Women of distinction
Photo Courtesy of Pat Garin
I've written about many women of note over the years. Here's a profile of one from my archives.
Immersed in the particulars of family narratives
Kenyatta D. Berry’s path to “Genealogy Roadshow” – like the family stories she’s helped people explore – was both unexpected and life changing.
President of the Association of Professional Genealogists in spring 2013, Berry agreed to meet with members of the show’s production company in Los Angeles. She expected to provide names of APG members who might become part of the show. Once at the meeting, Berry learned she was in a room with casting directors who, before the meeting ended, viewed her as a potential member of the “Roadshow” on-air team and encouraged her to audition. That was followed by a Skype interview with PBS.
Months later, she was told, “PBS loves you and they want you on the show.” She accepted the offer and in just a few months, Berry and her fellow cast members appeared in the program’s premiere broadcast.
Ancestry.com notes that studies rank genealogy as the second-most-popular hobby in the U.S. “There is a real trend for creating a family story,” says Berry, who’s in her third season on “Genealogy Roadshow” (www.pbs.org/genealogy-roadshow/home). “It’s not about names, dates and places, it’s about a family story, the context of a person’s life.”
And as Berry knows from personal experience, “When you start digging, you have to be emotionally and mentally prepared for what you might find out.”
Genealogy has been part of Berry’s life since the 1990s when she was studying Internet law at Western Michigan University Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Lansing. “I was dating someone whose family had an unusual surname and started researching his family,” she recalls. “I just became obsessed with it.”
A native of Detroit who now lives in Santa Monica, California, Berry works independently with 20 to 30 genealogic clients each year. The timetable for these projects are usually long.
“A lot of my (independent work) is going to take more time, it’s going to be more challenging,” Berry explains. Sometimes, there are no court records to research. Other times, “The issue becomes, ‘Oh, you had a court case. Oh, your ancestor had a 70-page will.’” Both situations require a tremendous amount of time and effort.
Berry has researched people of European, Jewish and other ancestry, but she says, “For me, in general, I focus on slave genealogy.”
Through her independent projects and her work on “Genealogy Roadshow,” she has the opportunity to “educate people about the things we don’t talk about.”
One such opportunity arose on an early 2015 episode of “Genealogy Roadshow” when Berry helped mystery writer Gail Lukasik delve into her family background. “Gail had lived her whole life as a white woman,” Berry says, and had discovered through personal research that her mother was listed as “colored” on her birth certificate. With a copy of the document in hand, Lukasik confronted her mother, who denied – then admitted – she was of mixed race. Since Lukasik knew of her mother’s mixed heritage, she turned to Berry for help in researching the mystery of her maternal grandfather.
Berry succeeded in helping Lukasik explore her grandfather’s story. However, for her, “What made this my all-time favorite story on ‘Genealogy Roadshow’ was that we really got to address the issue of ‘passing’ (when a black person identifies himself or herself as white).” The third season of “Genealogy Roadshow” will allow Berry and the rest of the program’s team to address these and a host of other intriguing family issues.