Five Questions with Ahmed Johnson, Reference Specialist with the Local History and Genealogy section, Humanities and Social Sciences Division

This post was written by Ahmed Johnson of the Library of Congress.

Ahmed Johnson

Describe what you do at the Library of Congress and the materials you work with.

I am a reference specialist with the Local History and Genealogy section, part of the Humanities and Social Sciences division. My subject specialty is U.S. local history and genealogy, specifically African American genealogy. I regularly staff the reference desk in the Main Reading Room and provide service to members of Congress, federal and state agencies, scholars, and the general public. I also answer questions from researchers in person as well as electronically through Ask A Librarian, telephone inquiries, and letters. The responses utilize materials in a variety of formats in the collections of the Library of Congress. I am often invited to present lectures relating to African American genealogical research, participate in webinars, and attend conferences related to genealogical research. I also recommend recently published genealogies for the Library’s collections. Recently I created a guide, Journey Into Your Past: African American Genealogy Resources, which contains online resources documenting African American lives in America.

First page of Slave Narrative of Richard Slaughter

Do you have a favorite item from the Library’s online collections?

As the African American genealogy specialist, I am often referring researchers to sources to help them make the connection to their enslaved ancestors. This is quite difficult because enslaved people do not appear on many of the traditional records. Because they were considered property, this requires locating records of the slave owners. One exception, Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938, contains more than 2,300 first person accounts of slavery and 500 photographs of former slaves. This was one of the first times former enslaved people were able to tell their stories in their own words. These narratives are full of genealogical information and provide insight into their daily lives. Of note is the narrative of Richard Slaughter, who was born a slave in Hopewell, VA, escaped with Union Soldiers at age 14 to Hampton, VA, joined the Union Army, and was an eyewitness to several stirring wartime events, including a chance meeting with Abraham Lincoln aboard a steamer.

Washington Herald, December 10, 1913

Share a time when an item from the collections sparked your curiosity.

A search of Chronicling America, a database of digitized historic newspapers, revealed information about my 2nd great grandfather, Hiram S. Haywood. His letter to the editor appeared in the December 10, 1913, issue of the Washington Herald. His occupation was listed as a “fireman.” This sparked my curiosity because I did not think any African Americans were “firemen” in Washington, DC during this time period, and especially not my ancestor. As I read the letter it became clear that “firemen” were the people who fired the boilers that made the steam to light and heat buildings. He was not a “firefighter” but a “fireman.” His letter to the editor was an attempt to get more pay for his colleagues. My disappointment quickly faded because I realized how important his job was and how he tried to help his colleagues get more money. My kind of guy!

Tell us about a memorable interaction with a K-12 teacher or student.

A few years ago I helped a young lady who was interested in researching her family history. I provided her with a quick orientation about the records and resources available at LC to help her with her search. She was so excited and wanted to share her experience at LC with her youth group, and she soon contacted me about giving the group an orientation. I realized she was the creator of I Saw DC, a non-profit organization that promotes youth leadership and social empowerment through creative youth-led community based projects in the District. I presented a special orientation to the group about how to conduct genealogical research, focusing on records in the DC area. I was later interviewed by the group, served as a board member, and was featured on their Web site. This experience stands out because part of my job is to try and promote genealogy to the younger generation. The kids really seemed interested in learning about the process of building a family tree and what kinds of records are available to discover their family history.

What’s one thing you’d like to tell teachers about the materials that you work with or the collections in general?

I would invite all teachers to introduce their students to the Library’s Web site with creative assignments. These assignments may encourage the exploration of the stories of generations past with a search through the online resources on LC’s site. This history is recorded in several formats including oral histories, newspapers, maps, and photographs documenting people in America. I can guarantee they will find something relating to their ancestors – maybe an individual, community, church, or shared existence.

One Comment

  1. Megan Perry
    June 15, 2017 at 5:19 pm

    This is a wonderful insight into the unsung work of reference librarians – opening up the world to young people. Great work Ahmed and LC

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