different paths that cross and intersect along the journey. As we travel this road to uncovering our ancestors and their stories we should all embrace the concept...we should be A Friend of Friends. Don’t be afraid or reluctant to share, to care, to guide, or to assist your fellow researcher along their journey.

As an African American researcher my task is two-fold; I research my family, but inevitably I must also research the family of my ancestor's slave holders if I want to know more about my roots. Often we must seek information (assistance) from those that we do not know to aid us on our journey. It is an unavoidable truth - the descendants of our ancestor’s slave holding families may hold the key to our enslaved ancestor's past. Slavery is an ugly truth of our shared history. I am not angry with you because your ancestor held my ancestor as a slave; don’t be angry with me because I seek those records that may shed more light on the lives of my people, and help me to tell their story more completely. Some who were members of slave holding families assisted passengers along the Underground Railroad. I challenge you to be A Friend of Friends.

We, as researchers of our African American ancestry, must also remember to share, to care, to guide, and to assist our fellow researchers; reach out, take, make time. Can you request and expect the assistance of others, yet not expect the same of yourself? I urge you to stop being selfish with your research. Don’t miss out on a connection or a long lost cousin because of fear or uncertainty. Post It, Blog It, Share It, and Publish It. Many who were passengers along the Underground Railroad returned to assist others on their journey to freedom. I challenge you to be A Friend of Friends.

True genealogists know all of this, and understand the necessity of it. Indeed, the concept is nothing new in the genealogy community. Random, and not so random, acts of kindness occur every day. So, consider this a wake-up call, my challenge to you. When a fellow researcher comes calling...for info...for guidance...for knowledge...for support - be there - to share, to care, to guide, and to assist.



  1. Well said Sandra, well said.
    When I hand over a family tree to someone I always encourage them to share it with anyone and everyone who may be interested.
    I absolutely love to help people with their search for their ancestors. I hope I am a friend to many.

  2. Great Blog Post!


  3. Sandra, this is an outstanding post. You said just about everything I have been thinking. I know on my paternal side that they were slave owners. I have been working on the names to verify, and although that is important for my line, I can still get the names out there for those looking and confirm names in their line. Thank you so much for bring this up...excellent!

  4. Awesome post Sandra...and this is why I love reading your blog!!

  5. Beautiful post my friend! Imagine the work & progress that could be accomplished on a community level if researchers -- black/white alike -- were willing to share their individual family histories?

    It would be an example to the rest of the Genealogy world that we can indeed be a support to each other.


  6. Sandra, this has to be one of the most well-written, prophetic, and insightful messages I've read since I joined the blogging community. I'm deeply touched by this post, and I applaud you, my friend, for reminding us all of our deeper purpose and of the importance of supporting each other in our research journeys.


  7. Thank you ladies for all the wonderful comments. I am so glad you enjoyed this post. It is something I feel really strongly about. I can see from your comments that you understand and share my concerns.



  8. Sandra, you've made me want to now rewatch the movie--I havent seen it in years. I will order it from Netflix. I am related to Alex Haley by marriage & have researched the family for years. I did a post on Alex's grandparents (Queen HAley) if you're interested check it out.

  9. Hey Sandra,
    I nominated you're Blog for the Blogger's Best Friend Award. Please stop by My Nola Heritage and pick yours up!!

  10. Although I refuse to watch the movie Roots, I knew the author and his family and know the story well. Unfortunately it is a repeated story of history.

    I volunteer at the Mid-Continent Genealogy Center, always feeling honored when I can uncover just a bit more of African American histories and families.

  11. Sandra, this is a wonderfully written and very moving post. It is a classic among genealogy blogging posts. You've inspired me to try to do more. Blessings to you.

    I'm awarding you the Blogger's Best Friend award with my thanks for your friendly tweets and inpiring blog posts.

    You can pick it up at

  12. Timely, as Mavis knows, I recently found some records online that named slaves, by first name, but named them. I am working on putting them out there for consideration, somehow, and your considerate and moving post has convinced me that my initial idea has merit. That idea was, the moment I saw given names, was "somehow I need to share this, maybe it can help a fellow researcher". Thank you for a moving and great post!

  13. Sandra, I have been dreadfully behind on my reading --- and the temptation was there to do the shortcut. I am so glad that I did not shortcut, or I would have missed this very moving post of yours. You said the things that need to be said, and you said them beautifully. Thanks.

  14. This is truely an amazing story and well written. I love the concept of Friend of a friend. i have seen that movie dozens of times and never caught what that really means. Wow what a truely amazing thing. thank you so much for opening my eyes.

  15. Sandra, you did an amazing job on this post! Thank you for sharing.

    Sara (InnerCompass)

  16. I've greatly enjoyed discovering your blog for the first time, Sandra. This is a beautifully written article that every genealogist should read. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts.

    Another friend of your friends,
    100 Years in America
    Small-leaved Shamrock
    A light that shines again
    Carnival of Irish Heritage & Culture

  17. Sandra, i loved the blog. I hope you will join and encourage others to join my organization Descendants of North American Black Slaves, which is committed to enrolling as many descendants as possible, sharing our culture and history amongst ourselves and others. Contact me Thank you, Virginia Hernandez

  18. Aristotle said, "In the arenas of human life the honors and rewards fall to those who show their godd qualities in action." Your diagnostic commentary illustrates your inate capacity to both further your development and give credence to the progression of vision in the outstanding lesson of 'A Friend of Friends.' Thanks for helping each of us further our humanity, as the struggle continues.

  19. This is a really awesome blog. in your research have you come across any blacks with last name of Oliver from Mc Donough GA. I have hit a wall in my research. Particularly, Estelle Oliver, Bloomie Oliver. My email is Thanks for any help you can offer me.