Just when we thought RootsTech couldn’t get better than Thursday, we had Friday, and it got us thinking, “What’s in a Name?” Today was truly a day of inspiration and emotion.
Things started on a high note when Find My Past announced that Catholic Parish records would start being released to the public this year. This will make finding birth, death and marriage records much easier for many generations.
Emotions intensified as famed actor and entertainer, LaVar Burton came out on stage to deliver the keynote address. For many, his very presence evokes strong feelings of love and tenderness. There were some in the audience that credit LeVar and what we found out was one of his first roles as the star of Roots, the acclaimed PBS series that first debuted in 1977, as being the catalyst to people not only finding out who their families were, but who they were. When he said, “There was an America before Roots and an American after Roots, and it was not the same America, y’all,” I think everyone in the audience agreed 100 percent.
At the conclusion of his powerful speech, tears flowed freely as FamilySearch employee Thom Reed walked out on stage and presented LeVar with family records, one even had his great-grandfather’s signature on it. As the name flashed on the jumbo screen, it was apparent that LeVar was touched deeply as he was rendered nearly speechless. The rest of the room was too. A standing ovation was in order. It was a beautiful moment.
The rest of the addresses got all our brains thinking about the source of our names, our family food traditions and more in-depth questions about our DNA. The Calvary Baptist Church choir capped the morning off perfectly with some great songs of praise.
Earlier in the week, the media had been told LeVar wouldn’t be able to speak to us after his speech, but I had this secret hope that things would change, so the minute the session ended and headed straight for the “media hub.” As Rhonda and I approached I could see there were crowds gathering around, and Rhonda whispered, “Oh there he is!” He’s there!” I immediately went to the opening “hub” but they weren’t letting all press in at the time. I waited patiently and took as many pictures as I could from a distance. Soon they let more people in, but I wasn’t sure if I would have the chance to be a part of a group that would get to speak with him. As one crowd dispersed, they told another small group up of us to step forward. In only a matter of time I was about a foot away from a man I had admired since childhood. It felt a little surreal.
My childhood of memories sprang into my mind. Watching “Roots” with my mom as a tiny girl and watching my mom cry over the rawness of the message; looking forward to quiet time in elementary class when we got to watch “Reading Rainbow”; sitting with my true love as a young wife, watching Jordy LaForge on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” every night and then watching “Reading Rainbow” on quiet afternoons with my own two oldest children.
His kind, wise face was the same as it had been during all those times. His quiet voice spoke with great wisdom and gratitude as person after person didn’t necessarily ask questions, but told him of how he had inspired their life. My reasons – growing up watching him and admiring him in my life – seemed trite compared to those whose lives had been shaped by him. Those who had been inspired to find their own roots because of the man sitting before them. I had moments where tears sprang to my eyes – those moments where as a journalist, you don’t know whether to just let yourself cry it out, or hide it. I did a little of both today.
Kenyatta D. Berry, host of Genalogy Roadshow also granted interviews today and we got to chat about her research on African American names. In her keynote, she said that names were one of the only possessions slaves brought with them on the middle passage. Her research documents naming traditions, and was a powerful (and unplanned) segue after Mr. Burton showed the clip from Roots where the name Toby is forced upon him by whip. She shared how she was given a masculine name by her mother who wanted to raise a powerful daughter. Her mother must be proud.
And while there were moments of awe of gratitude, there were some moments of fun humor when he told us Jordy was his favorite role and how the Star Trek cast was his family and how many of the actors were in his wedding line. Those would make for some great wedding photos.
It was satisfying to share those moments with so many others that felt that same love and kinship for Mr. Burton.
The day continued on a high note, watching the Innovator Showdown and seeing budding entrepreneurs receive large sums of cash to make their dreams come true and learning even more about DNA as it relates to African Americans and really every person.
Rhonda and I have loved spending time in the media hub and getting to know so many key players in the family history world and gaining an even greater love for telling the best stories in deeper, more meaningful ways. Watch for a little more on that in the next few days. We happened to be around when Oscar Hammerstein III stepped in and we got to hear some great and funny thoughts from him.
We can’t wait until tomorrow where will learn more about food and stories and see a deeper spiritual side to RootsTech. My children will join the mix to enjoy the festivities of Family Discovery Day. Bring on Saturday!
At Evalogue.Life, we write stories that inspire including family and personal histories. We also coach writers and teach tools of the storytelling craft.
By Rachel J. Trotter